How to make tequila, Kiwi-style
The plants really want to hurt you, you harvest by digger, and you bash it about, but the result is worth toasting.
WHO: Terry Knight & Rachel Raine WHAT: Schnapp Dragon Village Distillery WHERE: Golden Bay, 100km north-west of Nelson LAND: 8ha (20 acres) WEB: www.schnappdragon.co.nz
The site of an old vineyard is now growing the specialist agave plants required for making tequila.
1. Harvesting is done by digger to avoid injuries. 2. The plants have to be chopped up to get to their ‘heart’. 3. Chainsaws are the easiest method of leaf removal. 4. Terry chops off excess foliage with an axe. 5. The ‘hearts’ ready to be cooked. 6 & 7. The hearts are cooked in a steam oven. 8. The softened hearts are then mulched, put through a washing machine and mangled to break down the fibres.
Terry and Rachel’s initial run of just 300 bottles went on sale in September, a drop in the ocean compared to the 96 million cases of tequila sold by liquor companies worldwide every year.
Growing tequila is hard work too, as almost everything is done by hand. The first step a few years ago was to recreate a hot, dry Mexican summer so they could germinate the seeds.
“We had to emulate a summer in Mexico by putting them in the oven at 40°C, it sort-of cracks them like a gorse seed,” says Terry. “You know how a gorse seed loves to go through fire, then sprout? Tequila seeds are quite similar.”
These days things are a little easier, with lab-grown tissue cultures used to create the 3000 seedlings a year required to plant out 0.8ha (two acres) a year. Terry hardens them off in a glasshouse for a year before they are ready to plant out.
“Each year we plant two acres and that’ll give us a return of around about 15,000 one-litre bottles a year of tequila.”
But it isn’t an easy job and it takes time. Imagine a flax that’s extremely rigid, grows up to about 1.8m tall over six to eight years, and forms a pineapple-shaped ‘heart’ at its centre which can weigh up to 40kg. Oh, and it really wants to hurt you, which has led the couple to a unique harvesting process.
“You should see the prickles,” says Terry. “We harvest the plant with a small excavator due to the nastiness of the prickles on the plant. They have a two inch (5cm) steel-type of prickle on the end, then they have little hook prickles all the way down the sides of the leaves and hook prickles on the back of them, and the two inch one on the end would go into your bone. They are evil, but we love them really.”
“You treat them with respect!” laughs Rachel.
You haven’t worked with tequila until you get a prickle injury, and with the hands-on nature of the harvest, it’s inevitable says Terry.
“They feel like they’re going to get infected but they don’t, they just have this ache for about 24 hours where they just throb. Like someone bruised your bone, you get that sort of feeling.”
The harvesting process destroys the plant, which is why the couple have started a rolling planting regime which will eventually cover 6.5ha (16 acres). Caring for the plants is easy – a spoonful of fertiliser each year, weeding, mulching, no water required – but turning them into tequila is an arduous process. Terry uses a chainsaw to cut off the rigid, prickly leaves to reveal the fibrous ‘heart’ of the plant. The hearts are then steamcooked for three days.
“Then we crush it, mulch it up – I put it through the garden mulcher – then from there it goes into a wringer washing machine, then we use the wringer part to break down the fibres, then we run it through the mangle to get the juice out.”
The juice is brewed into a type of beer (known as a mash), the mash is brewed again, then goes through a distillation process. The result: tequila, 40% alcohol by volume.
“It’s a sipping tequila,” says Rachel. “You don’t need the lime, you don’t need the salt, you sip it straight, it’s that clean and gentle.”
That’s quite different to the tequila
Terry can’t stop creating new products including a sugar-free health drink (above left), tequila (above), plus gin, liqueurs from
fresh fruit, and vodka.