Sunday, January 11, 2009

Tequila's Hidden Treasures

On Saturday we went to the town of Tequila for our last day of adventuring with Erica and Fred. The town is probably about an hour and a half from where we live as the crow flies, but after getting to the bus station and then riding the bus back through the bustling city, it took us a little over three hours to get there. Ah, la ciudad...

Even though it took awhile, the ride out into the country was well worth the time. Because we live in a very urban suburb, it's easy to forget that just outside the city limits lie the dusty rolling hills of rural Jalisco. It's like Iowa, if Iowa were dusty, hilly, had a mountainous background, and grew blue agave instead of corn. (Ok, maybe Iowa was not the best analogy.)


As we approached the town itself, I didn't know what to expect. Would it be overrun with tourists, young Americans in search of endless shot glasses? Would the descendants of José Cuervo have turned the place into a tequila theme park? It was hard to know what to expect.

But Tequila is full of little surprises. We arrived on a Saturday, but despite being the heart of the weekend the town was rather quiet. The streets were dusty, the sidewalks narrow. Our bus dropped us off in a station on the edge of town, and there were no obvious signs to helpfully point the way toward the downtown zócalo, which was both a little flustering but also sort of perversely charming for a town that was recently designated a pueblo magico by Mexico's national tourism board. Tourist, we are who we are, it seemed to say. You are welcome here, but you can find your own way around... Fortunately for us, we had our trusty Lonely Planet Mexico guide, so we headed off down the appointed street and made our way toward the central square - the first stop in any Mexican town.


There was the traditional peña, perfect for live music in the evenings, with plenty of room for strolling, selling balloons, or simply sitting on the iron benches that lie on the edges. And this zócalo was looked over by a church that was striking for the utter simplicity of its cobblestone exterior. Looking at it now, it strikes me how different Tequila's central church is from the one in Taxco, that other pueblo magico that revolves around a single lucrative industry. In Taxco, they used to say that "God gives to [great silver magnate Jose de la] Borda, and Borda gives to God," and the wealthy Sr. Borda did in the form of a crazily ornate central church. But in Tequila, José Antonio de Cuervo - or his rival Don Cenobio Sauza, for that matter - didn't seem to follow the same model, and they seem to have largely left the architecture of their parish church alone. I'm no architecture critic, but I think that was probably for the better, at least for this town. Tequila's iglesia parroquia fits this dusty little place perfectly.


But it's not merely the outside of the church that's a surprise - Chris had a jaw-dropper moment when she entered and found, in a little stone side room, not only a shrine to but the final resting place of Santo Toribio Romo.

Ok, a little background on Saint Toribio. Toribio Romo was born in the highlands of Jalisco and went to seminary in San Juan de Los Lagos, which, as you may remember, is the little Jalisco town at the center of Chris' research. When the religious persecutions began in Mexico in the 1920s (sparking Jalisco's Cristero Rebellion), Father Toribio refused to flee, and continued administering the sacraments. He was eventually sent to Tequila for his safety, but within a year was discovered - still carrying out his priestly duties - by soldiers and was promptly shot to death. (Sidenotes: If you are at all interested in stories like this one, please, please, please read Graham Greene's short novel The Power and the Glory, which has climbed into my top 3 favorite books ever. Alternatively, you can read a nonfiction NY Times article about Santo Toribio's increasing popularity with present-day migrants here.) He was made a saint by Pope John Paul II in 2000; check out who he's the patron saint of.


Saints aside, there is, finally, the tourist industry surrounding the fermented juice of the blue agave. Little shops line the main streets, selling all manner of t-shirts and keychains as well as bottles and, yes, little wooden barrels full of tequila of what I can only assume is widely varying quality. And even more fun: You know the Oscar Mayer Wienermobile? Well, in Tequila they have not just one but two versions of this, in the form of the Tequila Barrel-mobile and the Tequila Bottle-mobile, both of which apparently tour the countryside before driving you around town. The botella-mobile is seen below disappearing around a corner...


And then, of course, there is the José Cuervo distillery, known rather humbly as El Mundo Cuervo. Tequila is actually distilled here, but the main draw is the factory tour. It's like the tour of the Miller Brewery that I went on last summer in Milwaukee, except that at José Cuervo (a) you have to pay for the tour and (b) there isn't a major leage baseball stadium a block away.

But while Tequila is no Milwaukee, there are some benefits to Cuervo's tour. For one thing, you get to see how the blue agave goes from plant to drink. It begins as this, the plant that covers the land of northeast Jalisco and must be cultivated for 10-12 years before it is ready to harvest...


...which the harvesters, or jimadores, prepare by slicing off the hard-as-knives (and actually used as knives in ancient Mexico) bluish-green leaves with a long tool that looks kind of like a hoe but is called a coa de jima, the jimadores all the while forming the iconic image that has become a kind of symbol of this region...


...and they do this until the plant is left looking like a pineapple, which is why they call the object in the photo below a piña...


...and they collect tons of these piñas every day, even though each one weighs between 80 and 300 pounds but the jimadores muscle through it because each of these piñas can produce about 7 liters of tequila...


...and that's all they would let me take pictures of. But if you're really interested in the production of tequila, I recommend this website, which in addition to being full of semi-useful information also has a sweet Indiana Jones-like title.

And yes, of course, there are the inevitable samples of tequila. You can try them in various stages of production, including an early version that's over 50% alcohol (whoa) and then two finished products in quick succession, reposado (rested) and añejo (aged), both of which were 100% blue agave, which I don't think I've ever had before. Our Lonely Planet guide was snotty about Cuervo's tequila ("the factory produces more José Cuervo tequila than the world needs...try Tradicional, Cuervo's saving grace...") but to my still-indiscriminate tequila palette, the stuff was alright. You can learn more about the various types of tequila here.

Most importantly, though, you get to wear awesome hairnets throughout the factory! And any factory tour where you get free headwear is alright by me.


All in all we had a nice close to our winter vacation, a time in which we explored the far reaches of Jalisco from the blue-green Pacific Ocean to the blue-green tequila fields and the finer points of Guadalajara from the towering murals of Orozco to the sprawling markets of Tonalá. Best of all, we did our exploring with some fellow adventurers. We miss them already.

2 comments:

From Michigan with Love said...

Sounds like a worth while stop! Although now I can't get a shot glass! Way to ruin my plans...:-)
By the way! Thanks for giving our Miller trip props! That's at least twice you've metioned the Wild Card Champion (did I mention we actually WON a play-off game...against the world Champs none the less) Milwaukee Brewers in your blog...I was just looking at our picture infront of the Miller Bus! Great times! Feel free to use my name if you wish! I will only collect small royalties! :-)

Erica said...

We miss you too!! We had so much fun - looking at your pictures and reading about our adventuras only makes me wish I was back in lovely Jalisco and in your good company!