People

Beyond the Sip: The People Behind Tequila

The jimadores culture often begins with family, passing down their tequila harvesting knowledge through generations.
José Andrés learned traditional "jima" techniques from his brother when he was 14 years old. All photos by Shanika Hillocks.
José Andrés learned traditional "jima" techniques from his brother when he was 14 years old. All photos by Shanika Hillocks.

Think back to your first introduction to tequila. Likely, the spirit was presented in the form of a shot, served entirely too cold, with accompanying salt, lime and instructions to down it quickly. Fast forward to present day where the quality of tequila -- and likely, your personal experience -- has improved, greatly in part to the craftspeople behind the spirit.

It’s 73 degrees in Atotonilco El Alto, a town of Jalisco, Mexico, where the fields are flourishing with Blue Weber agave. Here, José Andrés gives us an account of his experience as a jimador for Hacienda Patron.

“The Jimadores culture begins with family,” José Andrés explains. “I was 14 years old when I learned the traditional ‘jima’ techniques from my brother, who learned from another family member before him.” It’s been 12 years since José’s first lesson, and while he has cut his teeth at other vocations, a personal enjoyment of being in the field remains.

A just-harvested pina, the heart of blue agave. A just-harvested pina, the heart of blue agave.

Confident in stance, José Andrés stands amongst the source, brandishing a coa de jima, a hammer-like ax used to break the roots of more mature agave plants. “When I see fields with large, mature agave, I sense a need to harvest them personally,” he says with a smile. On an average day, José Andrés harvests 100-125 plants a day. The pruning of the spiny leaves appears effortless as the pina is revealed with each swift movement.

Aside from the obvious physical aspects of agave harvesting, jimadores are able to decipher the ripeness of the pina. This knowledge connects the farmer to the land, and the land to itself as agave relies solely on rain as the primary irrigation source, and the sun to bring its recognized blue flesh. Connection to land is further exemplified in the agave’s natural reproduction via “offspring” that grow and reroot in the ground or agave stems, and through carriers (birds or insects) that disperse the seeds. In a sense, the Earth and the jimador have an unspoken language orated with each harvest.

The coa de jima is a hammer-like ax used to break the roots of more mature agave plants. The coa de jima is a hammer-like ax used to break the roots of more mature agave plants.

The lesser-known craftspeople of tequila production are the horneros, a group of 10-12 men who feed just-harvested pinas onto a conveyor belt connected to el horno, the oven.

Oswaldo, an hornero at the Patron distillery, explains their technique: “The oven can reach temperatures between 185-205 degrees. We must maintain a technique where the pinas can be steamed quickly without the risk of falling into the oven.”

Horneros chop just-harvested piñas with the coa de jima, a special tool just for agave. Horneros chop just-harvested piñas with the coa de jima, a special tool just for agave.

With movements that seem choreographed, the horneros work in tandem, processing around 75 tons of pinas a day. The process of steaming the pinas is imperative as this sets the stage for the rest of the distillation process. The heat makes for an easier mash where water, fiber and starch are converted to sugar, then alcohol, and finally, a distilled spirit.

Now that you’re familiar with the people, reintroduce yourself to tequila as it should be enjoyed, with appreciation of the craftspeople in mind.

Shanika Hillocks is a freelance food and beverage writer based in New York City where you can often find her exploring the city's culinary scene, at a bar enjoying a Rye Manhattan (served up), and on Instagram at @shanikahillocks.

SPONSORED
From our partners