Since coffee is pretty much the pivotal element of Kahlúa's flavour, it seems only right that an exploration of the liqueur’s production should begin with the humble coffee bean. (Technically it's a fruit seed, but anyway...)
A three-hour drive east of Mexico City - four hours if the traffic is bad - the state of Veracruz is awash with verdant rolling hills, snow-peaked mountains and brightly painted, Mexican picture postcard towns. The site of coffee's first introduction into Mexico at the end of the 18th Century, Veracruz is a land still rich in densely green coffee plantations but also sugar cane and vanilla. It's a landscape then that very much explains the flavour of Kahlúa and why it should find its origins here.
To understand coffee, it's helpful to appreciate that the Coffea genus is chiefly split into two main species: Coffea Arabica and Coffea Robusta. The former makes up approximately 60 per cent of all the coffee grown globally and is the main coffee crop within Mexico. It is also generally agreed to produce a softer, fruitier, more subtle flavour profile than its Robustacousin. By comparison, the hardier Robustais broadly all about the kick rather than any subtlety of flavour, and is traditionally the stuff of instant or supermarket coffee blends (although it does also get included in some more premium espresso blends due to its stronger taste, increased caffeine content and good crema - that caramelised froth you get on top of a good espresso).
On top of this, since the Arabicaplant yields less coffee fruit than Robustaand is more difficult to grow and maintain, it is a significantly more expensive commodity. Yet, as you might have guessed by now, Kahlúa is made exclusively from Coffea Arabicaand always from Veracruz.
On the fincas or plantations in Veracruz, once the cherries on the coffee plants have turned from green to red, indicating their ripeness, they are handpicked during the harvest season between October and March. These ripe cherries are then sorted, the coffee bean separated from its surrounding fruit and then fully dried out, leaving a light green bean that's ready to be packed and transported.
Organised using a central broker, all the coffee destined for Kahlúa is transported in 1,100kg superbags by truck across from Veracruz to Pernod Ricard's production facilities in Mexico City. Tucked down a side-road off a side-road in an industrialised area away from the city centre, the facilities lie safely behind a wall of gates and vigilant security.
Echoing the niche role of Kahlúa within the enormity of the Pernod Ricard portfolio, 'Plant 2', the separate building where all of Kahlúa's raw ingredients are processed, is surprisingly demure and typically produces the spirit only two to three days per week depending on the stock levels within their 70,000 180-litre-barrel capacity warehouse.
Dominated by the rich scent of fresh coffee and a humming, steel-coloured mountain of industrial roasting, grinding and brewing machinery, the specifics of Plant 2 are handled by just one man - currently a laid back, kindly, blue-overalled guy by the name of Alejandro - who is part of the larger 18-strong team who handle the whole of Kahlúa production. Between them, the team outputs 180,000 cases of Kahlúa per annum. This equates to only 30% of the plant's maximum capacity.
Once the superbags of green coffee beans have been safely delivered from Veracruz, they're divided up into batches by Alejandro and roasted in an oven. By coffee roasting standards they use a lower-than-normal temperature - albeit a fairly long roast time - suggesting potentially decreased development of sugars, and a generally brighter coffee flavour with higher acidity and less body, which would make sense given that this is destined to be a blended liqueur ingredient.
There can be a little leeway with roasting times, so Alejandro cross-checks the darkening beans against a colour chart to ensure that each batch achieves as close to the defined roast profile as possible. Once he's happy that they're good to go, the batch of the now chocolate-coloured and heavily scented beans (needless to say that the whole plant smells incredible) is transferred over into a massive grinding unit from which further samples are regularly taken and run through a Tamizador or 'sieve' unit - a loudly vibrating stack of fine mesh-sifting grids - to ensure that the grounds are neither too fine nor too large, and thus will extract consistently.
Before any of the ground beans can see a drop of water, however, they are rested for a further 12-48 hours. This resting period is a standard practice for coffee roasters, facilitating the release of excess carbon dioxide while also allowing for the flavours within the bean to stabilize.
The next step is to make the biggest damn pot of coffee you've ever laid your eyes on. Akin to an immense cold-brew, a huge steel tank is filled with rested coffee grinds and filtered water at room temperature, and left to steep. Once the brew time is complete, the coffee liquid is then separated from the unwanted grounds by running the combined mulch through a long centrifugal filter called, cunningly, the Separador de Café. This coffee 'concentrate' is then the flavour base for all Kahlúa liqueurs.
With the core coffee element now ready for use, the next stage is to turn this into a liqueur. The team at the Kahlúa facilities make its own vanilla extract for blending using vanilla pods grown also in the verdant hills of Veracruz. Exactly how they do this remains a 'brand secret'. However, since the process of making vanilla extract is traditionally a straight infusion of vanilla beans in neutral alcohol, whether they source their extract commercially or actually prepare it themselves, we can fairly safely assume that this is the case here too. Wherever it's from and however it's made, the vanilla extract is then blended with the coffee 'concentrate' in proportions that remain similarly undisclosed.
This is in turn added to a cane alcohol which is also made from Veracruz sugar - though once again details for this are classified as an 'industry secret', but is presumably a commercially-distilled sugar cane rum. There is also a little caramel added for colour. The whole resultant blend is then filtered and stored at approximately 40% alc./vol. in massive 110,000 litre steel tanks which stand staunchly beside Plant 2. This is the first blending stage of Kahlúa. Once the liquid has matured for 48 hours in the tanks, it is re-filtered as before, then re-blended with more of the sugar distillate and vanilla extract to taste, and lowered to 20% alc./vol. using filtered water.
This 20% Kahlúa is bottled on site for sale throughout South America, or for export either for regional international markets (especially in the US and Canada) to adjust for local variations - for flavours like Peppermint Mocha or French Vanilla, or the US-only Kahlúa Midnight which has a higher 35% alc./vol. than the standard 20% - or to be bottled according to local legislation and alc./vol. standards allow.