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Mastering Tequila, one glass at a time

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Tommy's Mexican Restaurant , with a mere 275 bottles squeezed onto its shelves, no longer has the largest selection of 100 percent blue agave Tequila outside of Mexico, but likely has the most Tequila-savvy clientele. The restaurant's Blue Agave tasting club is the nation's largest, with more than 6,000 members -- not too shabby considering the restaurant is located out in San Francisco's avenues and the bar has only nine stools.

The club began around 1989, according to beverage manager Julio Bermejo, who runs the family restaurant with his father Tommy, mother and two sisters. Bermejo got the idea for the tasting club while at UC Berkeley, when he frequented Raleigh's, a bar with a beer-drinking club.

He started the Blue Agave Club a bit later, but says that, at first, "it wasn't taken seriously at all."

Now the Blue Agave Club has several levels and corresponding degrees. For the master's level, students must drink 35 different kinds of Tequila to graduate, upon which they receive a T-shirt, a framed diploma and a Tequila Master booklet. With 35 additional tastings of Tequila and a (notoriously difficult) 70-question written test, ambitious students can earn a Ph.D. (if they drink the Tequila in margaritas) or become a Ninja Master (if they drink it neat in snifters). Then, if the student visits Tequila distilleries in Mexico, usually on a Bermejo-led tour, he or she becomes a Demigod of Tequila.

Like most clubs, Tommy's has membership rules. There is a maximum of three card punches per visit and cards are stamped Sundays through Thursdays only, though most club members come in Mondays and Wednesdays after work.

The price and effort of graduating from the Blue Agave Club are daunting. It takes at least 12 visits to graduate from the master's level alone (at three card punches per visit). And since the lowest-priced Tequila is $7 for a 2-ounce pour, it costs well above $250 to earn the master's diploma.There are currently more than 700 master's graduates and about 100 Ph.D.s, Ninja Masters and Demigods, according to Bermejo. But stopping into the bar on a recent Monday showed why so many people join the club and become regulars. Bermejo greeted nearly every customer by name, made dinner plans with one, and discussed travel plans with another. Regulars introduced themselves to new people, and everyone at the bar was soon connected.

Rather than Bermejo leading a formal tasting, patrons discussed Tequila (and other topics) together in small clumps that morphed in size. When discussing a particular brand of Tequila, a Demigod stepped behind the bar (an extreme offense in most venues) to take the bottle off the shelf and pass it around for people to examine. In trying to name the five Mexican states that can legally produce Tequila, the same customer asked for help and everyone in the bar chimed in.

Bermejo's fastest master's graduate was "an attorney looking for loopholes."

"He finished in two days and 11 hours. ... He would drink three (drinks), pay his tab, physically walk out of the restaurant and come back in." Bermejo says the guy had a chaperone who drove him home and that he actually handled his liquor impressively well.

But that is far from the average customer, some of whom have taken more than 10 years to graduate. Bermejo is quite proud of his graduates, many of who become friends. Several members of the Blue Agave Club attended Bermejo's wedding in Mexico last year.

Gary Satterfield, who works at a phone company, was introduced to Tommy's by a co-worker.

"It only took one visit," Satterfield says, for him to join the club.

Satterfield now holds the title of Demigod of Tequila. Some of his other co-workers, three of whom were at the bar on a recent Monday, are in various stages of earning their degrees as well. His co-workers include "two Demigods, three Ph.D.s, six people working on their master's, and one is just waiting to finish breast-feeding so she can come back in and work on her card."

Donna Weinman, general manager of the Lake Merced Golf Club, was also at the bar that evening. She's been coming to Tommy's for more than 20 years, since she was 21. "Going through the whole program and getting the master's has helped me immensely," she says.

She explains that thanks to her education at Tommy's, Lake Merced now carries the best selection of Tequila of any golf club in California. "The membership embraces the variety, so much so that we're doing a Tequila dinner," Weinman says.

Other graduates of the club have gone on to open Tequila bars and become Tequila importers in other countries. Many of them become private collectors.

The Blue Agave Club sounds like a clever marketing plan, and it probably is that. But it works not because customers can show off how much Tequila they've consumed to earn a T-shirt, but because Bermejo has created an environment where customers learn from him and from one another in an open setting.

And, of course, the Tequila makes the lessons go down easy.

San Francisco Chronicle
Camper English

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