Tepache and Pulque: Two Traditional Mexican Beverages Looking for Their Place in the Present
Mexico City has gradually turned its back on traditional drinks and foods. With the arrival of large multinational commercial consortiums and fast-food chains that have branches in virtually every neighborhood in the city, the dishes and brews that grandparents and other ancestors consumed run the risk of falling into disuse or disappearing.
Tepache vendor in an open-air market or
tianguis in Mexico City. Author's image.
Click image to enlarge.
Here we’ll take a look at two of the drinks that fall into this category.
Tepache is a low-alcohol drink, similar to beer but sweet. Its current form has an intense amber color and is made primarily of fermented pineapple, sweetened with piloncillo (panela) and seasoned with cinnamon and other spices. It is believed that its etymology is in the náhuatl word “tepatli”, which means “corn drink”.
The chronicler Memo Bautista wrote about this beverage on the website Crónicas de Asfalto:
Tepache does not contain healing properties as some people believe. In any case, it’s pineapple that helps to clean the kidneys. What this concoction does, very well, is to quench the thirst. However, although it is very popular because of its sweet taste and its almost zero percentage of alcohol – only one percent, even children consume it – there are almost no places where this drink is exclusively served. The entry of the soft drink industry in Mexico during the 1950s caused tepache to gradually be relegated, to the extent that currently in Mexico City, there are less than 10 tepache bars, dedicated exclusively to this product.
This drink is served cold and is usually enjoyed in the mornings and afternoons to quench the thirst caused by the hot temperatures. As mentioned by Bautista, few establishments exclusively sell it, so it is usually found in open-air markets, or tianguis, where it is consumed in disposable cups or even in bags.
When speaking about one of the few establishments dedicated solely to the sale of tepache, Bautista said:
[The establishment] El Oasis smells sweet, fruity, it gives off a slight aroma of fermentation but is not unpleasant. The smell comes from the seven barrels where the degradation process of pineapple and other fruits is taking place, based on the recipe that this family has kept for 55 years, for three generations.
Being a homemade product, perhaps traditional, tepache doesn’t have a secret recipe. Nor is it available canned or pasteurized and packaged to ensure its conservation. It can be prepared by anyone interested in doing so. The basic steps to follow can be found in wikiHow.
Another option in the catalog of consumable liquids found in Mexico City is pulque. It is also a drink that has an ancient story, according to the website Del Maguey (another name given in Mexico to Agave):
The drink is at least 2,000 years old. It is the sap, called aguamiel or honey water, which becomes pulque through a natural fermentation process that can occur inside the plant, but is usually carried out in a “Tinacal” (production site). The beverage became such an important element socially and economically, and as a consequence, religiously, that myths, legends and cults proliferate around it and its source, the maguey.
In the great indigenous civilizations of the central highlands, pulque served as a ritual intoxicant for the priests to increase their enthusiasm, for the victims of sacrifice to facilitate their passing, and as a medicinal drink.
But, in mid-2017, this brew is no longer used for religious purposes, although it is used to achieve alcoholic intoxication. Unlike tepache, the alcoholic content of pulque is considerable, so it is not customary to offer it to minors, nor in contexts other than social get-togethers or for mere recreation.
Pulque can be served natural or with added flavors (strawberry and pineapple are some that have a higher demand); it has a dense body, perhaps even a milky consistency and is normally opaque.
This tasty liquor, which removes all sorrows, our own and those of others, is obtained from maguey leaves when the plant is ripe, by the following process: first, you remove the central part and the heart of the maguey with a tool, creating a cavity or bowl, in what is called extraction; the cavity is then allowed to mature for about a month and must be covered with a blanket so that insects and dust are not introduced. Subsequently, the inner walls are scraped and the aguamiel is sucked up with a bottle gourd called an acocote and is deposited in a 20-liter jug called a tinacal, in what is called the ripening of the drink; then comes the preparation of the seed, which consists of the aguamiel being placed in a wooden barrel where it is fermented for several days and turns into a white, acidic, viscous drink called pulque.
Contrary to what happens with tepache, pulque can sometimes be found (although not very easily) packaged and refrigerated in commercial premises. There are also establishments dedicated to its sale called pulque bars. These have resurfaced in recent years and their popularity among young middle-class people is on the rise; this is perhaps due to the tendency in the whole country to return to mezcal, another traditional drink that, like pulque, also comes from maguey (or agave).
Tepache and pulque are elements of the ancient culture of Mexico City struggling to survive in the era of soda, energy drinks, and of course, national and imported beer that are easily found in most shops and entertainment centers.
These beverages provide a choice free of synthetic agents and artificial colors when they are made with the traditional recipes. Why not try them out?
Copyright Global Voices Online, 2017
Translation by Omar Ocampo.