How I Find New Things to Love (9/9/21)

Tepache served in a gourd cup in the market in Tlacolula, Oaxaca. Photo by author.

I’d never heard of tepache when the lady at the taquería asked if I’d like a glass of it.
I said yes.
I said yes because I have a rule: When I’m in Mexico, I say yes to any food or drink I haven’t heard of before.
That is my secret way of finding new things to love.
It felt natural to follow the rule in this case, because everything else in the taquería was perfect.
Sunshine and a sea breeze from Santiago Bay danced through the open doors and windows.
The tacos in front of me looked heavenly. The aroma of fresh corn tortillas and perfectly seasoned carne asada were making my mouth water.
I could tell just by looking at the salsa that it was loaded with the perfect combination of spice and flavor.
In addition to all that, the table was laden with freshly diced onions, chopped cilantro, and a couple of bright green limes, precisely sliced and ready to squeeze.
Like I said, everything was perfect.
And even though experience has taught me that trusting in Mexican food to taste delicious never let me down, I wondered.
Had I just made my life better, or would ordering tepache prove to be a decision I would regret?

What am I about to drink?
As I watched the señora ladle the light brown, slightly murky beverage into a cup, I grabbed my phone and prayed Google knew what I was about to drink.
A hungry couple entered the taquería just then, giving me a few extra seconds. Here’s what I learned:
Tepache is a traditional drink that predates the arrival of the Spanish.
The name comes from the Nahuatl ‘tepiatli’, which means “drink made with maize,” as tepache was originally prepared from crushed and fermented corn.
In the 16th century, fruit juices such as guava, apple, orange, or—most popularly—pineapple began to be used.
The flavor is likened to a sweet beer due to the slight fermentation and the use of piloncillo (unrefined brown sugar).
That was as far as I got before my tepache arrived. But it was enough that I was very much looking forward to tasting it.

A Tepache Taste Test

I sipped gingerly and was rewarded greatly. The tepache was crisp and refreshing, which made it extremely welcome in the heat  and humidity of Manzanillo in July.
It tasted a bit like a lager, which I found surprising as I’d expected it to taste more like an apple cider.
There was a hint of the tangy bitterness of unflavored kombucha, but this was offset nicely by the light sweetness coming from the piloncillo.
Eating my tacos and drinking my tepache—a heavenly combination, I must say—I read that tepache typically contains 0.5 to 1.0% alcohol, and is commonly enjoyed by children as well as adults on hot days.
In the past, tepache was considered a sacred drink and was fermented to a higher percentage of alcohol than is common now. These days, when a higher-octane brew is desired, tepache is mixed with beer or distilled spirits.
As I washed down the last bite of my taco, I read that to this day, versions of tepache still made from corn exist.
The first of these, tejuino, is popular in the north and is often mixed with fruit juice or lemon ice.
Pozol, on the other hand, is common in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas.

Tepache Home Brew

I enjoyed my first tepache so much I decided to have another right away. The lady who ran the taqueria was pleased I liked it so well.
We introduced ourselves and got to talking.
Tirsa told me she makes the tepache sold in her taquería sells herself. “Every family has their own recipe,” she said. “It’s very common to make it at home.”
She added, “It’s a drink we make to celebrate life’s triumphs. In the past, it was used to celebrate victories in battle.” She laughed, “These days, people are more impressed that tepache is totally natural and contains many probiotics.”
While I sipped on my second glass, I looked up how to make it tepache. After looking at a few recipes, I felt like I had a grasp on the basic process.
Mexican recipes suggest fermenting tepache in a wooden vessel if possible.
This recipe has lots of helpful pictures.
You need
4-1/2 cups of water
1/2 cup of piloncillo (or brown sugar)
1 fresh pineapple
1 cinnamon stick
3 or 4 cloves
A pot or pitcher big enough to hold all that
1. Dissolve the piloncillo (or brown sugar) in the water. If using piloncillo, you might need to break it up with the spoon to dissolve it quickly.
2. Wash the pineapple with water and peel it. Save the fruit for another time. Use the peels and the diced core for tepache.
3. Combine the peels, core, clove and cinnamon in the vessel you will ferment the tepache in.
4. Add the water with the piloncillo or brown sugar dissolved in it. Stir.
5. Cover with a cheese cloth or towel that will allow the air to reach the tepache.
6Let it sit at room temperature for 24 to 36 hours. White, frothy foam indicates the mixture is fermenting. You can drink it now or let it ferment longer—it’s a matter of taste. Fermentation time depends on temperature, how ripe the pineapple was, and so on.
7. When your tepache is as fermented as you want it to be, strain the solids, transfer the liquid to a clean pitcher and refrigerate.
8. Enjoy as it is, with fruit, mixed with spirits, or however you like.

Takeaways–tepache to go
Always be willing to try something new. You never know when and where you are going to find the next great thing in your life.
In my case, being open to a drink I’d never heard oiled me to discover tepache, which instantly became one of my favorite drinks.
In addition to being delicious, tepache is easy to make at home and contains beneficial probiotics.
But being open to novelty is about more than ferreting out tasty food and beverages. It’s how we add wonder to our lives.
It is how we move from surviving to thriving.