Fermented food and drink are “in” again. Sauerkraut is back from obscurity. Korean kimchee, made from vegetables like Napa cabbage, green onions, and radish, has found its way into foods never before imagined, like kimchee quesadillas. Kombucha, a lightly fermented beverage originally from China and made from black tea, can now be found on tap at trendy health-oriented restaurants.
Less noted but closer to home are a pair of lightly fermented drinks, tepache and tesguino, that have their roots in this part of the world. To find them, one need look no further than south of the border. In addition to beer, Mexico has a long tradition of fermenting alcoholic beverages, such as pulque, tepache, and tesguino (sometimes spelled teswino, teswin, or tiswin).
Pulque, which requires a mature agave plant, is a complex process and not something that is easily undertaken except by dedicated and true aficionados of the beverage. On the other hand, tepache (tay-paw-chay) and tesguino (tes-ween-o) are relatively easy to make.
Tepache, which is commonly made from the skins of pineapples (and sometimes other fruits), is the easier of the two to prepare. Tesguino, made from corn, is more involved. Fermented corn beverages are made and have been made historically by ethnic cultures in Mexico, and in Central and South America, as well as the southwestern United States. The Tarahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre in Mexico still regard tesguino as sacred, and it remains an integral part of their everyday lives.
For a deeper look into these beverages, I traveled to the Rio Sonora valley of northern Mexico, to the tiny town of La Estancia de Aconchi to spend some time in the home of Armida Elena Contreras. Armida is my go-to person when it comes to traditional Sonoran recipes of all kinds. She’s a great cook, in no small part because much of what she makes, including these drinks, are what she ate and drank growing up.
The lightly fermented drink called tepache involves little more than combining pineapple rind with Mexican brown sugar, called piloncillo, and a few spices, and letting it sit for two or three days. Longer fermentation will result in very nice mild pineapple vinegar. Either way, it’s a great way to use up pineapple scraps that would go into the compost.
Tepache has low alcohol content, less than beer, and is typically consumed by all ages. It’s sort of like an effervescent, somewhat probiotic, soft drink. If you want more alcohol, add beer to your tepache to give it a little more punch. Unpasteurized beer can also be added to supplement the fermentation.
In Mexico, tepache is hard to find outside of people’s homes. If you find a street vendor selling it, take advantage of the opportunity—it’ll likely be delicious. Tepache has also started showing up north of the border in Mexican neighborhoods, often where licuados are served.
In Tucson, try your own glass of ready-made tepache at Penca Restaurant, either straight up or in a cocktail, like their Bourbon and Tepache cocktail, featured in Bon Appétit.
When making tepache, some cooks add other fruit besides pineapple, or the skins of those fruits, like apple and quince skins. For that matter, what is called tepache can be made with any type of fruit, although in Mexico, it is predominantly made with pineapple. Like so many things in Mexico, there is no exact recipe for the drink, only general guidelines. It’s pretty much up to the whims of whoever is making it. Feel free to try varying combinations.
The nice thing about visiting Armida is that I always know where to find the tepache. During the summer months, the best time for tepache, there is always a pitcher on her kitchen table ready to accompany any meal or to be enjoyed by itself.
The skin of 1 pineapple and the core, finely chopped
2 piloncillo cones
1 stick of Mexican cinnamon
½ teaspoon of anise seed
Water to cover all ingredients, typically 3 to 4 quarts
Combine all ingredients in a large ceramic, glass, or food-grade bucket. Cover with a cloth and let sit for 2 days. After 2 or 3 days, strain the solids and let the liquid sit for another day. It’s a good idea to check the taste daily. Often the consistency of the tepache can be a little thick, so water can be added to achieve the desired consistency. At home we often add carbonated water.
Typically tepache is served with ice. Sweetener can be added, as well as beer—or tequila—for more alcohol; consider finishing your drink with a squeeze of lime and a touch of chile. In Mexico, tepache is sometimes served with heavier food because of the enzymes it contains.
I have included two versions of this beverage. The first is from the Rio Sonora region in northern Mexico, while the other follows the general guidelines used by the Tarahumara Indians of the Sierra Madre. The Rio Sonora version is much simpler and uses dry toasted corn kernels, while the Tarahumara version relies upon corn that has been germinated and is cooked for a longer period of time.
There is also a difference of importance between the two versions. The Sonoran version was more common before beer became accessible, made often for fiestas and special occasions, as well as for a casual drink. Today, I find it next to impossible to imagine tesguino being substituted for Tecate at a town fiesta. On the other hand, for the Tarahumara, tesguino has great social and cultural importance and is used in everything from healing ceremonies to work parties, sporting events, meetings, settling of disputes, fiestas, and more.
Tesguino is a very different drink from tepache. Tesguino is typically thicker, somewhat resembling a thin porridge. It hovers in the realm between food and beverage. (Although, of course, it can be diluted with water.) Of the two types, the Rio Sonoran version is the lighter of the two. As with tepache it is commonly served to children when diluted with water.
Field corn is different from sweet corn. It contains more starch and typically is grown for feed and milling. Unfortunately, much of the field corn grown in the United States is genetically modified and avoiding it is a good idea. Sources for organic or non-GMO corn include health food stores, co-ops, or growers in Mexico where genetically modified corn has been banned.
5 ½ quarts of water
2 cups of lightly toasted dry corn kernels (not browned or golden)
3 stems (chicatas de mazorea) from the base of the corn cob
10 whole cloves
1 tablespoon yeast
½ cup flour
5-6 sticks of Mexican cinnamon
2 tablespoons anise seeds
1 pound of piloncillo or brown sugar
1 dried orange peel
Mix yeast and flour and enough water to shape it into a small ball. Wrap in a cotton cloth and let it sit to double its volume.
Put all the ingredients into a glass or ceramic container, cover with a cloth and allow for sit for four to five days without stirring. The fermentation rate will depend upon the time of year. Warmer temperatures equal faster fermentation.
Strain the liquid and add sweetener and water, if desired. Leave some liquid and solids in the original container. Adjust with additional water and sugar.
For this adaptation of methods used by the Tarahumara Indians, use 1 pound of sprouted, dry field corn instead of the lightly toasted dry corn kernels. Yield is approximately 2 quarts.
You can sprout the corn in a number of ways. Traditionally the corn was soaked, wrapped in a cotton cloth, and buried in damp ground for several days until the corn sprouted. However, any method that is used for sprouting grains and beans will work. One way is to soak the corn in a gallon jar for approximately 24 hours and drain well. Place the soaked corn in another container and put it in a dark space or cover to protect from the light. Rinse several times a day. When the sprouts reach a length of about one inch, the corn is ready. (This can take up to about a week.)
The sprouted corn can either be mashed or ground. If you don’t have a hand mill, a food processor will work well.
To cook the corn paste, add water and cook on a low flame for 12 hours or more. This slow cooking develops the sugar of the corn and transforms it into a sweeter syrup-like consistency. Dilute with more water, strain, and let cool.
To culture the cooked corn paste, the Tarahumara place the cooked paste mixture in a clay jar or olla called a tesguino that is dedicated to this use. Since these vessels are never washed, the yeast needed for fermentation is already established. Chances are you will not own one of these pots, so you will need to introduce a yeast or starter. You have many options here, ranging from a simple packet of yeast to starters used for bread. Contact a beer- or wine-making store for supplies.
Keep the fermenting corn in a location that is free from a lot of temperature fluctuation. You’ll know it’s ready after the mixture starts bubbly vigorously. When the bubbling slows down, usually within about a week, drink up or refrigerate for later.