Tepache — never heard of it? Not to worry; we're here to help. It's the new libation du jour.
And it's also ancient. The name comes from nahuatl, an indigenous language of central and southern Mexico, and it referred, in pre-Columbian times, to "a drink made from corn." Somewhere along the line, pineapple became the preferred base for this fermented – and lightly alcoholic – beverage and it's easy to imagine how it lasted over the centuries mostly as a homemade concoction. Now it's gaining notoriety after being discovered and hailed by A-list chefs and bartenders.
At its most basic, tepache derives from pineapple rind fermented with piloncillo, water and maybe cinnamon. Not willing to leave well enough alone, Austin über-chef Paul Qui has devised a recipe that ups the ante with palm sugar, green coriander, grains of paradise, cardamom pods and more. (Bon Appetit published a somewhat simpler version of this recipe in 2014.) The stuff is even being bottled by, among others, a Portland cider maker calling himself Reverend Nat.
In San Antonio, the folks at La Botánica are making their own tepache and from the looks of it (a glass barril sitting on a concrete block and covered with a cloth, was spotted behind the bar), it could be coming straight out of a Mexican market stall. And not from looks alone – from the taste of it, too. The cocktail they served me during Restaurant Week contained tepache, gin and bitters. It was spunky/funky with just enough tang from the piña and zing from added cinnamon and clove.
Jesse Torres, manager and muse at Mezcaleria Mixtli, also usually has a batch in the works. He makes his in a 5-gallon plastic tub, noting "the trick is balancing the sugar ... I keep it going for three days minimum in a warm place [above the ice machine]." Torres likes the fact that the brew is "very basic Mexican," but he is not above playing with a contemporary, bottled version such as the Bittermens Tepache spiced pineapple liqueur he just got. Tip: ask him to whip up a cocktail with the bottled stuff as he did for me — or ask if there's a batch of the basic ready. Neither is on the new menu.
You can make your own at home, too. Here's a simple recipe adapted from Mely Martinez's mexicoinmykitchen.com. It uses the whole fruit. And though the fermentation process counts on wild yeasts already present on the pineapple skin and in the air, it's important to let them do their thing in a sterilized container. Too many bugs spoil the brew.
Briefly rinse the pineapple and cut it into chunks. (Depending on the size of the glass or other non-reactive container, you might not need to use all of it.) Add the sugar, spices and water and cover loosely with a dish towel. Let sit at room temperature for 24 hours or so. Check to see if there's some action, particularly if foam has developed – if so, skim it off and let mixture percolate for another 24-36 hours. (If the fermentation goes too far, you'll end up with pineapple vinegar — not altogether a bad thing.) When the brew seems just tangy enough to you, strain it through a cheesecloth-lined fine sieve. At this point, you can either bottle and refrigerate it or let it sit out overnight, covered, before refrigeration.
Once fermented the tepache is great just as it is, maybe over ice, but in Mexico a kind of shandy is also made by mixing it with beer — say 2/3 tepache to 1/3 beer. (Beer is often used to kick-start the fermentation process as well.) Bourbon and rum would make good cocktail playmates.
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