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Tepache and Pulque: Two Traditional Mexican Beverages Looking for Their Place in the Present

Tepache vendor in an open-air market or tianguis in Mexico City. Author's image.

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.

Here we’ll take a look at two of the drinks that fall into this category.

Tepache

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:

El tepache no es curativo como algunas personas creen. En todo caso, es la piña la que ayuda a limpiar el riñón. Lo que sí hace este brebaje, y muy bien, es quitar la sed. Sin embargo, aunque es muy popular por su sabor dulce y su casi nulo porcentaje de alcohol —sólo uno por ciento, hasta los niños lo consumen— casi no existen locales donde se sirva exclusivamente esta bebida. La entrada de la industria refresquera al país en la década de los 50 provocó que el tepache poco a poco fuera quedando relegado, al grado que actualmente en la Ciudad de México existen menos de diez tepacherías, dedicados exclusivamente a este producto.

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. This is what one of the people who drinks tepache said on Twitter:

When I go to open-air markets, I always ask for my tepache without ice, in order for more to fit in the glass, because I'll be poor, but never stupid

When speaking about one of the few establishments dedicated solely to the sale of tepache, Bautista said:

El Oasis huele a dulce, a fruta, despide un ligero aroma a fermentación pero no es desagradable. El olor provine de los siete barriles donde se está llevando el proceso de degradación de la piña y demás frutas que lleva la receta que esta familia ha conservado por 55 años, durante tres generaciones.

[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.

Tepache
Pineapple peels fermented in water
Piloncillo
Cinnamon
Ice
for this summer heat

Pulque

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):

La bebida es de al menos 2,000 años de antigüedad. Es la savia, llamado aguamiel o agua miel, que se convierte en pulque a través de un proceso de fermentación natural que puede ocurrir dentro de la planta, pero por lo general se lleva a cabo en una “Tinacal” (lugar de producción). La bebida se convirtió en un elemento tan importante social, económica y, como consecuencia, religiosamente, que mitos, leyendas y cultos proliferan alrededor de él y su fuente, el maguey.

En las grandes civilizaciones indígenas de las tierras altas centrales, Pulque se desempeñó como un intoxicante ritual para los sacerdotes −para aumentar su entusiasmo, para las víctimas− de sacrificio facilitan su paso, y como bebida medicinal.

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.

Pulque de sabores. Imagen compartida por <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/sarunas_b/17610733021/">Šarūnas Burdulis</a> en Flickr, utilizada en términos de licencia <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/"><em>Creative Commons 2.0</em></a>.

Pulque flavors. Image shared by Šarūnas Burdulis on Flickr, used in terms of Creative Commons 2.0 license.

The website Regeneración describes the preparation process:

Este sabroso licor, que quita todas las penas, las propias y las ajenas se obtiene de las pencas del maguey cuando la planta está madura, mediante el siguiente proceso: primero con una barreta, se retira la parte central y el corazón del maguey, generando una cavidad o cajete, en lo que se denomina castración; posteriormente, la cavidad se deja madurar durante aproximadamente un mes y se debe tapar con una manta para que no se introduzcan los insectos y el polvo. Posteriormente, se raspan las paredes y se succiona el aguamiel con un acocote (el recipiente con el que se extrae la bebida) y se deposita en un garrafón de 20 litros que se llama tinacal, en lo que se llama la maduración de la bebida; a continuación, viene la preparación de la semilla, que consiste en que el aguamiel se pone en un barril de madera donde se fermenta al cabo de varios días y se obtiene una bebida de color blanco, ácida y viscosa llamada pulque.

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.

Twitter user Alex B shared a seemingly old sheet of information about the different ways to measure pulque:

A little bit of popular culture

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).

Pulque enlatado. Imagen compartida por <a href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/eliazar/251601949/in/photolist-pZ8sTb-nGQkNH-nZgzEY-4MxHuz-mWfG4-a6TtcK-3eaaCg-a6Wkzb-7vox3G-cgELqY-oewuD-2NRqDD-ec4eoS-5DnQP9-sQcBnX-oGN567-LLB1r-61pZaZ-5Ms31-pGEhUb-p3fZg2-pFk57U-rjCRwL-pZ4RML-pYZyWx-eYmxNe-35TSGC-oXoB2E-4AvZ9Z-oXoEC7-qnRtUc-4dnVov-aeGFvQ-oGVU85-oZoCTE-qnUHmX-q6uChb-qkNCgL-q6AzQe-j6WyG4-9eAWFZ-5LmwKJ-q6tXNq-3eeyMo-nGTFG4-qkMJAb-ddjrtY-pGyU9R-nZdeLf-nXkN43">Eliazar Parra</a> en Flickr, utilizada en términos de licencia <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/">Creative Commons 2.0</a>.

Canned pulque. Image shared by Eliazar Parra on Flickr, used in terms of Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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?

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