DIY Tepache Is the New “It” Cocktail Ingredient

Tepache, a rustic Mexican street beverage—traditionally made from fermented pineapple and spices—has found an unlikely home in America's craft cocktail bars. Emma Janzen explores the growing world of DIY tepache.

tepache qui austin

Walk down a bustling city street in one of Mexico’s major cities and it won’t be long before you run into a street vendor peddling a curious lineup of Technicolor beverages from industrial-sized plastic containers.

Within these jugs one can find an array of aguas frescas—from horchata to tamarindo—but most interesting is tepache, a tangy, fermented beverage whose alcohol content places it outside the realm of fruit juice. It’s a staple on the streets of Mexico and has been consumed and produced all over the country since pre-Columbian times. More recently, though, it’s crossed the border and found an unlikely home in American craft cocktail bars, from Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon to The Pastry War in Houston. 

Unlike Mexico’s distilled spirits, tepache is only lightly fermented before it’s ready for consumption, meaning anyone with a bucket, fruit, sugar and water can whip up a batch in a matter of days. The final product is a low in alcohol (usually around 2% ABV) and cost-effective for Mexican street carts, markets and bars where inventive house ingredients are the norm.

Alba Huerta, bar director and partner of The Pastry War in Houston wanted to create a tepache for the agave-focused bar as a throwback to her childhood summers visiting family in Monterey. She explains that corn was the original base ingredient for the drink up until at least the early 1500s (hence the name tepache, which comes from the nahuatl word tapiatl meaning “drink made from corn”), but today it’s most commonly made with pineapple flesh and rinds, invigorated with cinnamon, clove and other spices, and sweetened with piloncillo (Mexican brown sugar).

Since there’s no concrete definition of what tepache entails, American bartenders have likewise embraced the spirit of improvisation when creating house recipes. The result is a liquid that can range from dry and elegant to full-bodied and sweet. As such, the range of applications for tepache in cocktails is vast.

But the framework is far from rigid. Because the rules regarding alcoholic beverages are relaxed in Mexico and production is rudimentary and mostly limited to street vendors, recipes can vary from day to day and vendor to vendor.

“The rules of tepache are that there are very few rules,” says Huerta. “It is supposed to be this very offshoot product that you can find in the street.” Once the tepache is fermented, each vendor will add a limitless array of accouterments—from sugar cane and chile spice to beer—to help sell the drink.

Since there’s no concrete definition of what tepache entails, American bartenders have likewise embraced the spirit of improvisation when creating house recipes. The result is a liquid that can range from dry and elegant to full-bodied and sweet. As such, the range of applications for tepache in cocktails is vast.

At Pastry War, Huerta likes to describe her bone-dry house tepache as similar to a low-alcohol wine, which helps guests toss aside the assumption that an ingredient made from pineapple will be “sweet and sugar-bomby, versus something that is fermented and has a little bit of a wild character to it.” She serves it as a highball mixer with the guest’s choice of mezcal, sotol (a Northern Mexican spirit distilled from the Desert Spoon plant) or tequila.

A few hours away in Austin, Qui head bartender Justin Elliott developed the recipe for the house tepache that explores the bolder end of the spectrum. He describes it as similar to Jamaican ginger beer that’s been sweetened with molasses, but not as syrupy. “It has an almost creamy, yeasty mouthfeel,” combined with “a funky pineapple flavor.” He mixes it with beer, as is traditional in Mexico, and features it in his Tepache Collins—a drink that combines the tepache with Balcones Rumble (a Texas spirit made from honey, figs and turbinado sugar), lemon, honey, mint and Thai basil.

While tepache seems to be finding a comfortable home behind the bar, several American cider producers are also getting into the game, pushing flavors even further from the streets of Mexico.

For Argus Cidery in Austin, Texas, the intent was to take the tepache framework and shift the ABV up to more closely resemble a pineapple wine. Owner Wes Mickel says they wanted to make something more fruit-forward than traditional tepache so that it would appeal to a wider audience. Coming in at a hefty 7% ABV, their Tepache Especial, according to Mickel, “screams pineapple.”

Other commercial outfits like Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider in Oregon are also making a bottled tepache that lands around 3% ABV, but still bursts with the flavors of pineapple, while the crew behind Bittermens has created a concentrated tepache liqueur for use in cocktails.

Neither bottled tepache nor tepache liqueur count as traditional applications of the drink—and Huerta says her father was shocked to hear about the commercialization of the product here in the US—but finding inventive ways to introduce tepache to Americans will hopefully keep the drink’s historic spirit of experimentation and spontaneity alive and evolving.