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. 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).
At Qui in Austin, head bartender Justin Elliott’s house tepache 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 also 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.