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.
1/2 cup "mother" (this applies only if making a batch from a tepache that has already been fermented)
Cut crowns and butts from the pineapple. Leave the rest of the skin.
Slice pineapple into roughly 1”x1” cubes and put into a food-safe bucket for fermentation.
Add the sugar, spices, water and, if this isn’t your first go-round, the "mother."
Seal the bucket and place somewhere temperature-stable, ideally in the range of 78-82 degrees F.
After two days, open the bucket and give it a stir. The sugar should be completely dissolved and the liquid should be slightly warmer than room temperature and the tiniest bit fizzy. A lovely, pungent, tropical funk should be in the air. If these things aren’t true, seal it again and check back in one day. (See Editor's Note)
If the correct aroma is present, it's time to harvest. Skim the large solids out of the bucket, then using a paper cone filter inserted into a chinoise, strain the liquid.
Finally, pour this fine-strained tepache into hermetic bottles and seal.
Store these bottles warm for another 4 hours.
"Burp" them once (open bottle to release pressure), then refrigerate.
Reserve and refrigerate one small bottle (no more than a cup and a half) to be reserved as your Mother, assuming you intend to make tepache again.
Be sure to burp the bottles regularly, especially if your refrigerator temperature isn't at a constant temperature below 33 degrees F. If not burped regularly, the tepache will turn to vinegar, but can be used to start another batch. Just pour off most of it, reserving the yeast collected at the bottom and add it to your next batch.
A note on “The Funk”: Remember, tepache is a naturally fermented beverage and some sauvage is essential. The wild yeasts on the pineapple skin co-exist with plenty of other microorganisms including a substantial amount of acetic acid bacteria (AAB). This AAB is great for developing a refreshing tepache backbone, but there can be other, less welcome bacteria that can develop in your batch, too. If your tepache has the distinct whiff of cold cuts, throw it out, sterilize your equipment and start over. One advantage of using a Mother is that it will keep the flora from your first batch consistent for many generations to come.