Mexico’s Indigenous Tribes Used to Get Wasted on These Prehispanic Brews

Made from fermented maize and pineapple respectively, <i>tejuino</i> and <i>tepache</i> are typically served in plastic cups or plastic bags tied to a straw, sold almost exclusively on market stalls or by pedal-cart street vendors.

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Jun 25 2015, 7:15pm

Photos by the author.

"Before the Spanish arrived here, the tribes used to prepare these drinks as a kind of potion to get drunk," Nino Leon tells me as he serves up two glasses of tepache and tejuino from the metallic vats wedged in the backseat of his weathered Ford Taurus.

"Nobody knows the precise origin of these drinks but they've always been most common in Jalisco and the surrounding areas of western Mexico," he says.

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A plump 66-year-old from Guadalajara, the Jalisco state capital, Leon is a father of two and grandfather of six. For 48 years he has supported his family by selling tepache and tejuino out of the back of his car.

"I was 18 years old when my grandfather taught me how to make tepache and tejuino," he says. "I still prepare them just the way he showed me. There are other brewers who have newer methods, but this is the traditional way."

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Made from fermented maize and pineapple respectively, tejuino and tepache are unique and refreshing beverages. Typically served in plastic cups or plastic bags tied to a straw, they are sold almost exclusively on market stalls or by pedal-cart street vendors.

Tejuino is a thick, stodgy brew that ranges from cloudy beige to murky brown. The fermented corn taste combined with salty and sour seasonings is like nothing I've ever tried before.

Tepache is a much lighter drink that varies in color from bright yellow to earthy red. It has a sweet but slightly tart flavor, with a hint of hard cider to it.

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Both are distant, lesser-known cousins of pulque, a fermented agave brew that also predates the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors in 1519, and is currently enjoying a hipster revival in the cantinas of Mexico City.

Leon typically makes 50 liters of each beverage per month. To make tepache, he peels the rinds of 20 pineapples and then blends the pulp and mixes it with two kilos of piloncillo, a local form of unrefined brown sugar. He then leaves the rind, pulp, and sugar to ferment in a 200-liter oak barrel for approximately two months.

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To make tejuino, Leon harvests a kilo of maize—including the roots—only selecting stalks that have grown to about 18 to 20 centimeters. He washes the maize, disinfects it, and then blends it into a honey-like mixture before adding piloncillo. He boils it until thick and then leaves it to ferment for about a month, again inside an oak barrel.

Both mixtures are fermented at room temperature, although seasonal variations mean the process is slightly quicker during the hot summer months and takes a little longer during the winter.

"When you leave them to ferment a long time they take on a strong alcoholic content. Just one small glass can knock you out!" Leon says with a grin. But before they are ready for consumption, both drinks are watered down until they achieve the desired consistency.

The final product is usually no more than one percent alcohol by volume, Leon explains: "It's very light and refreshing. A half-liter glass will make you feel relaxed but it won't get you drunk." Clients looking for a stronger fix sometimes spike their tejuino with tequila, he says, while others prefer to mix tepache with small quantities of beer or mezcal, tequila's smokier cousin.

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Traditionally, tepaches served straight with ice, whereas a half-liter portion of tejuino should be mixed with the juice of a large lime and half a teaspoon of salt before being poured over a handful of ice cubes. Before serving, Leon decants the mixture in and out of a metal pan two or three times so that the salt dissolves. Finally, if the client wishes, he adds a dusting of Tajín, a locally made seasoning comprised of chili, salt and dehydrated lime.

Most vendors serve tejuino with a dollop of lime-infused raspado (shaved ice), but Leon argues against this practice because the raspado tends to dissolve too quickly, thus watering down the drink and diluting its flavor.

Despite his traditionalist methods, Leon is not adverse to innovation. He also sells tejuipache, a half-and-half mixture that fuses both drinks' distinct flavors without being as heavy on the stomach as a regular tejuino.

Many of the construction workers who buy Leon's tejuino actually appreciate its stodginess because it helps stave off hunger for a couple of hours. The salt also helps to rehydrate the body and replenish fluids lost while working under the scorching sun, he says.

As if these beverages were not sufficiently impressive, Leon notes that, as a result of the natural fermentation process, both tejuino and tepache also aid the intestinal flora and serve as a good source of probiotics.

Every day from 11 AM to 7 PM, Leon can be found opposite the Punto San Isidro shopping center on Avenida Rio Blanco, in the northern outskirts of the Guadalajara metropolitan area. Perched beside his car on a tiny plastic stool, he shelters from the sun beneath the rudimentary tarpaulin roof that he has erected over the vehicle.

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Having lost full use of his left leg in a car accident 28 years ago, Leon has stuck to making a living doing what he knows best. He sells tepache and tejuino at 15 pesos ($1) for a half-liter or 25 pesos ($1.60) for a liter.

"Some days I make 200 or 300 pesos ($13 to $20), other days I don't even make 100 pesos ($6.50)," he says.

It is not a particularly stable profession, he admits, but someone has to serve as the custodian of these strange but enchanting brews.

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