Drink This: Tepache
You should probably order that thing you keep seeing on menus everywhere.
July 1, 2018 ● 4 min read
By Priya Krishna | iStock/ChefsFeed
It starts with pineapple peels—prickly remnants of summer fruit, with just a hint of flesh clinging to their walls, usually destined for a trash can or compost pile.
Instead, the peels—which along with the fruit’s leaves naturally contain yeast—are added to a clay pot, along with Mexican cinnamon (more sweet than spicy like most varieties), warm spices like clove and allspice, water, and piloncillo, a type of unrefined cane sugar. This concoction marinates anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, and, as if by some mystical alchemy (also known as fermentation), it morphs into an incredibly refreshing brew called tepache.
The funky-sweet beverage with a tart edge is drunk far and wide in Mexico, and lately, at many restaurants and bars in the U.S.
Tepache supposedly dates back to pre-Columbian Mexico — when it was made by fermenting corn and was considered sacred — and has long existed within Latino households in the U.S. It's consumed by kids who buy it from neighborhood street vendors (like kombucha, it can have no or a low percentage of alcohol, but at bars it’s fermented longer to achieve a higher percentage), and by adults at watering holes.
Tepache seems to have first hit the U.S. bar scene around 2012, largely in cities with big Hispanic populations—places like Hugo’s in Houston, and at La Guadalupana in L.A. Tepache began to quietly spread like wildfire into the mainstream. By 2014, Bon Appétit was telling readers where to find the best tepache cocktails.
Daniel Zapata, the co-owner of Santos y Pecadores, a hidden mezcaleria inside Dallas's Bowen House, has memories of tepache from his childhood in central Mexico. A tough day at school demanded tepache from the vendor stationed right outside the school, a refreshing treat from the scorching sun of midday. Would mass commercialization take away from the appeal of tepache in the first place? It’s an artisan process, he says, one that requires patience, a keen sense of intuition, and a devotion to understanding its unique flavor. “That’s the challenge when these authentic parts of Mexican culture become popular,” he says. “People are constantly trying to recreate it, just because it’s a trend. But to me, it’s my childhood. It’s nostalgic.”
But nostalgia aside, tepache also checks boxes that make it industry-viable today: it’s fermented, it’s refreshing, and it’s even somewhat virtuous, health-wise. As an added bonus, it also eliminates food waste. Bars can be centers of waste, from single-use accessories like plastic straws to the sheer energy required to make all that ice. Many beverage directors see tepache as an opportunity to do their part for the environment while also creating something uniquely delicious.
Marshall Altier, bar director and partner at the recently opened Chicha Cafetín and Cocktails in Brooklyn wants to make the Nicaraguan restaurant completely zero waste. “There is this DIY ethos that has developed in the bartending world that goes along with a push to use everything and not be wasteful,” he says, while Iain Griffiths, co-founder of Trash Tiki, a London-based anti-waste traveling pop-up bar, thinks it’s part of the notion of bartenders wanting to take better control over what they serve in the bar. “It is one thing to serve a cocktail,” Griffiths says. “It is another experience altogether to be able to say, ‘I made every single ingredient in this cocktail.’”
As with any new ingredient in the spotlight, innovation abounds. Even Zapata makes his with fresh pineapple that’s roasted and simmered with molasses, water, and apple cider vinegar. That gets mixed with mezcal, lime juice, and poblano chili liqueur for a cocktail. It’s delicious — if a far cry from the version he remembers from Mexico. Most bars now make their own tepache, which is part of the appeal. Depending on the ratios of spices, the type of sweetener used, and the length of time you let the drink ferment, the various elements of tepache — carbonation, sweetness, warmth, smokiness — each batch can turn out completely different.
Griffiths and his Trash Tiki partner Kelsey Ramage make a very non-traditional, suped-up version with champagne yeast (“to help control the nose and aroma”) instead of the natural yeasts from the pineapple, which are harder to get with fruit grown in the States. They use cinnamon from Canada and a combination of demerara and powdered sugar in place of the piloncillo. The result is "boozy, complex, and really interesting,” says Griffiths. “The bouquet of aromas is wild.” He then turns that tepache into a variation on the classic tiki drink, the Jungle Bird — with rum, Campari, lime, and tepache instead of the usual pineapple, for a bit more character.
Both Atla and Cosme in New York City offer tepache made the traditional way, to honor its Mexican heritage. Customers can enjoy it straight up, or as part of a bartender’s choice cocktail. “I love that it’s an unpredictable experiment,” says beverage director Yana Volfson. “Never will each batch come out the same.”
The beauty of tepache, according to Daniel Miller, beverage manager for the vegetable-centric Vedge restaurant group in Philadelphia, is its versatility. “It really helps balance things out,” he says. “It adds a bit of sugar, and enough flavor that you don’t necessarily need to add anything else. It does an amazing job just providing that refreshing, tropical element.”
And, he adds, it pairs particularly well with many types of food. “It adds that extra layer of complexity and savory notes,” he says, “and then you can compare that savory, funky, saltiness with a lot of the flavors in your food. A lot of our food has something that needs the flavors of a fermented product to enhance or cut through it.”
Miller sees tepache as a harbinger of what’s to come in the drink world—he believes it could eventually replace soda. “I think it provides a lot of the same refreshing flavors and even some of the sweeter notes people crave in soda,” he says, “but without all the fake things going on.”
He’s not the only one with that level of commitment to the drink. Griffiths also envisions tepache as the next big bottled beverage. “It’s gluten-free, it’s better for the environment, it's low alcohol. It is every single trend going around right now.”