Tepache Is Your Summer Fermentation Project

Tepache in pitcher, and glasses garnished with lime
Photo by Katrín Björk

Tepache on ice is like running through a backyard sprinkler. Tart, lightly frizzante and low in alcohol, it has a way of cutting through hot, humid summer afternoons. The drink hails from Mexico, and it’s among a storied line of fermented Mexican beverages. The Aztecs produced corn-based tepiātl, and along with Maya and Huastecs, they drank pulque, a drink of fermented agave.

Tepache is made by fermenting pineapple skins with piloncillo (a type of unrefined sugar), spices and water. Natural yeasts living on the pineapple activate fermentation, gobble up the sugar and yield a beverage with 2–3% alcohol-by-volume (abv).

“These drinks have been part of our culture for a long, long time, before Spanish colonization,” says Ignacio “Nacho” Jimenez, lead bartender and “global guru” of Ghost Donkey, a Tequila and mezcal bar in New York City. “Most of them almost disappeared when soda was introduced to Mexico.”

Tepache, though, held strong.

Growing up in Morelos, Mexico, Diego Livera recalls how each time he went to the market with an adult, they bought a to-go bag of tepache, secured tightly around a plastic straw. His grandmother often had a batch brewing in her kitchen. “She was obsessed with tepache,” he says. “Every time we bought a pineapple, she used the skins to make it.”

Diego Livera behind the bar at Dead Rabbit
Diego Livera at Dead Rabbit / Photo by Greg Buda

Livera now works behind the bar at Manhattan’s acclaimed Dead Rabbit, and he helped introduce New Yorkers to tepache five years ago. As a junior bartender at NYC’s now-shuttered Betony, Livera saw heaps of pineapple rinds going into the trash. He suggested turning them into tepache for a guest bartending event, and soon after, Michelin-starred Betony began serving tepache.

Around the same time, Alex Valencia and Luis Arce Mota opened La Contenta on New York’s Lower East Side. “When I got the opportunity to open my own restaurant, I had the freedom to do what I wanted,” says Valencia. That meant incorporating raicilla and pulque into cocktails and experimenting with tepache and other traditional fermented beverages.

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He talked to elders all over Mexico for techniques and ideas. “People do this for the culture. There’s not much to Google,” says Valencia.

Valencia has dedicated the last few years to refining his tepache, but, at its heart, it’s a grandma’s drink—homemade without exact formulas or special equipment.

Alex Valencia behind the bar at La Contenta
Alex Valencia at La Contenta / Photo courtesy La Contenta

There are a few ways you can screw up tepache. If your hands or cutting boards aren’t clean, you can introduce foul-tasting bacteria and pathogens to the brew, and if you ferment the tepache for too long, it will turn into vinegar—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Chef Ricardo Valdes is currently sitting on a few quarts of tepache vinegar that he plans to use to dress tacos at his Seattle restaurant, Raíz. In a purposeful experiment, he made an extra sweet batch of tepache, let it ferment uncovered two to three weeks and then rested it six weeks more.

“If you fucked up and it doesn’t taste good, just put more sugar in,” he says. “It will get acidic and bubbly and fermenty. It’s not going to kill you.”

“At the end of the day, these concoctions are old, old recipes,” adds Valdes. “People weren’t measuring or keeping them in controlled places.”

Assuming your tepache is a success, though, you can build a simple aperitif with a squeeze of lime and a few dashes of Angostura bitters. Livera suggests making tepache highballs with mezcal and a splash of beer or soda. Ghost Donkey once served a tepache spritz with blanco vermouth and Tequila, and Valencia says there’s no better partner than aged rum.

Or you can sip tepache in its simplest form, over lots of ice (Valencia suggests a pinch of sea salt to sharpen the flavors). Just sit back and feel the heat dissipate and the faintest of buzzes set in as you commune with pre-Columbian Mexican drink culture.

Tepache ingredients: Pineapple, piloncillo, lime, cinnamon and ginger
Tepache ingredients: Pineapple, piloncillo, lime, cinnamon and ginger

How to make tepache

Tepache has no firm rules. Filtered water is preferable but not necessary. Piloncillo is traditional, but brown sugar or turbinado will do in a pinch. The most commonly used spices are cinnamon and cloves. Valencia adds 10 black peppercorns to each batch. Livera sometimes includes lime hulls or lemongrass. You can also add ginger, fresh or dried chiles, herbs or other dried spices.

To boost pineapple flavor, Valencia ferments whole pineapples for La Contenta’s tepache. “If you want to impress somebody, use the whole fruit,” he says. But at home you can stretch the same pineapple over two to three batches, though fruit flavor will diminish with each use.

Below is the tepache recipe Livera uses at home, to serve on hot summer days.

Ingredients

  • Skins and core of 1 pineapple, cut into hunks
  • 1 pound piloncillo
  • 2 ounces cinnamon sticks

Directions

Tepache ingredients (pineapple, piloncillo and cinnamon) in jar with water being poured on top
Photo by Katrín Björk

Into a large sterilized jar or fermentation crock, add pineapple skins and core, piloncillo, cinnamon and 1½ quarts of water.

Tepache base in jar, covered with cheesecloth
Photo by Katrín Björk

Cover with several layers of cheesecloth; secure cheesecloth with rubber bands or twine. Store at 70–80°F, preferably in a dark space.

Tepache showing bubbles, a sign of fermentation taking place
Photo by Katrín Björk

Taste the tepache each day and strain once it has achieved a light lactic fermentation. Fermentation should activate into two to three days, and the tepache is usually optimal by day five. By then, small bubbles should cover the surface of the ferment.

Tepache being strained of solid ingredients
Photo by Katrín Björk

Store tepache in the refrigerator in a covered glass jar for up to a week. You may need to burp the jar, occasionally, to release gas. Serve over ice.

Tepache served over ice, on a tray
Photo by Katrín Björk
Published on August 4, 2020
Topics: Cocktail Recipes