Long before “zero waste” became a popular slogan for sustainable consumption, resourceful Mexicans were saving their fruit peels and fermenting them into delicious drinks.
Of all the refreshing beverages to make their way from Mexico into the U.S., none reflect Mexico’s creative spirit and favorite flavors as well as tepache. Indigenous people in Mexico have been brewing tepache—a homestyle, low-alcohol drink that’s often fermented in clay pots or big wood barrels—since before the Spanish colonized the country. It was traditionally made with corn, but as with many other Mexican dishes, it is now represented by a number of regional styles, each taking on different ingredients and tastes.
In Jalisco and on Nayarit’s coast, for example, the flavor in tepache shines with warm spices: cinnamon, clove, and peppercorn. It is often offered next to tejuíno, a refreshing fermented masa-based drink that’s topped with lime sorbet. In some central states like Puebla and Hidalgo, tepache is made with pulque, a local boozy elixir made from the fermented sugary sap of the maguey plant; it is then sweetened with honey and flavored with anise. In the state of Michoacán, tepache is made with pineapple rinds and tamarind, banana peels, corn husks, and crushed corn. The naturally occurring yeasts in all of these ingredients make the flavor of tepache even more complex. In some states, tepache is made with local fruits like apple and quince. In others, tepache is a savory drink mixed with sliced onion, serrano chiles, and sal de gusano, or worm salt.
Tepache’s regional variations not only differ in flavor, but also in the way in which it is consumed. You’re as likely to see street vendors selling it as a thirst-quencher in plastic bags, tied tightly around a straw, as you are to encounter it at weddings in some regions in Oaxaca.
In the U.S., tepache is typically made with pineapple rinds (and sometimes pineapple pulp) and piloncillo, an unrefined brown sugar. It ferments in water for anywhere from one to three days, with longer brewing times leading to a drier, tangier, and boozier tepache. The subtle sweetness and high acidity makes it a perfect mixer for cocktails, and it’s absolutely sessionable too. Most home-brewed tepache usually hovers at around 2% ABV—call it the original low-alcohol option!—but it all depends on how long it brews.
If you try your luck with homemade tepache, you’ll be rewarded with plenty of ways to drink it—but because it’s so crushable, in my house it usually doesn’t make it farther than a glass with some ice cubes.
Enrique Olvera, the Mexican chef behind Mexico City’s acclaimed restaurant Pujol, offers an easy introduction to brewing your own tepache in his 2019 cookbook, Tu Casa Mi Casa. You’ll start by gently rinsing the pineapple to remove any dirt, being careful not to wash too aggressively lest you remove the naturally occurring yeast on the skin. Next, peel the pineapple, with some flesh still attached to the peels, and reserve the rest of the flesh for another use. You then toast a handful of warm spices—star anise, cloves, cinnamon—to release their fragrance before adding them to a small pot with a cup of water, and then boiling them with the piloncillo until the sugar has completely dissolved.
After the piloncillo syrup has cooled to room temperature (as with bread dough, hot liquid can kill the yeast that is necessary to ferment the tepache), you’ll add the pineapple peels to a large glass jar or crock along with the cooled syrup and more room-temperature water. Cover the jar with cheesecloth to allow some airflow and keep out pests and let it ferment for a few days. Once fermentation gets going, some foam may rise to the surface; it’s harmless but it should be discarded before you decide to strain and serve the tepache. Depending on the ambient temperature, you can let it brew anywhere from one to three days, tasting along the way to your liking. That’s it!
Oh, and here’s a tepache pro tip: If you let it ferment a little too long and the flavor is sharper than you’d like, add a pinch of baking soda. This is a well-known secret in Mexico, as the baking soda tames the acidity and enhances the flavor of the tepache with the help of piloncillo.
To serve tepache, you could simply pour it over ice—or you could treat tepache as you would a shrub. Add it to your sparkling water, mix it with a light beer, or whisk it into a vinaigrette. And if you end up with a tepache that went too sour, all is not lost: Turn it into pineapple vinegar by continuing to ferment it for two to three weeks instead. In its vinegar form, it adds a punch of flavor to dishes, such as long braises. (Try it in tatemado de colima in place of coconut vinegar.) Who would’ve thought that a handful of fruit peels could be so versatile?Enrique Olvera
Originally Appeared on Epicurious