Why It Works
- Yeast and bacteria naturally found on the pineapple skins and our environments are more than enough to lightly ferment the fruit sugars and piloncillo.
- Covering the vessel with cheesecloth or a thin cotton towel allows gasses to escape while keeping dust, debris, and bugs out.
My love of tepache almost ended before it started when I nearly threw its key ingredient into the garbage. It was 2016 and I was at my friend Rebecca’s vegan Mexican restaurant, La Botanica in San Antonio, Texas, prepping for a collaborative pop-up dinner. As I went to put the pineapple peels and scraps in the compost bin, she stopped me. “Please save them,” she said. “I use them to make tepache.” She opened her fridge to reveal a large clear vessel containing an amber-colored liquid bobbing with pineapple scraps. Taking a plastic quart container, she gave me a generous pour and told me to try.
Tepache reminded me of a less harsh version of tuba, a coconut vinegar made from coconut sap that we made in Iloilo, a city in the Philippines where I grew up. It smelled sweet yet funky, like a mild vinegar. I took a sip, noting the flavors swirling in my mouth. It tasted a bit like sour beer or cider, with some caramel tones and an earthy, musky, and tart pineapple flavor. It had funk and a bit of fizz.
Historically made with corn, tepache is a fermented indigenous Mexican drink. Its name comes from the Nahuatl words tepachoa, meaning “pressed or ground with a stone,” and tepiātl, which means “drink of corn.” Tepache, as the name describes, was essentially a crushed corn drink. Pineapples are not endemic to Central Mexico; they originated from the Parana-Paraguay rivers between Brazil and Paraguay. With the introduction of pineapple cultivation through trade routes between the tribes in Central and South America, small chunks of pineapple were likely added to the original tepache recipe to sweeten it. Over time, pineapple replaced the mashed corn as the base.
Making tepache is pretty straightforward. You combine pineapple skins and cores with piloncillo (raw cane sugar formed into a cone), cinnamon sticks, and water in a large nonreactive vessel. Using ripe or on-the-verge-of-overripe pineapples yields a better brew with a stronger pineapple flavor and more sugar for the yeast and bacteria to consume. Although it isn’t traditional, I mix in slices of fresh ginger and whole cloves because their spicy, citrusy notes pair well with the pineapple and cinnamon. Covering the opening with cheesecloth or a clean kitchen towel keeps away pests while you wait for the bubbles to start.
In the case of tepache, the fermentation occurs spontaneously, all thanks to the presence of wild bacteria and yeast that naturally live on the fruit’s skin. The yeast and bacteria create different byproducts during fermentation, which helps give tepache its complexity. The yeast eat the sugars in the brew and produce carbon dioxide and alcohol as byproducts, helping to create its signature fizz while making the tepache lightly alcoholic, about 0.5-2% ABV (exactly how alcoholic depends on how long you let the fermentation run: the longer it goes, the more sugars the yeast can convert to alcohol). The bacteria, meanwhile, also eat the sugars, but in their case they produce carbon dioxide and lactic acid as byproducts, giving tepache a sour tang as well as additional fizz.
Tepache is a quick ferment, taking about 3 days if your ambient room temperature is hovering around 77° to 86°F. (Be advised that the fermentation time will increase if the temperature is cooler, and likely take between 5 to 10 days.) The brew is ready when a thin layer of frothy white bubbles forms on top and you can hear a faint fizzing sound. It should have a light vinegar aroma and taste sweet, earthy, and pleasantly acidic with notes of caramel. At this point, it’s ready to drink; simply strain out the solids and serve. If you’re seeking a funkier flavor, continue to ferment your tepache a day or two longer.
To go a step further, I provide the option of carbonating the tepache to make a kind of fermented pineapple soda. That process involves transferring the fermented tepache into flip-top glass bottles and storing them until you see small bubbles rising fairly rapidly to the top. Once there’s enough fizz, move your tepache to the refrigerator to put the microorganisms into near-dormancy and stop the fermentation from continuing. (It will technically continue to ferment, but at a much slower rate).
During the fermentation process, you may see a white to cream-colored film with fuzzy bubbles of trapped carbon dioxide form on the surface of the liquid and on the edges of the fruit. This is kahm yeast, an aerobic yeast that can grow on the surface of a ferment that is exposed to oxygen. While it is harmless, a thick enough layer can add an off-flavor to your tepache. If the growth is minor, you can stir it in and keep fermenting, but carefully spoon it off if it’s thick. If the sight of it is causing you any unease, you can discard the brew and start over―the choice is up to you. (Note that while kahm yeast is undesirable but harmless, fuzzy blue, gray, or black mold is undesirable and potentially harmful; if your tepache is taken over by more mold than you can easily and fully remove, you should discard the batch.)
You can enjoy the tepache on its own with a squeeze of lime or over ice with a splash of tequila or mezcal. Rebecca and I did just that. She poured herself a glass, grabbed a bottle of mezcal from the bar’s top shelf, spiked our glasses with a healthy splash and said, “You read my mind, I knew we were primas!” After that, prep for the pop-up was a ton more joyful.