There’s a strain of evangelism that infects people when they get hooked on a new streaming show, or they learn about a certain indie band, or they buy an air fryer. You know how it goes: “Did you hear me? You have to try this!”
That’s how people get when they discover tepache.
“Why isn’t everyone making this?! It’s pretty foolproof,” says Jazzton Rodriguez, an Oklahoma-based bartender and cofounder of Very Good Drinks, a cocktail test kitchen and bar consultancy company.
So, what is tepache? It’s a fermented beverage of Mexican origin made by combining pineapple rinds with piloncillo sugar, water, and spices, and letting the yeast and bacteria on the pineapple’s skin naturally ferment the liquid into a tangy, earthy, lightly sweet, and refreshing alcoholic drink—one that’s often mixed with beer or distilled spirits.
Tepache enthusiasts stress three reasons why it’s the ultimate DIY fermentation:
- It’s relatively simple compared to, say, brewing beer or baking sourdough bread.
- It’s ready quickly, with fermentation time ranging from three to 10 days.
- Finally, the largely noncommercial history of tepache means it’s traditionally been a homemade product, with endless variations and flavors.
“You’re not going to find tepache gatekeepers,” says Jesse Valenciana, a cookbook author and food writer who lives in Nashville. “Make it, do it! This is not some sacred recipe. Make it your own.”
Tepache has a long history rooted in Mexican homes and markets. According to Julia Skinner, author of Our Fermented Lives: A History of How Fermented Foods Have Shaped Cultures & Communities, there’s evidence that tepache existed in pre-Columbian Mexico, though it has so far proven impossible to pinpoint when, exactly, it was first brewed. Skinner says fermented fruit drinks such as tepache exist in various forms around the world; many feature wild fermentation, in which naturally occurring yeast and bacteria on the fruit’s skin crowd out potentially pathogenic microbes.
“Tepache is still incredibly relevant, both as a traditional drink that reflects Mexico’s long, rich culinary history and as a food that is affordable and easy to make,” Skinner says. “It’s a way to cut down on food waste by creating a useful product out of the skins and cores of pineapples. It doesn’t require special starters or equipment, and it relies on ingredients already available nearby.”
For Aaron Duran, a homebrewer and comic-book author living in Portland, Oregon, homebrewing tepache has been a way to explore his Mexican-American heritage while playing with additional flavors, such as tamarind and chile. He says he feels free to experiment with ingredients and spice additions because there is no canonical recipe for tepache among Mexicans; families have their own preferences and spins. There are some bottled versions of tepache available at Mexican grocery stores. However, Duran says, when people in Mexico buy tepache, it’s more likely to come from a street vendor serving it in plastic bags or cups from the back of a bicycle cart.
“It’s not like trying to crank out a regionally specific German pilsner, where the amount of gypsum in your water or the pH is going to screw it up,” Duran says. “Tepache is whatever you want. As with so many classic Mexican dishes, you’re never going to find a family that makes it the same way.”
Last year, Duran teamed up with Portland cidermaker Nat West of Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider for a tepache-cider collaboration called 400 Rabbits. West is—unsurprisingly—also a massively enthusiastic tepache devotee who, before the pandemic, hosted an annual event at Reverend Nat’s called Night of 1,000 Tepaches—complete with a Golden Pineapple trophy for the winning blend of beer and tepache.
In West’s view, there’s no beer that wouldn’t taste delicious when mixed with tepache. He says it plays off lighter styles such as lagers and hefeweizens as easily as it does off of Westvleteren 12, Three Floyds Dark Lord, and Samuel Adams Utopias. (Yes, West has blended tepache with all three of those.)
“Tepache is the only reason I keep this business alive sometimes,” West says—joking, probably. “I love it and have made many flavored variations. I can talk about tepache forever.”
After first encountering tepache a decade ago in a food magazine, West says, he made about 10 batches over the course of six months, tweaking ingredients and adjusting his method to be able to brew it at scale. Yet there’s a critical difference between his commercial version and homemade ones: Traditionally, tepache is consumed fresh, not packaged, because at home there’s no obvious way to stop its fermentation. Once you taste the batch and find it to your desired sweetness level, you’ll want to drink it within a day or two, lest the yeast continue to produce alcohol and dry out the sugars.
Rodriguez describes the fermentation as “low-intervention.” West agrees, describing a process just short of set-it-and-forget-it. For a DIY version, there’s no need to take gravity readings or use a hydrometer—just taste the liquid via straw every day until it’s at your desired sweetness level.
Most tepache enthusiasts would advise against worrying too much about the specific strains of yeast and bacteria living on your pineapple skin. Whatever they are, they’re likely to contribute to a unique and delicious beverage.
However, if you must dive deeper, a 2022 study published in the journal Microbiological Research provides some insight: Researchers from Tecnológico Nacional de México in Chiapas analyzed the biological components of tepache fermentation after 72 hours and found it to be dominated by—are you ready?—Lactobacillus, Leuconostoc, Acetobacter, and Lactococcus bacteria, along with Saccharomyces, Gibberella, Zygosaccharomyces, Candida, Meyerozyma, Talaromyces, Epicoccum, and Kabatiella fungi. Lactic and acetic acid are typically both produced, mainly dominated by lactic acid.
Rodriguez says he went down a rabbit hole of blogs and YouTube videos about tepache fermentation when he first began making it. (His advice: “The less English the video uses, the better the tepache recipe is going to be.”) Ultimately, that research proved less helpful than hands-on experience. Now that he’s made multiple batches, he can anticipate by tasting the liquid when it will come to the dryness level and flavors he wants.
“You really develop a relationship with tepache,” Rodriguez says. “You start to get a feel for what the yeast are doing and what’s happening in there. It’s like a motherly instinct. It’s really empowering to be able to make something that way.”
Make It Your Own
The resulting flavors vary—especially since most people add spices such as cinnamon or cloves, or even Valenciana’s favorite, Earl Grey tea—but they’re generally some combination of earthy, sweet, and tart, to varying degrees.
Making tepache is empowering because it requires a series of individual decisions that are in the hands of the maker: which spices to add, how sweet or dry to ferment the beverage, whether to blend it into a cocktail or serve it solo.
Most freeing of all, there are practically no wrong answers.
“It has to begin and end with fermenting pineapples,” West says. “But anything else goes.”