Who says Cincinnati has no diversity? I never have. But you may never experience it if you don’t venture out of your neighborhood. Two weekends ago I learned how to make real fermented German Kraut from a Belarusian immigrant, Gary Leybman, at his wonderful restaurant The Pickled Pig in East Walnut Hills. I just tasted it two weeks in and its the best kraut I’ve ever had! Gary recommended going online to check out instructional videos of other fermented products. I’m now a total ferment geek and will never be without fresh kraut.
So one of my classmates did his homework and found a fermented pineapple soda called Tepache that’s very popular in Mexico and has an immense history. A text of a bourbon-tepache cocktail recipe from my kraut classmate sent me on a treasure hunt. I had been exploring Price Hill and Fairmont for another project recently, and I noticed a number of Mexican and Guatemalan bodegas, markets and taquerias in abundance there. So, instead of going to Jungle Jim’s I thought I’d explore them to find Tepache and test my terrible Spanish.
On the way down Lick Run at Quebec, I noticed a Guatemalan market with no name, only an address, in an 1890s Italianate building. All the product signs in the windows were in Spanish, so I knew I had a chance of finding my soda. As I parked in the lot, I passed three workers chowing on what looked and smelled like awesome tacos from a Taqueria truck parked outside, talking in Spanish. I walked in the non-airconditioned market, passing a shelf full of intriguing spicy puffed cheeto-like snacks, all labelled in Spanish. But that’s an exploration for another time.
I greeted the checkout girl with a friendly “Ola” that she echoed. Then, I shyly hobbled together a sentence – “Yo quiero una cola de Mexico llamada Tepache.” She sort of smirked and took me to the cola aisle, which had popular sodas from Mexico, Guatamela, and other Latin American countries. It was a smorgasbord of wild flavors we don’t have in the U.S. and most I couldn’t pronounce. Sure enough, there on the second shelf was my fermented pineapple Tepache. So I left, armed with my find, eager to taste test the Kentucky-Mexican fusion cocktail with my friend. The Bon Appetit recipe refers to it as a Bourbon-Tepache cocktail, which means I get to name it. I dub it the Lick Run Chapito.
Tepache is very popular soda in Mexico, and although its available commercially, many Mexicans make it at home. It’s fairly easy. Taking one pineapple, one cuts off the top and bottom, leaving on the skin and cutting into small chunks. It’s recommended not to wash the skin as good bacteria and yeast on the outside help with fermentation. Put this in a fermenting jar with water to cover all the chunks, throw in a few cloves, a cup of Mexican piloncillo sugar, and shake it up to dissolve the sugar. Other spice variants replace cloves with ginger root and cinnamon sticks. Piloncillo is pure, unrefined cane sugar commonly used in Mexican cooking. It’s sold in cones and has a deep molasses flavor, even though it doesn’t have molasses in it. Brown sugar is a substitute, but it is made from refined white sugar with molasses added. Let the concoction ferment for three days and enjoy chilled by itself or with your favorite bourbon and a few dashes of angusturo bitters. If you let it ferment much longer than four days it will become pineapple vinegar, not what we’re looking for.
Tepache dates from pre-Columbian Mexico, as a popular drink among the Nahua people of Central Mexico. The Aztec word tepiatl, means drink made of corn, as the Tepache was originally made of fermented maize. There are a variety of commercial brands of Tepache in Mexico. The brand that I found in Lick Run is made by Frumex Corporation, branded Tepachito, and contains 10% pineapple juice fermented with the skins, but not made with barley, as some of the other brands use. Mexicans drink it in the summer chilled by itself, or mixing it 2/3 Tepache with 1/3 lager beer or Hefeweizen. It also pairs nicely with spiced rum, tequila, or mezcal.
I look forward to enjoying the Lick Run Chapito on the back porch this summer and exploring the abundance of Latin groceries on the West Side.