Celebrating the Revival of North America’s Most Historic and Delicious Fermented Beverages

By Gary Paul Nabhan, Featured Fermenter, 2018 Fermentation Fest

Few Americans would have guessed that Americans in the second millennium would be once again making and drinking the very same fermented beverages that had slaked the thirst of both indigenous and immigrant dwellers on this continent for centuries.

And yet, with the revival of many fermented foods and beverages inspired by the likes of Patricia Colunga, Sandor Katz, William Litzinger, Patrick McGovern, Bryan Eichhorst, Jim Veteto, Mark Williams and Daniel Zizumbo, thousands of Americans are experimenting with their own fermented concoctions, and most are having great success.

Several of these historic beverages are on their way back into the bars, cantinas, fiestas, pulquerias and seasonal rituals of young Mexican and U.S. aficionados. They include:
– balché meads from the honey of both honeybees and tropical stingless bees;
– colonche, a hard cider from prickly pear fruit and the kefir grains found within their skins;
– mezquitatolli, a mesquite–based sour atole made from ground or cracked pods, fermented underground for weeks until it was a clear, potent wine;
– nawa or nawait wine from organpipe, saguaro and cardón cactus fruit with naturally-occurring strains of brewers yeast and bacteria;
– pulque from the fermented upwelling sap or agua miel of giant maguey agaves with naturally-occurring and cultivated yeasts;
– tepache, a satisfying cold summer drink from fermented agave, pineapple and other succulent plants, and yeasts in their skins and rinds; and
– tesguino, tizwín or tulabai from maize, agave, with special strains of brewer’s yeasts, moderated by the actions of perennial bean and sasparilla roots or other catalysts.

Most of these—with balché and pulque being the rare exceptions—were widely fermented and drunken on both sides of the U.S./Mexico border up until Prohibition.

And then, between 1920 and 1935, many of these beverages had lost their vogue, suppressed by those who favored prohibition, temperance and abstinence for alcoholic beverages in both the U.S. and Mexico. This is ironic, since few of these beverages were available in large enough quantities to inebriate anyone for more than a few weeks per year. Some were used only in a ceremonial context by tribes who felt a sacred obligation “to share their first fruits” or “to bring down the rains.”

Their home fermentation and use also declined when refrigerators and electric coolers were introduced to rural areas where cold beer had not been easy to keep before then.

Fortunately, their clandestine production persisted among rural practitioners of several indigenous and immigrant cultures. Some of these elders have passed their “saberes de sabores” –their traditional knowledge of unique flavors and fermentation process—on to younger people interested in reviving these arts.

The good news is that they are back, and as William Litzinger—pioneering ethnobiologist of fermented native beverages—recently reminded me, “You have to understand that each of these categories of beverages was not just one thing, but many, with each family fermenting them keeping a slightly different strain of microbes, a different corn or agave, cactus or other fruit variety. Each combination had its own taste, fragrance or texture to delight us … so many that science hasn’t even caught up to know how to describe them!”