By Jane Bauer
“Sugary drinks are blamed for increasing the rates of chronic disease and obesity in America. Yet efforts to reduce their consumption through taxes or other measures have gone nowhere. The beverage industry has spent millions defeating them.” Robert Reich
The ritual of beverages: morning coffee, glass of wine with dinner, champagne for celebrations, hot chocolate for first snowfalls and a lime margarita once your toes hit the sand as you embark on a holiday. Most of us are quite committed to the ritual of our drinking habits, whether it is a ‘grande non-fat chai latte’ from Starbucks at the airport or your favorite brand of beer when watching your favorite sports team.
In this issue our writers explore beverages. Mexican classics such as coffee, chocolate, beer and pulque. I was driving through my village while contemplating what to write about for my editorial when I spotted a six-year old boy I know coming out of the tienda. Barefoot and with a little puppy nipping at his heels, he struggled to hold the 2-liter bottle of Coca-Cola he’d just purchased. Ugh how could I have overlooked the most important beverage crisis that Mexico faces.
After the implementation of Nafta on January 1, 1994, Mexico saw a dramatic rise in consumption of sugary beverages and processed foods.
“In addition to dramatically lowering cross-border tariffs, Nafta let billions of dollars in direct foreign investment into Mexico, fueled the growth of American fast food restaurants and convenience stores, and opened the floodgates to cheap corn, meat, high-fructose corn syrup and processed foods” (New York Times, Dec. 11, 2017).
The rise in diabetes and obesity in Mexico was a huge factor before the pandemic, but has never been more paramount than now, given that these conditions make people at much greater risk.
One of the ways that junk food has infiltrated small communities that have traditionally been very self-sufficent – growing corn, fishing, relying on the vegetation found around the village – has been to offer inexpensive non-perishable products and incentives such as free refrigerators and even low-interest loans for expansion.
A new development is stickers on processed foods warning people about high sugar and fat contents. Whether this will lead to a reduction in consumption of such foods has yet to be determined. The state of Oaxaca did implement a law making it illegal to sell junk food to minors. Enforcement is another beast entirely.
“In the rural Oaxacan town of Villa Hidalgo Yalálag, citizens have physically blocked chips and soda delivery trucks from entering since April, saying they don’t want outsiders to bring in the coronavirus or junk food” (NPR ,September 14, 2020).
I don’t know if that is the answer, but I do know we need to start asking the question.
By Randy Jackson
I once won a dessert contest with chocolate-covered cheesecake pierogies. This was a recipe of my own invention that combined influences from Poland (pierogies), Greece (cheesecake), and Mexico (chocolate). It’s the chocolate, I think, that put me over the top. That rich, dark brown, sweet substance, universally beloved, has been around for about four thousand years, but only in its current pierogi-coating form for about 150 years. For most of its history, chocolate was a beverage, served cold, and that is how it was first introduced to Europeans when it was carried back from Mexico at the time of the Spanish Conquest.
Bernal Díaz, who accompanied Cortés in the conquest of Mexico, wrote of a visit to Moctezuma:
From time to time they served him, in cups of pure gold, a certain drink made from cacao. It was said that it gave one power over women, but this I never saw. I did see them bring in more than fifty large pitchers of cacao with froth in it, and he drank some of it, the women serving with great reverence.
The reverence the Aztec held for their cacao (chocolate) drink wasn’t unique to their civilization. Like so much of the Aztec culture, it was something they absorbed from earlier, predecessor civilizations. It was the Maya who elevated the drink into their mythological structure. Some surviving Mayan hieroglyphics report of an annual gathering to give thanks to Ek Chuah, the god of cacao.
This history shouldn’t surprise anyone. Cacao is a natural source of caffeine, and if it were not for our science-sterilized view of the cosmos, we too would have a caffeine god. If Moctezuma were alive today, he’d have a Starbucks card. He’d likely order a latte. I say this because of the length Aztecs would go to create foam in the cacao drink they called xocoatl. An early drawing shows an Aztec woman pouring the cacao drink from above shoulder height into a receptacle. This causes the substance to foam. The foam holds the richest flavor when the bubbles burst in the mouth.
Of course, the xocoatl that Moctezuma and the Aztec elites were served wasn’t the same quality of cacao drink available to soldiers and regular folk. Xocoatl for the elites was made of pure cacao and flavored with highly valued ground and roasted plants and spices. Depending on the flavoring additives, the different xocoatl mixtures had different colors as well.
For the common Aztecs, xocoatl was more diluted and mixed with ground maize (corn). This is similar to a drink called chilate, found today in Oaxaca and elsewhere, including throughout Latin America (recipes vary). Even this lower quality xocoatl was still highly revered by the Aztecs, and was only served on special occasions such as births, feasts, weddings and funerals (which sometimes involved mixing human blood into the drink). Perhaps adding to the esteem in which Aztecs held xocoatl was the knowledge that they were drinking money. Cacao seeds (which required fermentation, roasting, and crushing to make chocolate) were widely used as currency.
It was the earlier Mayan civilization which first began using cacao seeds as currency. In many ways cacao seeds were an ideal currency – light, portable, with the underlying value that it made something of value – chocolate. The use of this currency was a significant contributor to the flourishing of Mayan civilization. Having a currency created a new social class – a merchant class. The use of cacao currency facilitated trade and allowed a wider distribution of wealth beyond the rulers and elites.
The Aztecs also used cacao seeds as currency. The conquering Spanish quickly adopted the cacao seed as currency as well. They used it to set market prices, and in 1555 established an exchange rate between cacao seeds and the Spanish currency, the real. The cacao bean continued to be used as currency as late as 1850, although by then only for small change.
At the same time the cacao bean served as currency, it was also a consumable commodity in both Mesoamerica and Europe. The Jesuits introduced the drink to the Spanish court where it became popular, despite its being an acquired taste. For a time, the drink was seasoned with chilies and spices as the Aztecs had prepared it. This recipe persisted in Spain for about 100 years, but in time, by adding sugar, dropping the spices, and serving it hot, chocolate became a highly popular drink throughout Europe, spreading from the elite classes to the masses.
Chocolate houses flourished throughout Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. These were largely places where the wealthier classes could socialize, to “let their hair down,” you could say, and participate in activities like gambling. Chocolate’s reputation as an aphrodisiac continued from the Aztecs, and that association only added to its popularity. As time went on, the reputation of chocolate houses declined, and they were perceived as places of debauchery.
The industrial revolution brought important changes to chocolate. A cacao press, invented in the Netherlands, separated out the cacao butter, leaving a dry powder, which is cocoa as we know it today. Then cacao butter, first considered a byproduct in this process, was mixed with the coco powder and the beloved chocolate bar was born.
On November 8, 2019, 500 years from the date Cortés met Moctezuma in Tenochtitlán, the descendants of Cortés and Moctezuma met at the exact spot in what is now Mexico City (stories and photos are easily found online; one shows Ascanio Pignatelli, a descendant of Cortés, taking a selfie with a descendant of Moctezuma). Despite reading every article I could find on this meeting, alas, I could not discover whether they shared a cup of chocolate. I hope they did as a fitting tribute to this beverage with such a long and fascinating history – the drink of the gods.
By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken
Ask almost anyone who was born, raised, and lives in Mexico about Cinco de Mayo (May 5th) and they are likely to tell you that it is a minor Mexican holiday celebrating the 1862 victory of the Mexican army over the French troops sent by Napoleon to the city of Puebla. Ask almost anyone who was born, raised, and lives in the U.S. the same question, and they are likely to reply that Cinco de Mayo is a major Mexican holiday celebrated with drinking and eating “Mexican food.”
Last year, at the height of the COVID pandemic, even in our little retirement community, the U.S. celebration of Cinco de Mayo could not be denied. Our residents appeared in their driveways or balconies, all masked and socially distant to hear a roving mariachi band. And since we are in the U.S., there was thunderous applause for the final number, “The Mexican Hat Dance.” But we all yearned for the pre-COVID days, when we could gather in the community social hall for guacamole and chips and a variety of Mexican cervezas (beers). The centerpiece on the serving table in the hall was the presentation of three huge glass containers sparkling with nonalcoholic beverages in the colors of the Mexican flag: red, white and green.
Red, the color of the flag’s vertical stripe the farthest from the flagpole, was represented by agua de jamaica (hibiscus tea). Jamaica is ubiquitous in Mexico and most often served iced, a sweet and tart, most refreshing drink on a hot day. The hibiscus flowers, which are used to brew the tea, can be purchased dried and in plastic bags in most grocery stores in Mexico and in Mexican grocery stores north of the border. But we prefer to help support the vendors who hawk the flowers in parks and beaches in areas in Mexico where the red hibiscus plants are abundant – plus their flowers are usually fresher and more flavorful.
Preparation of jamaica is very simple. Add two cups of the flowers to one quart of cold water in a pot, bring the water to a boil and then immediately reduce the heat to a simmer and after 7 minutes remove the pot from the stove. Allow the tea to steep until cool. Strain the tea through a fine mesh into a glass jar, discard the flowers, and refrigerate this concentrate until ready to use.
Before serving, fill a large glass pitcher with ice cubes and pour the concentrate over the cubes. Add sugar to taste and mix briskly until completely dissolved. Mexicans prefer their jamaica, as many other beverages, very sweet. To achieve this taste, add 1 cup or more of sugar. If you prefer the very tart taste or want to keep diabetes at bay, leave out the sugar completely, or begin with one tablespoon of sugar and add a little more if needed.
Green, the color of the flag’s vertical stripe nearest the flagpole, can be represented by any number of juices or flavored water (agua fresca) prepared with green vegetables. We prefer the cooling taste of pepino (cucumber) with a hint of mint. The easiest method of preparing this drink is to peel 4 cucumbers, slice them, and blend them with 4 cups of water and a few sprigs of mint. But for the deeper green color of the Mexican flag, do not peel the cukes; wash them, slice off and discard the ends, and blend the slices with 3 cups of water and a generous handful of mint leaves with the stems trimmed; then strain and discard the solids before refrigerating. If you don’t mind the grainy texture, do not strain. Cucumber skins are good for one’s health, but we prefer a less thick drink. Serve undiluted cold, or pour over ice in individual glasses with a sprig of mint. Once again, for a truly Mexican taste, add the strained juice of 5 fresh limes and lots of sugar. While the result will be delicious, skipping this step may help you live until next Cinco de Mayo.
The central vertical stripe on the Mexican flag, bearing Mexico’s coat of arms, can best be recreated with a rich, milk-colored beverage called horchata. When we first started traveling around Mexico, we were surprised by how many adults in restaurants seemed to be drinking glasses of milk. We were disabused of this fallacy after standing on line for almost an hour to be seated in the famous restaurant La Chata in Guadalajara. After seeing almost everyone in the restaurant being served large glasses of a white beverage, we asked our server what they were drinking. She smiled, pegging us immediately as foreigners, and brought us two glasses. We instantly became high on this non-alcoholic drink. It was, of course, a sugar high.
The primary ingredients in horchata are white rice, cinnamon sticks, vanilla extract, evaporated milk/regular milk and, of course, sugar. Since the preparation involves hours of soaking, blending and straining, we’ve never made our own. But we’ve purchased the drink in bottles in supermarkets and ordered it in other restaurants. The taste has most often been pleasant but never reached the supreme level of that in La Chata – until we sampled the horchata prepared by our own community chef in California, Paulo Carvalo, on Cinco de Mayo two years ago. An horchata to rival La Chata! We begged our chef for his recipe to include in this article; he graciously provided it.
Chef Paolo’s Traditional Horchata
1 cup rice
2 cinnamon sticks
8 cups water
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 cup milk
1 cup condensed milk
1 cup evaporated milk
sugar to taste
- Wash and drain the rice.
- Place the rice and cinnamon sticks in a bowl and add 4 cups of water. Cover and refrigerate at least 4 hours or preferably overnight.
- Blend the rice and cinnamon sticks until pureed.
- Using a fine strainer, pour the blended mixture into a pitcher.
- Stir in the milks, vanilla and another 4 cups of water.
- Taste and add sugar or water if needed.
- Chill and stir before serving over ice.
Happy Cinco de Mayo – and bottoms up wherever you are!
By Kary Vannice
What could be better than chocolate and wine? How about chocolate wine?
It is a little-known fact that chocolate wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the early Mesoamericans’ insatiable lust for fermented fruit, and a good buzz. The cocoa tree that grew wild throughout the tropics of what we now know as the Americas was originally sought after for the juicy flesh that surrounds the cocoa seed. Indigenous people found that they could harvest the small, football shaped pods that grew directly from the bark of the tree and create a slightly alcoholic drink to be used in religious ceremonies and celebrations.
In fact, “cocoa wine” was the real motivation to domesticate the cocoa tree. The eventual processing of beans into chocolate became a fortuitous byproduct, but initially was never even considered. Chocolate was only discovered because wasting the leftover beans was unthinkable in a society where all of nature’s sacred gifts were used to their fullest advantage. (See “Chocolate – Drink of the Gods,” elsewhere in this issue for what the ancients did with the seeds.)
Ironically, now that our modern society has developed their own insatiable lust for all things chocolate, the original buzz-inducing elixir is now considered a waste product in the chocolate-making process.
Several years ago at the Mercado Orgánico de Huatulco, I noticed a cocoa vendor displaying an odd assortment of bottles filled with a white, slightly transparent liquid, clearly producing the tiny bubbles that are a hallmark of active fermentation. Curious, I asked him what was in the bottles. He said it was the liquid that came off of the cocoa beans as they were fermenting in the sun, before being dried, roasted and processed into chocolate. Amazed and delighted, knowing the benefits of fermented foods for the health of the human gut, I told him I would buy all the bottles. For me, the novelty of getting to try this mysterious, effervescent juice (and its health benefits) far outweighed the fact that the drink itself might be less than delicious.
I immediately removed the mesh covering on one of the bottles and took a cautious sip, my curiosity getting the better of me. As it turned out, the taste was pleasant, if not sweet, and didn’t taste at all like chocolate. The vendor smiled with delight as he saw my reaction to this newly introduced probiotic. Noticing this, I asked him to tell me more about the fermentation process.
Seeing that I was clearly taken by this discovery, he didn’t pass up the opportunity to share his knowledge with me, from start to finish. He picked up one of the ripe cocoa pods at his fingertips and adeptly sliced it open with this pocketknife, exposing 40-60 tightly packed fleshy, seeds inside. They looked a bit like a fat, ghostly-white corn on the cob, if the kernels were about ten to twenty times as plump.
He proceeded to tell me that chocolate would not have its chocolaty flavor at all if it were not for the process of fermentation. After harvesting the pods and scooping out the seeds, they are packed into containers to ferment for about six to ten days. During this time, yeasts, bacteria, and enzymes break down and ferment the juicy white pulp that surrounds the cacao beans. As this happens, they release a juice referred to as the “sweatings” that is generally tossed out as a waste product.
However, this ingenious farmer, true to his indigenous roots, saw opportunity, not waste, in this bubbly, slightly boozy froth. Fascinated by the agro-history lesson and eager to support his sustainable practices, I told him I would take at least two bottles a week for as long as he could provide them. Sadly, the supply didn’t last long, but the lesson remains.
And now you, too, know that the origins of your favorite chocolate were not chocolate at all, but a fruity fermented wine that dates back to 1400 BC and remains a link between us and the ancient peoples of the Olmec, Aztec and Mayan cultures.
By Carole Reedy
Twenty years ago on our tranquil Oaxaca coast, wine imbibers had two choices: a liter box (the same container in which one finds milk) of red Don Simon for 17 pesos ($1.70 USD at the time) or an hourglass liter of red or white Padre Kino. To this day, I still keep one of those empty bottles to use for water or flowers.
Times have changed. Mexico has long been known for its beer and tequila, preferred beverages of locals and tourists alike. But now wines imported from Chile, Argentina, Spain, France, Australia, and the US are available in most places, even outside the big cities of Mexico, Monterrey, and Guadalajara.
More significant is our access to fine wines directly from the local vineyards that dot the Mexican states of Guanajuato, Querétaro, Baja California, and Coahuila. Fewer restrictions than some other countries, good climate, and the variety of grapes, styles, and blends make Mexico a grape-growing paradise. Most of Mexico’s grapes are of Spanish and French origin: Syrah, Cabernet, Malbec, and Chardonnay.
It’s important to note that wine production is not new to Mexico. Hernán Cortés and the Spaniards started growing and harvesting grapes in the 1500s. In fact, Cortés ordered the colonists to plant a minimum of 1000 grapevines per year. Mexican wines became so popular that in 1699, the Spanish Crown, threatened by the success and competition from France and Mexico, stopped production here. Only the Jesuits and other religious orders were allowed to continue making wine for sacramental purposes during this hiatus. The industry was finally revived and refined after the Mexican War of Independence (1810-21), and since has earned respectable status among the world’s finest wines.
In addition to our access to local wines, we can tour vineyards and enjoy a tasting, often accompanied by those tempting tapas. Here are a few of the best of the vineyards that are easy to locate for travelers and residents alike. Each has a variety of wine tours and tastings. It’s best to view your options on the individual websites; most require reservations.
The 1000-mile long peninsula of Baja California is known predominately for its southern region (Baja Sur) that houses the beach resorts of Cabo San Lucas and Todos Santos. But the region of the North, the larger area of the two, provides a variety of entertainment for visitors and residents alike. Not only are there the beaches of Ensenada, there is also the vibrant city of Tijuana that always seems to get a bad rap.
I have fond memories of Tijuana weekends filled with Sunday afternoon corridas de toros, Saturday night jai alai games, and fish tacos. Just to the south of Ensenada, you’ll find the home of the finest wines of Mexico.
The Valle de Guadalupe has been called the Napa Valley of Mexico due to its commercial success throughout the world. Ninety percent of Mexican wine and half the country’s wineries are from these areas west of the Sierra Mountains that divide the Baja Península. The Pacific Ocean provides the cool breeze for the warm peninsula and its grapes.
Monte Xanic vineyard derives its name from the indigenous word xanic, which means “flower that sprouts after the rain.” The vineyard is located 15 kilometers from the Pacific Coast and 400 meters above sea level, the ideal Mediterranean climate for growing grapes.
In the three decades that elapsed between 1987 and 2017, Monte Xanic managed to position itself as a prestigious brand, especially for easy-consumption young wines, the demand for which is growing.
The vineyard uses computerized irrigation, with sensors located among the roots of the vines to measure humidity levels and the need for water.
The vineyard uses computerized irrigation, with sensors located among the roots of the vines to measure humidity levels and the need for water.
The water used by Monte Xanic comes from several wells in the region. First, water from each well is tested for salinity and then conducted separately to an artificial lake, where further quality control occurs, again focused especially on salt concentrations, ensuring optimum quality water for the vineyards.
Harvesting both whites and reds, Monte Xanic wines range in price from 300 pesos per bottle and up. The reasonably priced Calixa Syrah complements Mexican food, such as tacos arrachera, cecina, and sopes.
L.A. Cetto vineyard, a nearby neighbor, was founded in 1928 by Angelo Cetto, who used the methods he learned in his native Trentino, Italy. Three generations of the family have continued the tradition.
There are several valleys where these vineyards are located: Valle de Guadalupe, Valle Redondo, San Vincente, San Antonio de la Minas, and Tecate. L.A. Cetto is a popular wine in Mexico, very reasonably priced and readily available in restaurants and retail stores alike (probably including your local grocery store!).
Both of these viñedos provide visitors with tours and tastings. If you have never experienced a tasting or tour and you’re a wine drinker, you will discover many interesting aspects and fact about wines. And the tours in Mexico provide that extra warmth that only Mexicans bring to a gathering.
Casa Madero, dating from 1597, boasts the oldest vineyard in Mexico and is home to one of the most-awarded wines in Mexico. They produce my personal favorite red, Casa Madero 3V (three grape varieties: Cabernet, Merlot, and Tempranillo). For white wine lovers, the Chardonnay is a crisp delight.
The city of Parras, Coahuila, is located in the northeast corner of Mexico, 150 km from both Saltillo and Torreón. It’s considered one of Mexico’s Pueblos Mágicos due to its gastronomy, artesanias (handcrafts), and cultural contributions to the country. It is also a part of the country that, while close to the US border, is not swarming with tourists and thus is a welcome respite for adventurers.
The area and winery have fascinating histories. It seems that even during prohibition they continued with wine production, probably in cooperation with the religious entities.
The vineyards, restaurant, and the accompanying Hacienda San Lorenzo are accessible by advance reservation only, and it appears the beautiful hacienda is available to groups only.
The charming colonial town of San Miguel de Allende has so much to offer tourists, not only within the cobblestone city, but also just minutes outside it.
Close by, on the road from San Miguel de Allende to Dolores Hidalgo (km 73), you’ll find the popular Tres Raíces (Three Roots) Vinatería. Friends of mine recently spent a day enjoying the hospitality of the owner and staff, returning with rave reviews of the tour, wines, and excellent tapas.
The viñedo also houses a charming boutique hotel and a restaurant in case you want the full getaway experience into the world of wines.
The areas surrounding the cities of Querétaro and Tequisquiapan are known as La Ruta de Queso y Vino as you will find several notable vineyards here. There are many organized tours out of each of these cities, Querétaro being the larger and more famous of the two, with Tequisquiapan the small charming pueblo, chock full of artesanias. Whichever place you decide to make your base, you will find it easy to explore both the wines and cheeses made in the area. There are different types of organized tours ranging from horseback, tranvía (trolley), walking, and the like, or you can rent a car to explore on your own.
Not only is this area the route of wine and cheese, historically the Bajío – the lowland plain of west central Mexico, is the cradle of the Mexican struggle for freedom that culminated in the War of Independence, making it a treasure trove of history that can be studied in the museums and tours of the cities of Querétaro, San Miguel de Allende, and Dolores Hidalgo.
Finca Sala Vivé by Freixnet México: Are you a sparkling wine fan? This is the place to experience a tour and tasting of that special “bubbly” that adds spark to all occasions. Finca Sala Vivé is the major producer of sparkling wines in Mexico, which it accomplishes through traditional methods. As with all the vineyards, you can buy the wines you taste by the bottle to take home to share with friends.
La Redonda is one of the most frequented vineyards, but don’t let that put you off. It is popular for a reason, and there are never crowds. You will experience the personal attention that characterizes all the tours and wineries in this region.
One plus of La Redonda is the value of their wines. Their prices fall into a very reasonable range for those of us who imbibe daily, and I find their wines to be readily available in many locations in the country, not just in this region.
These vineyards and wines offer a good idea of the state of wine in Mexico. Prices can vary dramatically, and people often are surprised that the Mexican wines can be even pricier than some French wines. Wine prices, like everything else these days, are only rising, in some part due to peso devaluation. I find that when I dine in a restaurant, my glass of wine is often more expensive than my friend’s margarita. But,“Así es la vida! Disfrútala!”
By Julie Etra
We’ve all heard of, and no doubt tried, tequila and mezcal, which are made from the piña (heart) of the agave cactus. There are many varieties of agave in Mexico (called “maguey” locally). Tequila can be made only from Agave tequilana weber, while mezcal is made from any variety – and often from several varieties of agave at once. Agave salmiana and Agave americana grow throughout the Valley of Oaxaca. Until recently, the salmiana was identified as the species from which another traditional fermented drink – pulque – was made; botanists now identify Agave atrovirens as the variety the pulqueros (pulque makers) call “maguey pulquero” – the pulqueros, of course, are not as fussy as the botanists, and make pulque, like mezcal, from any number of different varieties.
Pulque comes from the sap of the stem of the maguey pulquero, as opposed to the heart used to produce tequila and mezcal. The liquid is called aguamiel (honey water). When the agave matures, which takes from 8 to 15 years, depending on the variety, the central “leaves,” called meyolote, are removed to prevent the plant from blooming. The resultant circular shallow pad, where the sap concentrates, oozes the aguamiel, which is then extracted with a hollowed-out gourd called an acocote (from the Náhuatl word acocohitli) by a tlachiquero (person who extracts the liquid). Once or twice a day a scraping tool called an otomio is used to enhance the process as the plant continues to exude more aguamiel. The tlachiquero pours the aguamiel into a vat for fermentation, which begins as soon as the aguamiel is exposed to air. The plant will continue producing aguamiel – up to 1,000 liters, about 264 gallons – until it dries up and dies. In between harvests, the pad is covered with pencas (maguey leaves) and rocks to protect it from wildlife, insects, rain, bacteria, etc.
Sometimes a small tree branch known as a timbre was placed in the vat of aguamiel to speed up fermentation, especially during cold weather. Word has it that other materials get added, including meat wrapped in a sock (no thanks!). Hibiscus, lime (cal) from corn processing, seeds, and roots were sometimes added to thicken the liquid. Although some of the materials used in the process have changed over the centuries, such as plastic buckets in place of gourds to collect the aguamiel, the basic processes have not changed. To cut the pencas and scratch the pad, the pre-Hispanic pulqueros fashioned knives from volcanic obsidian mined in the vicinity of Puebla (crossing the altiplano in Puebla, you can see the volcanic “twins” Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl – the former is still erupting).
Before the Spanish conquest, aguamiel was consumed in the central valleys of the kingdom of the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica (later known as Azteca), by the Maya in the Yucatán, and in the region known as the Huasteca (present-day Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro and Guanajuato). In addition to its intoxicating characteristics, it was also used by some peoples as an enema. It was essential in certain pre-Hispanic rituals and central to several legends.
According to these myths, one of the creator Gods, Quetzalcoatl, sacrificed a young maiden, Mayahuel, who was reborn as the maguey deity to endow humans with the sustenance from her body. An extensive and complex symbolic system connects pulque with the moon, the underworld, rain, fertility, agriculture, and sacrifice. It is said that Mayahuel determined the method of extraction of the aguamiel, while Patecatl, the Aztec god of healing and fertility, the discoverer of peyote, and the “lord of the root of pulque,” figured out the fermentation process.
Who was allowed to drink this beverage of the gods in pre-Hispanic times? The royalty and high society, of course, but also elderly people, including women, and even soldiers, but perhaps only on particular occasions, as depicted in the Mural of the Drinkers (Mural de los Bebedores) one of the most notable works of art addressing the consumption of pulque. This great mural, approximately 60 meters long and covering the façade of a building in Cholula, Puebla, dates to approximately 200 AD. It is basically a depiction of a borcachera (binge, or drinking party). Besides the 164 guests and servants, participants include a pair of dogs and a monkey. Other extensive murals can be found in Teotihuacán, the pyramid city south of CDMX. Abundant pulque artifacts, including crocks and cups from which the beverage was imbibed, sculptures, nose rings, chest plates, and opossum-shaped urns – the opossum was supposed to have discovered pulque by scratching at the agave and drinking the sap – were found throughout pulque production sites.
And Then What Happened with Pulque?
The story of pulque after the Spanish conquest is totally different. The rituals and religious practices associated with consumption of pulque only remained in certain indigenous communities, while regular drinking of pulque became widespread among all social classes. Pulquerías (pulque cantinas) became common and flourished in the 19th century, particularly in Mexico City and surrounding areas. Paintings from the 18th century and historical photographs from the early 20th century show people drinking in the streets and in bars in Mexico City. There are advertisements for pulque from the haciendas of the Llanos de Apan in the state of Hidalgo, where pulque production was common. The mid-20th century saw a decline, as the popularity of other beverages such as beer increased, but it has recently seen a resurgence in interest and consumption. In fact, I found Pulque by Llanos de Apan, the only bottled pulque, for sale on Facebook, What’s App, and YouTube.
If you visit Mexico City on your way to Oaxaca or Huatulco, you’ll have no trouble giving it a try. There’s a 106-year-old pulquería in the Centro Histórico called Pulquería las Duelistas, the Pulquería los Insurgentes, Pulquería La Hija de los Apaches, and so on and on. They serve the brightly fizzy milk-white traditional pulque, but curados, “doctored” or flavored drinks, are more popular. At La Hija de los Apaches, you can get a curado made with melon, tomato, guayaba, blackberry, coconut, passion fruit, celery, oysters, or, of course, Viagra. Or so they say on the menu.
I, for one, have never tasted it, and have not yet seen it available on the coast. My hubby told me it was quite popular in Jalisco when he was there a few decades ago, and recalled a mucilaginous texture (think kombucha). His companions assured him it had medicinal properties and was/is a beneficial cure for cruda, or hangover.
Huatulco does have other locally fermented, readily available beverages such as tepache, which is made from pineapple juice. You can try tepache at Tepache Felix, at the southwest corner of highway 200 on the way to Copalita. Tepache Felix is owned by Felix Ramos, father of Cornelio Ramos, the well-known Huatulco bird guide. It is delicious and surprisingly strong.
For more technical information on pulque production check the publications of Eye writer Alvin Starkman:
In Mexico City, you can not only make the rounds of the pulquerías, you can visit a pulque ranch north of the city: https://www.viator.com/tours/Mexico-City/Pulque-Ranch-Day-Trip-in-Tepotzotlan/d628-40687P2.
For hispanoparlantes, the journal Arqueología Mexicana, ran a special edition (#78) on “Un Don Divino: El Pulque” (A Gift Divine: Pulque) in February 2018. It is an excellent read; you can get a copy for 98 pesos on their website: https://raices.com.mx/tienda/revistas-el-pulque-ES078.
By Deborah Van Hoewyk
Just waiting for a chance to sink your beach chair into the hot sand, peer out at the blue, blue ocean, and admire the green of the lime in the neck of your Corona Extra? And, at the holidays, don’t forget Modelo’s great bock beer Noche Buena, the label adorned by another Mexican native, the poinsettia.
Oh, oops, Mexican beer hasn’t been native for quite a while. The commercial beer brands we think of as Mexican are all produced by two major corporations – Grupo Modelo and Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma. They effectively divide up Mexico’s beer market, 60% Modelo, 40% Cuauhtémoc; Cuauhtémoc is closing the gap. Together, they control 90% of the domestic market. Mexico is the largest beer exporter, and the fifth-largest beer producer, in the world. After gobbling up any number of other Mexican breweries to achieve their status, however, the two in turn have been consumed by European-owned Anheuser-Busch and Heineken, respectively.
Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, Missouri? Teams of Clydesdales rescuing puppies in Super Bowl commercials? Not really, since 2008, Anheuser-Busch has been a division of AB InBev, or Anheuser-Busch InBev SA/NV, headquartered in Leuven, Belgium. It is the largest beer brewer in the world, with a “product portfolio” of over 500 brands. When Anheuser-Busch became part of AB InBev, it already owned 50% of Grupo Modelo, and bought the rest in 2012. In 2020, AB InBev sales were valued at $52.3 billion USD.
Headquartered in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, Heineken was founded in 1864. After acquiring smaller breweries around the world (it owns 164 in 70 countries), Heineken is the second-largest beer brewer in the world and the largest in Europe. It acquired Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, by then known as FEMSA (Fomento Económico Mexicano, SA), in 2010. In 2020, Heineken sales were valued at $26.8 billion USD.
The Beginning of Beer in Mexico
As noted elsewhere in this issue, fermented, i.e., alcoholic, beverages were around long before the Spanish took over. Tesgüino, or izquiate, was beer made from sprouted corn, in the eastern Sierra Madre; you can still find it in rural north and west Mexico. Some think it is the origin recipe for tepache, a lightly fermented pineapple beer (see “Pulque: Another Ancient Mexican Beverage” elsewhere in this issue for where to get tepache in Huatulco). Pozol, originally called pochotl in Nahuatl, was made from fermented corn mash rolled up into a dough and then dissolved in water along with unsweetened cacao beans; nowadays, it is made throughout Tabasco, Chiapas, and eastward into Belize, although it is sweetened with honey or sugar.
There was wine made from prickly pear, mesquite, or cornstalks in the altiplano and eastward towards Veracruz; pulque in south-central Mexico (see the “Pulque” article); bakbé, or fermented honey, favored by the Maya in the Yucatán and southeastern Mexico; and various other fermented fruit drinks, serveral made from the small native plums you can find in season at Huatulco’s fruit and vegetable stores.
With the Spanish arrival, however, beer became grain-based, using barley in the beginning. Barley was pretty scarce in Mexico at that point, although a man named Alfonso de Herrero received the first official concession to make European beer and started fields of wheat and barley somewhere south or east of Mexico City. The Spanish placed severe restrictions and taxes on anything involved with beer production, hoping on the one hand to keep what little there was for themselves, and on the other hand to restrict the privilege – and resulting inebriation – from the natives. They also wanted to make colonial beer so expensive it would not be exported to Europe, requiring the Spanish colonists to import their beer from the homeland.
The European Redesign of Mexican Beer
When the War of Independence (1810-21) freed Mexico from Spain, Mexico got rid of the regulations and “let beer be beer.” Herrero’s brewery had struggled and eventually collapsed, but at the beginning of the 19th century, European-style beer had gained a foothold. There are records of disputes over the rights to brew beer among an English firm (Gillons and Mairet) and two Mexican outfits run by Miguel Ramos Arizpe and Justino Tuallion. During the War of Independence, Tuallion’s beer brand Hospice of the Poor, named for the homeless shelter down the street from his brewery, was the most popular.
After the war, in 1845, Bernhard Bolgard from Switzerland set up the first Mexican lager brewery, La Pila Seca, in Mexico City. He also made a dark beer that included piloncillo (those brown-sugar cones you see in the market).
The real growth in Mexican brewing was actually kicked off by another effort at conquest. In the 1860s, while America was busy with its civil war, European powers (France, Spain, and Britain), to whom Mexico owed beaucoup bucks, invaded. Spain and England quickly realized that France actually wanted to reconquer and colonialize Mexico, so they dropped out; France established the short-lived (three years, 1864-67) Second Mexican Empire, putting Austrian arch-duke Maximilian in charge as Emperor.
Bad for Max, who was executed as Benito Juárez re-assumed leadership of the Republic of Mexico, but good for beer, as apparently Max never went anywhere without his two German brewmasters, who were particularly good at darker beers. And more Austrians and Germans who followed Maximilian brought their brewing skills – particularly in brewery construction – with them, and they stayed. In 1865, Agustín Marendaz, also from Switzerland, opened Cervecería Toluca y México; in 1869 (Emperor Max was dead and gone), Emil Dercher, from the Alsace region in France, set up Cervecería La Cruz Blanca and made lagers.
Juárez’s successor, Porfirio Díaz, infatuated with all things European, encouraged more German immigration. Under Díaz, the railroads came to Mexico, which was a mixed bag for Mexican brewing. Brewers could import heavy machinery and large supplies of malt, but on the same trains came cases full of competition – U.S. beer seeking to break into the Mexican market. Competition breeds competence, though, and the railroad may well be a key factor in the industrialization of beer-making in Mexico.
In Mérida, José Ponce Solis opened the Cervecería Yucateca in 1869, and José María Ponce opened the Gran Cervecería Yucateca in 1886; the latter eventually made Carta Clara, León, Cruz Roja, Estrella, and Mestiza beers. José M. Otahegui and Juan Fouillox opened the Gran Cervecería de San Luis in 1882; Fouilloux was a French brewer who had his equipment sent over from Paris. The first two large-scale, commercial/industrial breweries were Cervecería Cuauhtémoc (Monterrey, 1890) and Cervecería Moctezuma (Orizaba, 1891). Cervecería del Pacifico opened in Mazatlán in 1901, launching with the still-popular Pacifico pilsener.
At the close of the Mexican Revolution (1910-20), Mexico had 36 breweries of substantial size, and the number continued to grow. In 1922, Braulio Iriarte Goyeneche came over from Spain and started Cervecería Modelo; by 1925, the brewery was making Modelo, Negra Modelo, and Corona. New breweries opened at the Baja border, e.g., Cervecería de Ensenada (1915), Cervecería Azteca (1921) and Mexícali (1923) as the U.S. imposed prohibition (1920-33), causing Americans to flock to the border to buy beer. The government started providing incentives and investments to the brewing industry, resulting in production of almost 50,000 liters (over 13,000 gallons, or 140,896 12-oz bottles) in 1925.
Still, the Mexicans themselves seemed to prefer pulque. Back in the old country, the techniques of immigrant German brewers had been governed by Reinheitsgebot, or beer purity regulations, since the 16th century, so they launched a propaganda campaign. Using the “purity card” and the idea of modern, sanitary breweries, they claimed beer was “rigorously hygienic and modern,” while pulque was made using poop to kick off fermentation. The reputation of pulque plummeted, and beer emerged triumphant.
Consolidating the Beer Industry
With breweries popping up right and left, the industry started slip-sliding towards the two giants left today. In 1954, Cuauhtémoc bought Tecate, founded in 1944 in Baja California, and turned it into a national brand. Cuauhtémoc also innovated by making Tecate the first beer to come in cans in Mexico (Tecate is now the #1 canned brand imported to the U.S.)
In 1985, the Cuauhtémoc and Moctezuma breweries merged, becoming Cervecería Cuauhtémoc Moctezuma, then FEMSA, by 1988. Their combined national brands were Tecate, Sol, Dos Equis, Carta Blanca, Superior, Indio, and Bohemia.
The Cervecería Cuauhtémoc had always had interests besides beer. They were the first to integrate vertically, i.e., to start other divisions that supplied the glass bottles, the packaging, etc.; in 1943, the three wealthy families behind Cuauhtémoc founded Monterrey Tec, “Mexico’s MIT” (Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey) and in 1973 opened the Mexican Professional Baseball Hall of Fame on the grounds of company headquarters. Thus the story of Grupo Modelo gives a better picture of what happened to Mexico’s cervecerías on their path to becoming two huge multinational corporations.
In 1928, six years after the Cervecería Modelo broke ground and three years after it opened, it sold 8 million bottles of beer. In 1933, as prohibition ended, the cervecería sent off the first exports of Mexican beer. When it hit the ten-year mark, it bought Cervecería de Toluca y México, acquiring the brands Victoria and Pilsener. During World War II, Modelo concentrated its efforts on strengthening its national sales, following up with building new factories.
In 1954, Modelo bought Cervecería del Pacífico (Mazatlán) and Cervecería La Estrella (Guadalajara). In 1967, it liquidated Compañía Cervecera de la Laguna to form Cervecería Modelo de Torreón; in 1979, it bought Cervecería Yucateca in Mérida.
Using its own engineering designs, it opened new plants in Sonora (1961), Jalisco (1964), Oaxaca (1984), Zacatecas (1997). In 1982, Cervecería Modelo became Grupo Modelo, with the Corona, Negra Modelo, Modelo Especial, and Pacifico as export beers, and Victoria, Leon, and Montejo for the national market.
Becoming as large and as successful at exporting beer as they did, made FEMSA and Grupo Modelo very attractive targets for first cooperative partnerships, then stock exchanges and purchases, and eventually takeovers by the European beer giants. The two companies still make their beer in Mexico, they still exert major influence on Mexico’s economy, they are (despite some labor frictions) major employers, and their brands are essential to Mexico’s commercial identity, easily understood and much appreciated by foreigners. Nonetheless, Mexico’s commercial beers are a bit routinized for both locals and visitors who have developed “beer palates” that weary of the light lagers and pilseners, and don’t find the ambars and oscuros quite dark enough.
Microbreweries to the Rescue
While microbreweries and craft beers are not common in Mexico, they are starting to sprout up. Some recall the first microbrewery being Pepe’s y Joe’s in Mazatlán in the 1990s, but it seems long gone. Of perhaps more interest to beer aficionados are artisanal craft beers.
Let’s start with Minerva, because their products can even be bought at Super Che, at least before the pandemic. Headquartered in Zapopan, Jalisco, Minerva offers a variety of lagers, ales, and a stout. Colonial is a smooth, golden, wheat-malted beer with citrus notes and 5% alcohol. Viena is a red/ambar, with clean notes of nuts and caramel, low fermentation and a malty taste, again 5% alcohol. They also put out some seasonal brands. Founded in 2003, they have a 30% market share.
Baja California hosts half a dozen microbreweries. Baja Brewing, started by a young expat named Jordan Gardenhire, sells its beer in stores and in brew pubs (three in Los Cabos). Gardenhire left Colorado for Baja when he hadn’t decided what to do with his life. His dad came to visit. Ever since, they’ve been brewing craft beers. They offer Cabotella, a blonde ale; Peyote Pale Ale (called IPA Por Favor in the U.S.); Escorpion Negro, a black ale, and an oatmeal stout, among others. Founded in 2007, Baja Brewing has begun exporting to the U.S. You can watch Jordan explain how to start a craft brewery on YouTube
Also in Baja, in Ensenada, Agua Mala Cerveza Artesanal started up in 2009, and makes eco-environmental practices an essential part of the way it does business, always working on making each step in the process more sustainable, building their tasting room out of repurposed cargo containers, and serving fresh, local ingredients on the tasting room menu. Their brands include Sirena (a Pilsener), Vieja (amber lager), Mantis (a wheat beer), Mako (pale ale), Marea Roja (red IPA), Mantarraya (oatmeal stout), and Astillero (an imperial IPA). AguaMala has sent a few of its entries across the border to Arizona.
There are other craft breweries in Baja, Monterrey, Colima, Querétaro, México state, Mexico City, and Puebla – it won’t be long before you’ll have no trouble getting a handcrafted beer, ale, porter, or stout to suit your taste wherever you are in Mexico.
By Brooke Gazer
Those who live in Huatulco know that great coffee is grown in the region, but most of the world has no clue. Mexico’s history with coffee goes back three centuries; like many commodities, coffee has fluctuated from a highly lucrative enterprise to economic failure. Currently, at least for some, there is good news on the horizon.
During the latter part of the eighteenth century, wealthy Europeans saw the potential of Mexico’s perfect climate to grow coffee. They were granted huge tracts of land and took advantage of cheap indigenous labor to establish profitable fincas (coffee farms) where they grew high-quality, shade-grown arabica coffee.
Revolutions in Mexican Coffee Production
But everything changed radically after the Mexican Revolution (1910-20). Land reform was a major outcome of the Revolution; coffee plantations were divided and peasants who had worked the land were allotted small plots.
Currently, there are about 515,000 independent fincas, of which 95% are smaller than three hectares (7.4 acres, or a little more than 5½ football fields).
In 1973, the government saw an opportunity to increase Mexico’s cash flow by forming the Mexican Coffee Institute (Instituto Méxicano del Cafe, or INMECAFE). This organization helped independent farmers to market collectively on an international level, and within ten years, it became Mexico’s most valuable export crop. Coffee represented 35% of all agricultural output, and by 1990 production peaked at 440,000 tons.
It seems that nothing good lasts forever, though, and the Mexican coffee industry was dealt a double whammy in 1989. First, as a result of the decade-plus long Latin American debt crisis – Mexico had basically declared bankruptcy in 1982 when it said it could no longer service its debt to foreign banks – Mexico was subject to restructuring measures demanded by the World Bank and other financial institutions to which they owed massive amounts. By 1989, then-president Carlos Salinas de Gortari agreed to relinquish internal control of Mexico’s coffee market. INMECAFE disintegrated and Mexican coffee farmers were left to compete in the international coffee market.
The international coffee market had been regulated by the International Coffee Agreement (ICA), a treaty that was renewable at five-year intervals; 1989 was the year no one could agree on the terms, so the ICA was not renewed. With neither country-level nor international regulations in place, small finqueros (coffee farmers) were devastated by wild volatility in coffee prices. Before the collapse of the ICA, finqueros had been receiving relatively stable prices, between $1 and $1.50 USD per pound. By 1992, the price per pound had plummeted to a meager $0.49 USD.
With a selling price below production cost, many independent growers were ruined. A drop of up to 70% in revenue caused many farmers to abandon their plots and migrate to somewhere they could earn wages. Others cleared their land for more profitable crops, including drugs. Childhood malnutrition and other social issues spread across rural Mexico like a plague of locusts.
Other Pressures on Mexican Coffee Production
Looking more closely at the crushing collapse in coffee prices, we find the explanation more complicated than just removing the Mexican and international price regulations. Forced economic restructuring was indeed a major factor, but there have been other pressures as well.
World development banks – the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and other international institutions – look for ways to relieve poverty in underdeveloped nations. The coffee industry had done wonders for countries like Mexico, so they funded increased production in several Asian countries. Vietnam became a perfect success story for the World Bank; by 1991, it had increased production by 1100%. Unfortunately, with so much of the commodity flooding the free market, prices were bound to plummet.
Major multinational corporations – think Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, the Kraft Heinz Company – encouraged increased production of coffee, in particular Robusta (Coffea canephora) beans. In comparison with Coffea arabica, Robusta produces a high-caffeine, low-sugar, and thus more bitter, bean that is more disease- and pest-resistant and thus cheaper to produce. Historically, Robusta beans were only used in cheap brands or as a filler.
New technology, however, allowed companies to process green Robusta beans into a more palatable product. This meant that big business could significantly increase the amount of cheaper beans in their blends. The clever marketing of flavored coffee also helped mask the bitter taste of Robusta beans.
With a diminished demand for the higher quality arabica coffee, the price throughout Latin America dropped like a stone; and, as the supply of Robusta swelled, that market price also shrank. These corporations made enormous profits on coffee, but for producing countries, profits tumbled from 30% to a mere 8% over a ten-year period.
For consumers of Folgers Coffee, actually owned by the jam conglomerate J.M. Smucker, it may be of interest that the majority of beans are not harvested by Juan Valdes, more likely by someone whose last name is Nguyen. And there is no adorable Latin American burro carrying product to market. Other popular brands who buy beans from Vietnam include Maxwell House (Kraft Heinz), Nescafé, and Nescafé Tasters Choice (Nestlé). In fairness, though, most commercial coffees are blends consisting mostly of Robusta.
Mexican Coffee (Agri)culture)
Most of Mexico’s 711,000 hectares of coffee plantations are located in the mountains of Chiapas, Veracruz, and Oaxaca, where the high altitude and cooler temperatures produce the best arabica beverage. The rise of the coffee culture has given the industry a huge boost and many of those who held on are reaping the benefits.
There have always been connoisseurs of coffee, but the phenomenon is expanding. Varieties of coffee are being described in the same terms as fine wines. One small producer from Chiapas won an award that enabled him to sell his crop for $35.40 USD per pound. The judge’s comments included, “Notes of jasmine, bergamot, lemongrass, and vanilla, and an overall sweetness with a buttery mouthfeel.”
Edy Hidalgo Espinosa, who is coordinator for grower education and sustainability at Caravela, a green bean wholesaler, says, “Mexican coffees tend to be lighter bodied and mild, with subtle flavors.” Hidalgo Espinosa offers these descriptions of Mexico’s three main coffee growing regions.
Chiapas: “Notes of chocolate, bitters, nuts, citrus, and lemon, along with a round and lasting body.”
Veracruz: “Light red fruits, blueberries, caramel, panela, delicate with a bright acidity, and very juicy with a sweet and sour aftertaste.”
Oaxaca: “Tends to be sweet with caramel overtones, notes of yellow fruits, orange acidity, a creamy body, and floral hints.”
My palate is insufficiently developed to detect any of those subtle “notes,” but I can attest that coffee from each of these states has its own distinctive flavor.
Currently, Mexico exports about 172,000 tons of coffee annually. This is only about 1% of world coffee exports, but savvy growers in this country are developing a niche market. Mexico is now one of the world’s largest exporters of organic-certified coffee, which garners a premium price per pound.
Twenty years ago, it was hard to get a good cup of coffee in Mexico. If you ordered café con leche, they brought a glass of warm milk and a jar of instant Nescafé. Today baristas are everywhere, and many specialize in nationally grown varieties. The sophisticated Mexican population have become discerning coffee drinkers and are consuming more of it.
Before we moved to Mexico in 1999, I sold an expensive Italian cappuccino machine because I did not expect to find quality coffee in our new home. Who knew!
Brooke Gazer operates Agua Azul la Villa, an ocean-view B&B in Huatulco (www.bbaguaazul.com).
By Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.
Gloria Cruz Sánchez holds a jícara (half gourd), high above her head while in a ritualized fashion she pours water down into a large green glazed ceramic bowl containing a beige doughy mush, creating foam. She’s in the Oaxaca Sunday market town of Tlacolula de Matamoros, completing the last phase in making tejate, just like her forebears thousands of years earlier. If you’ve been to a Oaxacan market you’ve likely seen it being served to locals, and may have been afraid to imbibe; it looks like spent shaving cream that surely would make you ill. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Tejate is a nutritious pre-Hispanic drink which was reserved for Aztec high priests, and Zapotec rulers before them. It’s still consumed today by Oaxacans of every station in life. Tejate is made exclusively by women, using virtually the same ingredients and methods employed over millennia. It dates to more than 3,000 years ago.
Tejate’s components are corn, cacao (sometimes substituted with coconut), purified or mountain spring water, seeds of the mamey fruit, dried aromatic “funeral tree flowers” (from the Quararibea funebris bush), lime mineral, sometimes a seasonal nut, and ash from burnt wood. As distinct from many other traditional Oaxacan delicacies (i.e. mole negro), all of tejate’s ingredients are native to Mexico; and all but cacao are endemic to the state of Oaxaca. There is, however, one exception: for the asking the tejatera will add sugary water as a sweetener, whereas in pre-Hispanic times she would have used bee honey or baked caramelized agave.
Preparing tejate is an extremely laborious task. In fact in order to have it ready to serve in markets by about 9:30 am, women must begin the process at roughly 4:00 am. And so Gloria awakens at her home in the village of San Marcos Tlapazola while it’s still dark, long before roosters have begun to crow, so as to have her tejate ready for market sales. She toasts the flowers, mamey seeds and cacao on an earthen comal using dried pencas (agave leaves) as firewood. She does the same with peanuts. She keeps the mixtures segregated from one another.
She then washes the corn in a clay colander, gingerly removing any small stones. Thereafter she boils spring water in a terracotta cauldron on a stone base, again fueled with leaves of the succulent. She adds powdered lime, strained ash, and the corn. The mixture simmers for about 40 minutes. The flames die down. The corn is strained once more to cool and to remove excess ash.
Gloria now reaps the benefits of the modern age; she walks to a mill to have the cacao mixture and then the corn, separately ground. She used to do all the grinding on a metate (primitive grinding stone), but when the mill opened in her village she decided to take advantage of it. She then ambles back to her homestead. While the mixtures are again cooling, breakfast preparations ensue. It’s about 6:00 am, and time for a small drink of mezcal.
Gloria spends the next two hours grinding the roasted peanuts on a metate followed by painstakingly combining that puree with the corn and cacao mixtures. It all gets blended together in an orderly, almost ceremonial manner. This most delicate step must be done by hand.
After breakfast, in the back of a covered pickup along with others from the village, Gloria travels to Tlacolula, where she erects her stall. She begins the pièce de résistance, holding the jícara high above her head with one hand, the other mixing the almost buttery thick concoction with the water from on high. She repeats the process until all in the ceramic bowl has been transformed into tejate, the cacao-nutty-maple frothy drink of the gods.
Gloria has her regular customers, those who attend the market on a weekly basis; but many are infrequent visitors, including both foreign and domestic tourists. Some drink Gloria’s tejate alongside her stall, in a painted jícara she supplies. Others buy it in a plastic cup “to go.” Usually by mid-afternoon, typically no later than 4 pm, she’s completely sold out. Gloria will then shop for more ingredients in the market, readying for the next Sunday’s preparations before returning to her village in the back of that same covered pick-up. It’s been a hard yet rewarding, long day’s work.
Alvin Starkman operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). For the past three decades he’s been a regular imbiber of tejate; and he’s still standing.