With origins that date to precolonial times, tepache represents Mexico’s ancient past. Recipes for the fermented beverage have been handed down through the generations; in some indigenous communities, it is still considered sacred, reserved for ritual and ceremonial consumption.
Often made with pineapple skins and scraps, spices and sweet piloncillo, tepache also represents Mexico’s living present. It’s essential to everyday life in many parts of the country, scooped out of 5-gallon plastic jugs at streetside carts and doled out of large wooden barrels at small bars called tepacherias. “People from all walks of life come in for their daily tepache at these places,” explains Bryant Orozco, host and producer of the docuseries Last Call: Mexico and former bartender at Madre and Mírame in Los Angeles. “This drink is an integral part of their communities.”
Tepache’s future, however, is in flux. As a growing number of entrepreneurs look to the beverage as the next breakthrough category in the booming ready-to-drink market in the United States, some worry that the culture surrounding the living beverage will be jeopardized as it’s transformed into a shelf-stable format.
Though tepache isn’t nearly as famous stateside as other Mexican beverages like tequila and mezcal, the drink has been slowly trickling over the border for years by way of home fermenters, chefs at Mexican restaurants and street vendors in expat-dense cities like Los Angeles. The drink has likewise become a popular DIY cocktail ingredient at a number of high-end bars in major cities like Houston and New York City (for better or worse).
Now, canned and bottled versions can be found alongside kombucha, cold-pressed juice, canned yerba mate and other ready-to-drink products across the country at stores like Whole Foods and Target. Even though the category is still nascent—only a small handful of brands are currently available—RTD tepache is poised to capture an entirely new mainstream audience in the U.S.
“This trend with bottled and canned tepache goes hand in hand with other things, like the modern Mexican cuisine that’s in the limelight in cities like New York and Chicago and Los Angeles right now. It also speaks to the health and wellness trend—in the same way kombucha has become one of the biggest beverages of the last decade, people want to see what else is out there,” says Orozco. “Tepache meets all of these criteria: It’s a traditional Mexican beverage, but also chock-full of probiotics and nutrients.”
For most of these RTD brands, the impetus is to share Mexico’s fermented beverage culture with a broader audience. Tepachito, for example, launched in Mexican markets in Los Angeles in 2009 as part of the Novamex portfolio, which also includes Mexican soft drinks Jarritos, Sidral and Sangria, plus the sparkling water Mineragua. “People with Mexican roots would see the product on the store shelves and were very happy to buy it as it reminded them of their heritage,” says Novamex national sales manager Victor Ortega.
The origins of De La Calle and Tepache Sazón—both launched within the last few years—also speak to this goal. The former is inspired by the recipe belonging to the grandmother of co-founder and food scientist Rafael Martin Del Campo, while the latter comes from a raicilla producer that has long made tepache casually for locals in San Pancho, Nayarit, before scaling up production to export to the States. “Mexico is so rich with fermented food and drinks and culture—that is at the back of our minds always, wanting to share that with people outside of Mexico. It’s such an amazing drink,” says Tepache Sazón managing director Rio Chenery.
Meanwhile, for Gino Pellarin, founder of importing and distribution company Rock Steady Spirits, inspiration for Tepache Hi-Ball came during visits to one of his favorite cocktail bars in Guadalajara. “Whenever I would go down, we’d get drinks at De La O, and they had this cocktail called Tepache Jaibal made with fresh-made tepache, tequila, a squeeze of lime and some crushed peanuts on top,” he remembers. For his RTD version of the highball, Pellarin clarifies tepache, spikes it with tequila and carbonates the combination before canning (though the brand will switch to bottles soon).
With the commercialization of tepache, there is great potential for this beloved ancient beverage to reach new audiences—an opportunity to celebrate heritage and open conversations across borders. But, as with most cultural goods that are rejiggered for contemporary (and often foreign) audiences, there’s a risk that comes with commercial success.
“People are homogenizing this idea of tepache, trying to force it into one category,” says Orozco, who notes that many commercial tepaches are exclusively pineapple-based, unlike in Mexico where the fruit flavor varies by region. “This happened with Mexican spirits too—and all of that leads to the homogenization of Mexican culture.”
On a more human level, Orozco fears that the money won’t land where it should, that the people whose day-to-day lives are inextricably intertwined with tepache will not benefit from its commercialization. “It’s great that more people are getting to experience tepache, but there is also this exclusion of people who have been making it for generations, too. They aren’t part of this tepache boom,” adds Orozco.
Many of these concerns have already manifested with a familiar fermented beverage: kombucha. As the traditional Chinese drink rose to ubiquity, kombucha rapidly transformed into a commodity largely divorced from its origins, co-opted and repackaged by the wellness community as the secret to a happy gut microbiome. In a 2021 story for Eater, Miin Chan describes the tendency for the commercialization of fermented foods to benefit predominantly white owners: “Wherever you look, you’ll see that the fermentation industry in the West (meaning North America, the U.K., Europe, and Australasia) is dominated by mostly white fermenters, who often sell whitewashed BIPOC ferments and associated white-gaze narratives about these foods to mainly white consumers.” She goes on to explain: “This dearth of diversity is problematic in and of itself, but it’s worsened by the fact that white fermenters are commoditizing ferments that are ingrained in the cultural identities of BIPOC, whose centuries-long labor developed and refined the microbial relationships required to produce them.”
With tepache, there is a clear risk of a parallel path. And what will that lead to? “Will people start extracting more ideas and more products from Mexico for profit? That has already been the history of Mexico, whether it’s fabrics or minerals or agave spirits,” says Orozco.
Right now, many of the tepache brands launching in the U.S. have direct ties to communities that make the beverage, with marketing that clearly communicates the drink’s history and cultural significance. How long that will remain the case, however, is yet to be determined. “I’ve already started hearing stories about foreigners coming to these communities trying to find more information about fermented beverages,” Orozco says. “There is this looming dark shadow where people are seeing opportunities with these community beverages.”