The rickety bus pulls to a stop. “This is it, folks. End of the road,” the driver tells us. He’s not speaking metaphorically — the dirt road literally comes to an abrupt stop here, at the edge of the mountain.

Leticia and I disembark and grab our bags, walking down a thin trail into the wooded wilderness. We follow the path that crawls along the ridge of one particular mountain range, providing us with a spectacular panoramic view of the canyons, valleys, pine forests, mountains and gulches around us. To our east, a thick cluster of dark storm clouds has gathered. Jagged streaks of lightning are splitting the horizon in half, threatening to come closer.

“Let’s head towards that cluster of houses down there,” Leticia tells me. “We’ll see if they can lend us a horse to ride to Rancho Repohuéachi; it’s still a few kilometers away.” Leticia, a middle-aged mother of five, invited me to join her on this trip to visit her relatives in the Sierra Madre. Her entire family is made up of indigenous people from this pristine wilderness. “My mother was born in a cave beyond that mountain range,” Leticia tells me, pointing past a lightning-charred tree.

This is the Sierra Madre. This is Tesgüino Country.
The Sierra Madre Occidental is a long, jagged mountain range that cuts across the northern half of Mexico. This remote, inscrutable mountain range is home to one of the most reclusive indigenous ethnicities in all of Mexico — the Rarámuri natives (called the Tarahumara by outsiders). In pre-Colombian times, the Rarámuri used to occupy a much larger area. As they fled from the encroachment of first Spanish and then Mexican expansion, however, the Rarámuri were driven further and further into the hills and canyons of the Sierra. The Rarámuri have recently become famous for the long-distance marathons they run barefoot through the mountains. While I didn’t witness one of these races when I visited the mountains in 2002, I did experience a different kind of marathon — one that my physique is much more up to snuff for.

I experienced the enormous quantities of homebrewed corn beer, known as tesgüino (pronounced “tess-GWEE-no”), which the Rarámuri have brewed for ages.

Boiling the Corn
Leticia and I come upon a cluster of houses — simple log cabins and adobe shacks. “Cuiravá!” a woman shouts out from one of the cabins as we approach. Leticia returns her greeting in the Rarámuri language, then switches to Spanish. The two women discuss the possibility of Leticia and me borrowing a horse from them; as they chat, they make liberal use of the curse word cabrón, speaking with the rough-around-the-edges, cowboy style common here in the Sierra.

I wander around the cabins, noticing a mestiza woman (a woman of mixed European and native American ancestry) stirring something in an enormous iron pot over a fire outside her cabin. The woman greets me in Spanish. “What are you cooking there?” I ask.
“Tesgüino,” she responds. I peer into the pot and see yellow corn mush bubbling slowly; steam rises from the pot.
“Can I try some?” I ask.
The woman gives me a toothy grin and laughs, her laughter coinciding with a peal of thunder in the distance. “It still has to ferment, güero (light-skinned person),” she says.
“Trust me, I learned how to make it from the Rarámuri around here. This tesgüino won’t be ready to drink until a few days from now,” she continued.

Tesgüino is the Spanish term for the corn beer produced by the Rarámuri natives. Known in the Rarámuri language as watari, the beverage is simple and no-frills, made from just corn and water. The dry corn grains must be malted — they are moistened and kept in a warm location until they begin to germinate, producing fermentable sugars within the grain just like malted barley. After this is done, the corn is cooked over low heat to release the sugars. The entire cooked mush is then left to ferment with the wild yeasts in the air.

No additives or flavorings are added to tesgüino — it is a drink that is rough, unrefined and wild, like the mountains it was born in. Within the context of Rarámuri culture, however, the important thing about tesgüino isn’t its aesthetic appeal, balanced flavor or mouthfeel — far more significant is the social context in which tesgüino is used. Much like the early forms of beer brewed by the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians, tesgüino occupies a central place in the economic, social, religious, and ceremonial life of the Rarámuri people.

Drinking with God
Leticia and I thank the woman in the cabin for lending us a horse, and head off towards Rancho Repohuéachi where Leticia’s grandmother Catalina lives. It’s close to dusk when we reach the home of the mestizo farmers who Doña Catalina lives with. The house is a small, whitewashed, adobe farmhouse at the edge of a cliff overlooking the valleys below. The rain has let up as we approach, and a brilliant rainbow appears on the horizon.

We greet the mestizo family as we approach — a middle-aged single mother, her teenage sons and their wives—and then walk around the back to say hello to Doña Catalina. She lives in a small room at the back end of the house, and sleeps in a depression in the dirt floor. Catalina is wearing a puffy colonial-style blouse in traditional Rarámuri fashion when she opens the door to greet us. I tell her I’m looking forward to getting to know life in the Sierra. Catalina asks if I plan on trying tesgüino during my visit. “Some of the Rarámuri around here are going to be gathering to drink it tomorrow,” she says. “You can go with Chemo, my great grandson.”

After a dinner of pinto beans, chopped cactus and homemade tortillas, I stand on the porch chatting in Spanish with the young mestizo men and their wives. As we watch another rainstorm assault the pine forests around us, the skyline punctuated with lightning every few seconds, they tell me stories of buried treasure in the area, guarded by vengeful ghosts. At some point, they ask me, “Doña Catalina says you’re going to go drink with the Indians tomorrow?”

I say yes, and ask them what they know about tesgüinadas, the Rarámuri gatherings where people come together to drink the corn beer. One of the young men smiles; his face glows with light from the kerosene lanterns inside the house. “The Indians go up into the mountains and drink with God,” he says simply.

Tesgüino is much more than a recreational beverage — it is the hub around which Rarámuri society revolves. Native legends tell how Onorúame, the Supreme Being, created tesgüino to ease the suffering of humans and fill our hearts with joy. (Perhaps Benjamin Franklin was channeling Rarámuri wisdom when he wrote, “Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.”) Anytime tesgüino is consumed, the first drink is poured on the ground, dedicated to Onorúame; it is believed that God becomes thirsty on a regular basis and wants to drink corn beer. For the entire duration of a tesgüinada, the Rarámuri believe that Onorúame is invisibly present, drinking right alongside them.

While tesgüinadas are public gatherings where the entire community comes together to drink enormous quantities of the beverage, there are other private ceremonies involving tesgüino, officiated over by traditional healers, priests and elders. The curanderos, or medicine men, go to holy spots on mountaintops to privately drink tesgüino with the Almighty and discuss important affairs of the community. When an infant is born, the elders baptize the child with a few drops of tesgüino, asking for Onorúame’s blessing. When a new field is plowed, a ceremony involving corn beer is conducted to bless the field and bring fertility to it.
For the Rarámuri natives, tesgüino plays a role similar to that of beer in much of ancient medieval Europe. It is a sacramental drink which connects humans with the Divine, a liquid meal to be shared with the Almighty, a way of sacrificing the first fruits of the corn harvest to Onorúame out of gratitude. Tesgüino is sacramental wine, holy water and a sacrificial lamb all wrapped up in one.

An Alternative Economy
Chemo comes by the ranch house the following afternoon and invites me to go to a tesgüinada with him. We walk up and down mountain trails, through thick forests of pine trees, on our way to the social gathering. At one point, we pass by a clearing on a mountaintop. I discreetly take a look at it, and notice that there are three crude wooden crosses in the clearing, marking it as one of the sacred points where Rarámuri elders come to “drink with God” in private.

We eventually reach a large field where dozens of Rarámuri men, women and children are gathered. I can smell the yeast from a freshly brewed batch of corn beer. The women are sitting on the ground around a simple, three-walled wood cabin. Most of the men are working on the field, plowing the ground with a horse-drawn plow.

Chemo introduces me to the men, and they invite me to join them in the work. We take turns manning the plow, working for several hours until the host of this gathering tells us that’s enough work for today — it’s time to drink tesgüino. The host dips half a dry gourd shell into a 40-gallon (150-L) plastic trash barrel which is filled to the brim with corn beer. He says some words in the Rarámuri language, raises the gourd to the sky and the four cardinal directions, and pours the tesgüino on the ground for Onorúame. Then he invites the rest of us to join him and God in drinking the corn beer.
Chemo walks up to me holding the dripping gourd and smiles at me. “Want some?”

The institution of the tesgüinada is central to the social and economic life of Rarámuri society. Not only is corn beer a ritual drink with spiritual significance, it is also the central pillar of the Rarámuri economy. Like the Amish, each individual Rarámuri family holds its own plot of land, but much work is done collectively. When a Rarámuri man needs his fields plowed, planted or harvested, he invites the community to a tesgüinada. He brews a batch of corn beer — at least one barrel full — and invites the community to work in exchange for tesgüino. In this sense, the Rarámuri practice a mixture of communal labor and private property. This corn beer-based economy may very well be the “third way” which Pope John Paul II wrote about — neither fully communist nor capitalist.
The tesgüinadas are about more than just getting work done, however. They are social gatherings where elders give speeches of advice to the community.

Business deals are made between farmers, and disagreements are discussed. Matchmakers set up young couples during tesgüinadas. Most married couples met each other at one of these gatherings. As anthropologist John G. Kennedy writes, “The tesgüinada is the religious group, the economic group, the entertainment group, and the group in which disputes are settled, marriages arranged and deals completed.”

Corn Beer — a Social Release Valve
The mood of the tesgüinada lightens up as the gourd gets passed around several times. I notice young people flirting with each other; young men begin to make dirty jokes and pantomime copulating with each other in jest. One man named Goyo starts grabbing me, trying to wrestle with me for some inexplicable reason. My friend Chemo turns to me and offers to teach me the Rarámuri language. Most of the obscene phrases he teaches me bring raucous laughter from the crowd — one sentence translates as, “Hey everybody, I have the biggest ‘chile’ in this whole village.”

After the fourth gourd of tesgüino, I notice a lovely young girl smiling at me. I smile back, and she says something in the Rarámuri language. The other young people around tease her, and Chemo tells me in Spanish that the girl is named Mariquita and she likes me. I respond that I like her too but I don’t speak much Rarámuri, and I’m not yet buzzed enough to recite that phrase about the size of my “chile.”

In addition to its religious, social and economic functions, tesgüino serves an additional, practical purpose — it provides people with psychological release. The Rarámuri culture is, in many respects, extremely conservative. When sober, men and women rarely speak with each other. Some people told me that Rarámuri
couples even kept their clothes on while making love. Rarámuri men rarely show anger or aggression, and are usually quiet and reserved with each other.
At tesgüinadas, however, people let it all hang out. Psychologists and anthropologists have described the tesgüinada as an institutionalized “release valve” which lets out all the pent up sexuality, rage, laughter, and sadness which Rarámuri people hold inside. I saw this to be true during my stay in the Sierra Madre — at each of the tesgüinadas I attended, I noticed that otherwise repressed villagers felt free to finally be themselves.

It’s not an ideal situation, of course. I imagine it’s healthier to let your feelings out while sober as well as during a tesgüino buzz. And yet, this balance between repressed sobriety and drunken release has been maintained for millennia of Rarámuri history. And, interestingly enough, anthropologists have observed that alcoholism as an individual pathology is historically absent from Rarámuri society.

Epilogue: Repohuéachi
Ten Years Later
When I visited the Rarámuri people of Rancho Repohuéachi in 2002, I was a skinny, idealistic college student. As my beer belly continued to expand over the past ten years, the outside world expanded into this formerly isolated mountain community, bringing about a series of profound changes.

Rancho Repohuéachi is no longer as secluded as it was in 2002. A gringo missionary built a landing strip to fly airplanes into the region, bringing “short-term missionaries” who explain to the Indians that they will go to hell unless they reject tesgüino and convert to fundamentalist Protestantism. A year after the landing strip was created, Mexico’s federal government extended the paved road all the way into Repohuéachi. With the road, new vices and problems have made their way into this previously isolated region — distilled liquor and hard drugs are now available, challenging the balance of a tesgüino-only society and introducing the foreign concept of “alcoholism” to the Rarámuri natives.

And yet, for the most part, Rarámuri society continues to plug along just as it has for thousands of years. The Rarámuri of Repohuéachi still plow and plant each other’s fields, and still gather to drink barrels of corn beer together. Their elders and shamans still hike to the sacred mountaintops to consult with Onorúame, discussing each year’s harvest season with the Almighty over a shared gourd of tesgüino. And when the mountain folk loosen up after a few drinks of corn beer, they still tease Mariquita about flirting with that strange, light-skinned visitor years ago. Some of them ask if she hasn’t been hiding some secret blue-eyed children this whole time.

In a place as remote as the Sierra Madre, it wouldn’t be hard to keep them hidden.

The Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range is home to the Rarámuri people, brewers of the corn beer tesgüino.
Photos courtesy of the Mexican Tourism Board

Tesgüino Recipe

Easy Tesgüino

(5 gallons/19 L)
OG = up to 1.046 FG = ~1.006
ABV = around 3.3%

This recipe is easy to reproduce in a modern homebrewery. In the recipe for easy tesgüino, the fermentable sugars are derived from sugar rather than corn.

4.4 lbs. (2 kg) dry, large-kernel corn
11 cones piloncillo sugar (or ~44 oz./1.3 kg cane sugar)
Ale yeast (your choice)

Step by Step
Grind the corn and boil with 2–3 gallons (7.6–11 L) of water and 11 cones of piloncillo cane sugar, stirring so that the sugar dissolves. As an option, you can add a few pieces of whole cinnamon. Cook the ingredients over low heat for one hour; remove from heat, add 2–4 more sticks of cinnamon (optional), and let sit in pot for 20 minutes. Cool and transfer to fermenter, leaving behind as much of the corn solids as feasible. Top up to 5 gallons (19 L) and ferment with ale yeast for about 4 days. Throw a party and drink the entire batch immediately.

More traditional option:
Some Latino specialty markets sell jora (malted corn) and you can substitute about 7.0 lbs. (3.2 kg) of this for the (unmalted) corn and sugar above. Heat mixture of 5 gallons (19 L) water and jora slowly to a boil. (Traditional tesgüino pots are heated over open flames.) Spend at least 1 hour ramping through the 140–162 °F/60–72 °C range. Simmer for 3 hours. Cool with immersion chiller and ferment in brewpot. (Traditional tesgüino pots cool in the cold mountain air.) Ferment with the yeast of your choice. (Traditional tesgüino is inoculated by stirring the mixture with grass leaves laden with suitable wild yeasts.) Serve lightly chilled (think cool mountain temperatures), unfiltered and uncarbonated with four friends. (Tradition-ally, most folks attending a tesgüinada consume around 4 quarts /~4 L of tesgüino.) In this version of tesgüino, your OG will be lower (around 1.034), but the “beer” will be stronger because it will contain less starch than the easy version above. The alcoholic strength will depend on how much extract you get from the jora and your yeast’s attenuation, but roughly 4.0% ABV is a fair estimate.

Iced Tesgüino Cocktail

[NOTE: For a sweeter drink with low alcohol content, mix up this cocktail with corn beer which has only fermented for one day.]

After the corn beer has finished fermenting, mix the following ingredients in a martini shaker:

1 cup corn beer
Juice from one fresh lime
2-3 pinches of rock salt

Step by Step
Mix lightly in the shaker and pour into a large glass. Add a scoop of lime sherbet on top and drink. [NOTE: “Iced tejuino” recipe courtesy of Paz Acarahuí Macías Lizardi of Ensenada, Mexico.]

¹ “Rarámuri” is the name these native people give to themselves; it loosely translates as “the light-footed ones”. Many non-indigenous people in Mexico refer to them as the “Tarahumara”, an Hispanicized version of the native word “Rarámuri”.

² Tarahumara of the Sierra Madre: Survivors on the Canyon’s Edge. John G. Kennedy. Asilomar Press, Pacific Grove, California. 1996. Page 130

Issue: December 2012