Arizona Brews: A Native American Fermented Drink, Tiswin

IMG_0953az and lost beer

This brief essay is a contribution to The Session, a monthly beer blogging event. You can read more about it here.  The subject for June is from Reuben Gray at A Tale of the Ale.  He presented this:

“If you have a local beer style that died out and is starting to appear again then please let the world know. Not everyone will so just write about any that you have experienced. Some of the recent style resurrections I have come across in Ireland are Kentucky Common, Grodziskie, Gose and some others. Perhaps it’s a beer you have only come across in homebrew circles and is not even made commercially.

There are no restrictions other than the beer being an obscure style you don’t find in very many places.”

I recently listened to the podcast Invisibilia. One of the episodes dealt with how our brain categorizes the world around us. Thus, we are not shocked, surprised or dumbfounded every time we walk into a pub, for example, and are handed an open cylinder of see through material that has something unstable sloshing around within it. We know right away that this is called a “glass” and the unstable sloshy stuff is “beer.” Further, as beer drinkers, I would say we also categorize both objects as a “pint.”

This issue of categorization arose for me personally as I thought about tiswin, the lost beer style I wanted to write about. It’s a Native American fermented beverage made from corn. The article, “Was Geronimo A Drunk” from True West Magazine explains it well:

“Mildly intoxicating in its basic composition, it figured in most Apache ceremonial and social occasions … Tiswin was beer brewed from corn. The corn was shelled, soaked in a can of water, spread out on a blanket or other fabric in the sun until it sprouted, then ground into a meal and poured into a can of boiling water. When half the water boiled away, it was replenished and brought to a boil again. The water was then strained, cooled and poured into another can or barrel, and allowed to stand until it sent up bubbles. … In the hands of skilled women, tiswin could range from mild to powerful and sour to savory.”

When I think “beer” I always consider a product of only barley (or wheat) and hops and water and yeast. It’s the barley/hops combination, I think, that distinguishes my conception of that word, beer; that is how I categorize it.  But this description of tiswin sounds like making beer, only with corn. Well, barley and maize, or corn, are both cereal grains in the Poaceae family, if I did my research correctly.  This tells me I need to not have a rigid definition of beer, I just need to enjoy the art of brewing any kind of fermented beverage.

It seems tiswin would be a good choice for the Southwest as it can tie itself to the history of the region. Native Americans were making this drink long before the Spanish or the English came to the continent and introduced them to other alcohol, another categorical thought. Tiswin could possibly be used as a further eductional tool, therefore, to extol a culture that has suffered.

Here is a simple recipe:

  • 5 lbs dried white corn
    2 gallons water
    1 1/2 c brown sugar
    2 dried orange peels
    3 cinnamon sticks
    1 t ground cloves
    mstheme mstheme

    Oven-roast corn at 300 degrees until light brown, stirring frequently. Grind
    coarsely in food chopper or in small quantities in blender. Wash (using several
    rinses, clean water each time), and discard hulls.
    Put in crock and stir in water and other ingredients. Cover and let sit in a barely
    warm place for five or six days or until fermented. Strain through cheesecloth
    and serve.

All About Beer also mentioned that saguaro pulp is used instead of maize as the base.  Securing saguaro pulp would be problematic, I suppose, since that cactus is protected.  Many recipes included orange peels and cinnamon. Another source* mentioned tiswin being based on mescal instead of either of the above.

It would be interesting to make this beer via one of the traditional recipes. I’d like to know what it tastes like – the corn, saguaro and mescal versions. Then, what would be best?  Make the tiswin ingredients adjuncts in a traditional barley/wheat beer?  Brew both separately and then blend?

Some breweries are doing similar things.  For example, Blue Moon has a fantastic beer infused with horchata.  Dogfish Head is making a chicha.  Shiner has wheat beer with prickly pear as an adjunct.

So, this is by no means a comprehensive or even elementary treatment of this drink. It is simply one I ran across and wanted a little more information about, so these are my notes. I would like to do further research. Doubtless there are many skilled brewers and beer-historians who know much more about this drink. Please put some additional sources and comments on this article, and thank you very much!

Further reading:

Beer Brewed Long Ago by Native Americans – Live Science

The Geronimo Campaign by Odie B Faulk

Getting Primitive – All About Beer

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*The Apache Peoples: A History of All Bands and Tribes Through the 1880s by Jessica Dawn Palmer
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