Further Research Into Tiswin, A Native American Beer

Despite dwelling in the desert for decades, I did not know the following about Saguaro cactus:

  • When a saguaro reaches 35 years of age it begins to produce flowers.
  • An adult saguaro is generally considered to be about 125 years of age. It may weigh 6 tons or more and be as tall as 50 feet. The average life span of a saguaro is probably 150 – 175 years of age. However, biologists believe that some plants may live over 200 years.
  • It is estimated that a saguaro can produce some 40 million seeds during its lifetime. However, few will survive to become a seedling. Fewer still will become an adult. The low survival rate of seedlings is due to drought, prolonged freezing and animals eating them.

These silent sentinels beneath Sol’s bright eye are impressive plants and can be adjuncts, or maybe the base, of tiswin, a Native American beer which I began writing about here.  Now, I know quite well that I am an amateur and novice in this field of tiswin and Native American life and culture. I have not made nor even sampled the libation as yet.  I’m collecting information. So, I apologize for any errors I may write. Please comment on this post (or any future ones) and let me know where I was wrong and give me some advice and guidance.

Tiswin seems to also go by the moniker “tesguino” (apparently pronounced tes-ween-o).  At first I thought the two names represented two distinct alcoholic drinks: 1) tiswin, a beer produced with corn; 2) tesguino, an alcoholic drink produced with fruit from the saguaro.  But I think that in actuality the twain are the same libation¹.  I also found the spellings “tezvino” and “tizwin” and references to “tulpi” and “tulapa.”  All seem to refer to a maize based drink to which other ingredients, such as the aforementioned saguaro, may be added².  Yet, adding to my confusion is this publication from the National Park Service.  In that brief brochure it mentions a “Saguaro fruit wine imbibing ceremony to bring the summer monsoon” performed by the Tohono O’odham people, a native nation you can read about here.  There is no mention of the name of this fruit wine, so it may just be me conflating two separate drinks.  The Saguaro fruit wine would be great to sample.

Another helpful article that has a brief discussion about tiswin is  Tepache & Tesguino, at Edible Baja Arizona. I believe it was that article that lead me to information on the Tarahumara Indians, also known as Raramuri, whom may best be known as the pinnacle of long distance runners. They, too, make tesguino and brewing it and drinking it is a spiritual act for them. They sound like good people.  “Their ancient theology was not based on dogma or abstract concepts; nor is their new Christianity. Rather it is a day by day practice of living in harmony with nature and their fellow man.”³  Of course, there are many that claim to do the same and the world is still the world we see today.  But I suppose that’s another story.

 The Raramuri say to one another bosasa which means “fill up, be satisfied, be contented.”†  Kinda like saying “cheers.”  Therefore, bosasa, beer friends!


¹ That confusion came from this source:  http://www.oocities.org/xxi1933/recipes-exotic.html.  It notes solely saguaro fruit juice as the ingredient in the drink.

² This is helpful index of native, undistilled liquours by American anthropologist Weston La Barre.

³ http://www.mexconnect.com/articles/1924-the-tarahumaras-an-endangered-species

http://www.npr.org/templates/text/s.php?sId=4532569&m=1

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