Before the first colonizers set foot in the Americas, Indigenous peoples were creating fermented beverages from local plants. In Mexico, there were over 30 different types of alcoholic drinks made from things like honey, palm sap, wild plum, and pineapple.
Most of these drinks were relatively low in alcohol since distilling methods were not introduced to the Americas until the colonists arrived.
The Indigenous American cultures had unique rituals and traditions around their alcoholic drinks and many were consumed as part of religious customs. Here are a few of the ancient, fermented wines that indigenous people of North and South America enjoyed.
Was Their Grape Wine In The Americas Before Colonization?
The Indigenous American wines and fermented beverages were made from an array of different plants. But it is unclear if native grapes were one of the plants used to make alcoholic beverages before the European colonizers arrived. We do know that certain grape varieties were abundant in the Americas prior to the colonists arrival, so it is certainly possible. And recently pottery from the Toyah Phase (1300 -1600, right before Spanish colonization) has been discovered in the Southern United States with remnants of succinic and tartaric acid. The presence of these two acids is a strong indicator that some sort of fermented grape beverage was stored in this pottery. While this isn’t definite proof that Native Americans were making and consuming grape wine, it shows it is certainly possible.
Balché: A Mayan Bark and Honey Wine
Balché was a Mayan drink made from the bark of the balché tree. The bark was left to macerate in clean water from a cenote in a large container. Then a small amount of melipona honey was added and the concoction was left to ferment for three days. The Mayans then used this finished alcoholic beverage in different ceremonies. Some texts think that balché bark could modify consciousness, creating a trance for religious rituals.
Pulque: An Aztec Agave Wine
The Aztecs made a light wine from the sap of the agave plant called pulque. Sap was collected by carving out the agave heart and scraping the now-empty cavity until sap flowed. The sap was then collected and left to ferment for just a few hours. The result was a slightly alcoholic, fizzy drink not too dissimilar from kombucha.
The Aztecs believed pulque to be a holy drink and only priests were allowed to consume the beverage. However, after the fall of the Aztecs pulque became a popular drink with the masses, and only lost popularity when beer started becoming widely available. Today pulque has undergo a sort of revival and can once again be found throughout Central Mexico.
Saguaro Cactus Wine
A wine was made from the red fruit of the Saguaro cactus by some of the tribes located in Southern Arizona and Northern Sonara. They would gather the fruits, mix the pulp of the fruit with water, and leave the mixture to ferment for seven days. The wine was used by some tribes in a ceremony to bring rain.
Coyol Wine: Central American Palm Wine
Also known as chica de coyote, this alcoholic beverage is made from the sap of coyol palms and is common in Southern Mexico and Central America. Folklore says the drink only produces a buzz when the sun is out. The beverage actually has a low alcohol content, but an enzyme in the coyol mimics the effects of alcohol. Natives believe that you can feel the effects of coyol up to days later, as long as you’re in the sun. Coyol is still produced today, especially in Costa Rica.
July 15, 2020: Dr. Crystal Dozier, an assistant professor of anthropology, published the first archeological evidence for caffeinated beverages and opened the door to further exploring grape wine evidence in pre-colonial Americas. She said of her findings, “Native Americans were making and likely consuming alcohol before European colonizers. The effects that we see in the modern era have much more to do with colonialism and poverty than it has to do with the history of making alcoholic drinks.”