The Tohono O’Odham tribe of present-day southern Arizona have a long tradition of making a ceremonial drink from the fruit of the revered saguaro cactus. Legend says that I’itoi, the creator of the people, taught them to ferment. The drink was used on only one occasion per year to both bring rain and to encourage fertility for the people and their crops.
The drink is called nawait by the people, though it is often referred to by the more generic term tiswin. Ruth Murray Underhill was an anthropologist who lived with the Tohono O’Odham in the early 20th century. She wrote that when the cactus fruit syrup is boiled with water “it ferments in two days to a gentle, musty-tasting cider.”
The nawait was fermented in clay pots or tightly woven baskets that were set into the ground in a special hut. Elders kept a vigil by maintaining a small fire and singing special songs. When it was ready, messengers called everyone to the ceremony. “The cider keeps its intoxicating quality for a few hours only,” wrote Underhill, “and while it is in this state, every drop must be consumed.” So after no rain for months and with food supplies running low, the community came together, danced, sang and “floated the keg,” as we say. If they kept their hearts true, sang well and drank every drop, the life-giving summer monsoons would shortly appear.
Further south into Mexico, the Aztecs made ceremonial drinks such as pulque from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, and xocolatl, a cocoa beer made from the fleshy pods of the cacao tree. Xocolatl gives us the word chocolate, but only centuries later were the fermented seeds of the fruit used, as in modern-day chocolate. Pulque, on the other hand, has changed little since the goddess Mayahuel and god Tepoztecatl taught the ancients its secrets. The maguey, a giant octopus of a plant, is differentiated from other agaves because its swooping arms “point to heaven.” The tlachiquero retrieves the sweet sap from a well made in the center of a mature maguey. It immediately begins fermenting due wild bacteria called Zymomonas mobilis.
“Zymomonas is a broad range of bacteria,” says director of White Labs, Dr. Chris White. “It is unusual for a bacteria to produce alcohol and this one can tolerate alcohol to 10 percent, but it also makes green apple and lactic acid flavors.” White says Zymomonas is considered a contaminant in a modern brewery.