I have been on a quest lately…“The Quest for Cebadina”. I was originally thinking about using the title “The Death of Cebadina” for this blog entry because it sounds like a good name for a murder mystery. As it turns out there was no actual death involved (yet) but at least there was a good mystery. My quest started a few weeks ago when my friend and fellow blogger Rachel Laudan brought up the subject of barley water and I mentioned cebadina which is a beverage that supposedly uses barley water as a base. The Spanish word “cebada” means “barley” in English. I remembered that when I lived near Monterrey in the State of Nuevo León and when I left to move to Irapuato my friends told me that I should be sure and try “cebadina” which they said was traditional and abundant in the State of Guanajuato. I discovered that my new comrades in Irapuato knew about cebadina but none of them made a special point of drinking it except perhaps when they had indigestion or a hangover. My friends took me to a place across the street from the Casa de la Cultura in Irapuato on the corner of Hidalgo and Obregón where Obregón becomes Ramón Corona and there I had my first taste of cebadina. Unknown to me at the time, one of my joker friends told the proprietor that I had a big hangover. I innocently ordered a glass of cebadina. As I remember the man brought me a large glass containing a reddish liquid and then he dumped a spoonful of white powder into it and stirred it vigorously. Immediately it began to fizz wildly and he urged me to grab hold of it and drink it down quickly. I did so with reservations and right after that I gave out the biggest belch that I have ever experienced in my life. The cebadina vendor and my new buddies all nodded and smiled as if I had done exactly the right thing and that the cebadina was working properly. That was over eight years ago and that is about all that I can remember of the experience. Over the ensuing years cebadina has drifted in and out of my consciousness and lately I have noticed some web based travel guides noting that among other things the City of León is famous for cebadina. I had been to León, many, many times but I never noticed cebadina.
I checked out the Internet for cebadina but there is very little information other than it is more or less a carbonated beverage cooked up from barley water, tamarindo (tamarind pods) , and jamaica (red hibiscus flower pods), with some pineapple vinegar mixed in. Then the whole concoction is kept in an oak barrel until it is served in a glass to which is added a bit of bicarbonate of soda to make it fizz. My wife Gina told me that when she was a little girl and her parents took her to León they would always go to the "centro" or “downtown” area. She said that during the hot weather there would be a number of stalls selling cebadina and the people seemed to like it and drank a lot of it to help them cool off. She said that there was a narrow street right next to the “presidencia” (city hall) where there were a lot of outdoor market type stalls under the building’s arches and a number of them sold cebadina. She said they sold it in cone shaped white disposable paper cups of about four or five ounces that fit into an aluminum holder. This would have been about the tail end of the 60's. We went to León to check it out. It turns out that there are no longer any such market stalls under the arches but only about 100 meters away facing the square at Portal Guerrero #17 we found a shop called “La Cebadina” that seemed to be doing a brisk business dispensing cebadina from an oak barrel. We went in and I walked up to the counter and ordered a small cebadina. The lady drew off a bright red liquid into a plastic cup and before I could even get my bearings she stirred in a teaspoon of white powder and said in a loud voice ”Tómalo rápido antes que se tire” which means “Drink it rapidly before it spills over”. It was too late. It foamed up and spilled all over the counter and she gave me a disgusted look as she wiped it up. I drank what was left in the cup and found it to be fairly strong and vinegary. It was not all that bad but it really wasn’t that pleasant either. The mystery deepened. I thought “What is this stuff and why would anybody want to drink it?”. I tried to ask the shop people about cebadina but they became very tight lipped like I was a spy and it got worse when I started taking pictures. I decided that I needed to go elsewhere for my answers.
I decided to search for everything that I could find about similar barley based drinks and their possible origins and I really didn’t have to go far. I discovered several references to “cebadina de tepache” and the addition of bicarbonate of soda and I began to realize that tepache is the real base of cebadina. Tepache is a drink made from pineapple rinds, sugar, and cinnamon. The pineapple begins to ferment after two or three days and this gives tepache a slightly alcoholic “bump” but not a “kick”. If more alcohol is desired sometimes a bit of beer is added or barley (cebada) to help the fermentation process. Tepache wasn’t always made with pineapple because pineapples originally came from Brazil and Uruguay and although they were brought to Mexico in the sixteenth century they weren’t widely available outside of the tropics until they could be distributed by rail in the late 1800’s. Before that time tepache was made with nothing more than ground corn, sugar and water. It doesn’t matter if the tepache is based upon ground corn and sugar or pineapple rind and sugar the alcohol resulting from fermentation will eventually turn to vinegar. When this vinegar made the tepache too acidic to drink people learned that they could neutralize it with bicarbonate of soda and get a fizzy drink as a bonus. Around the year 1940 someone decided to add jamaica and/or tamarindo as a coloring agent and the notorious cebadina of Guanajuato was born.
I revisited the shop in Irapuato where I first tried cebadina and the proprietor confirmed much of what I had been speculating about. His name is Hector Arrieta and he told me that his father Ramón Arietta started the business in 1944. The shop is called “La Reyna Refrescaría y Dulcería” or in other words “The Queen Refreshment and Sweet Shop”. He told me that barley is no longer used and the ingredients of his cebadina are nothing more than pineapple, jamaica, and tamarindo mixed according to his father’s secret formula (of course). He said that the fizz depends upon the strength of the cebadina. He keeps full strength cebadina in a storage barrel and he puts ice in the barrel on the counter that he uses to dispense cebadina in order to dilute the acid and maintain a proper balance. Normally his customers don’t go for the big fizz unless they have indigestion (or some practical joker buddies) and so his cebadina just bubbles pleasantly after the addition of the bicarbonate of soda. I tried his cebadina again after eight years and this time I liked it and even bought some to take home with me. Besides the strength, the main difference between the Irapuato cebadina and the León cebadina is the color. The Irapuato cebadina looks reddish orange like it could very well be a mixture of jamaica and tamarindo. The León cebadina, however, looks bright red like it could possibly be nothing more than red unsweetened Kool-Aid and vinegar. By the way, the “La Cebadinaa” shop in León was founded about the same time as the Irapuato “La Reyna” shop.
I still have some loose ends to tie up. For one thing, what about the oak barrel? What does that do? Well, if cebadina became popular during World War II there could very well have been a shortage of steel barrels and besides, you wouldn’t want to put an acidic product in a steel barrel anyway. Plastic hadn’t been invented yet so oak was the obvious choice. I suppose that nowadays you could use a plastic barrel but I don’t think it would be very appealing. Another thing…what is the tamarindo for? I can understand using the jamaica on account of its red color but it doesn’t seem like tamarindo offers any particular benefit unless it is because it is slightly acidic. Another question is do they use pineapple juice and let it ferment to the vinegar stage or do they just add pineapple vinegar to the red coloring agent? Perhaps I will never know. As far as I can tell there is only one vendor of cebadina in Irapuato, and one in León. I had gotten a lead on two more cebadina vendors in León, one in the Juan de Dios Plaza and another in the Calzada de los Héroes near the “Lion’s Gate” but we checked them out and found that they had both gone out of business. I understand that there may be a cebadina vendor in the City of Guanajuato but I will leave that one for my friend Rachel to discover.
So here we are at the bottom line. What did I learn about cebadina? I learned that drinking cebadina is one of those nostalgic traditions from the past that is slowly fading away and that it is one of those things that “everybody knows about” but relatively few people really care about unless it is a hot day and they happen to be passing by the cebadina shop. I had a lot of fun on my quest for cebadina though and I encourage everyone who comes to visit our beautiful City of Irapuato to try the cebadina. Just tell Hector Arrieta at “La Reyna” that Mexico Bob sent you. If nothing else it will be of those experiences that you can put on your “Been there and done that” list and whenever someone mentions cebadina you can always say, “Oh yeah, cebadina. I know all about that. You really ought to try it!”. Let’s keep cebadina alive a little bit longer.