A Cultural Exploration Of Horchata And Coffee

As a first-generation Mexican-American working in specialty coffee, I welcome the overlap of the two cultures. Mexico is located directly on the Coffee Belt, the portion of our planet located between latitudes 25 degrees North and 30 degrees South—the only part of the world where coffee can grow and thrive natively. Even then, Mexico’s influence on coffee is far greater than most realize.

Have you ever stopped by a cafe and ordered a mocha or a mochaccino? Thanks to the Olmec civilization of Southern Mexico, cocoa was domesticated in Mesoamerica long before Columbus made his debut. By the time Hernán Cortés arrived in 1519, cocoa (and by extension chocolate) was in such high demand, it was seen as a gift from the Gods by the Olmec, and a spoil of war by the conquistadors.

With chocolate and other decadences finding their way into second-wave coffee, it makes sense that horchata would also find a foothold in modern cafes. One look at the bottled coffee aisle of any upscale supermarket shows that the sky’s the limit when it comes to horchata-inspired beverages. From horchata lattes to horchata cold brew, and even horchata chai, each interpretation is more intriguing than the last.

That being said, just because a coffee company labels a drink as horchata doesn’t necessarily make it so. As Mayra Aceves of Leche Co. so eloquently states, “You can’t just add cinnamon to [coffee] and say it’s ‘Mexican Style.’”

Mayra Aceves and Steven Mecedo are the driving force of the Anaheim, CA-based Leche Co., a Latinx-owned and operated cold brew company specializing in dairy-free milk alternatives. Together, they make all of their leches (Spanish for “milks”) and cold brews fresh daily, with a special emphasis on Latin American ingredients. “What’s happening now with coffee happened first with beer,” says Aceves. “A lot of these breweries were based in San Diego, with a big Latin culture there, [and] asked, ‘What is the consumer going to look like; let’s make it for them.’ None of these beer companies were owned by people of color.”

“It was mostly these chocolate-flavored stouts,” Aceves continues, “and none of them tasted like Mexican beers. Again, it was just chocolate and cinnamon. Horchata flavoring was just like a milky stout with cinnamon and vanilla, and you wonder—is that racism? You know. we eat other things, and we drink other things; we had to immigrate to this country and adapt to what America had to offer.”

“Every family has their own recipe; every town its own version.”

Gilberto Cetina, Chichen Itza Restaurant

So what is horchata? Gilberto Cetina, founder, and chef of Chichen Itza Restaurant in Los Angeles describes horchata as being like mole sauce. “Every family has their own recipe; every town its own version.” To paint a broader picture, horchata is a part of the drink family known as aguas frescas, literally translating to “fresh water.”

“Aguas frescas come in a wide range of flavors in Mexico since we traditionally used whatever we had available,” writes Gonzalo Guzmán, owner and chef of Nopalito in San Francisco. “Sometimes orange juice with a little sugar and water, sometimes tropical fruits like bananas blended and diluted, and oftentimes dried rice steep overnight in water to soften and blend into a milky version we call horchata.”

Aguas frescas, as we know them today, are the brainchild of one Doña Casilda, founder of one of the mainstay booths of the Oaxacan 20th November Market in 1890. She is best known for a horchata variation that has since become synonymous with Oaxacan cuisine, utilizing a splash of red cactus fruit syrup, toasted walnuts, and sliced ripe cantaloupe.

Flor Heras, owner and chocolatier for Reina Negra, a chocolate bar in Oaxaca, Mexico, describes Doña Casilda’s recipe as el agua de lujo de horchata, or the horchata of luxury.

“The thing with horchata is that everyone can develop their own recipe,” Heras tells me. “But the basics of horchata are sugar, cinnamon, and ground rice. You must pre-infuse a night before to create a texture that looks like milk. But in reality, it’s not milk. People add milk to give it a thicker texture, but if you do your process well—of hydrating the rice, straining it well, and grounding it up well—you don’t need to add the milk.”

“Horchata is very traditional,” Heras continues, “and if you come to Oaxaca you must drink horchata as an agua fresca, not as a mix for another drink. I would never put it with coffee, as it does not sound appealing to me. Horchata has cinnamon, and cinnamon tends to kill all the flavors of many drinks.”

Most commercially available horchata coffee drinks in the United States use a coconut and cinnamon base to emulate the texture and flavor of the traditional recipe. It’s much less labor-intensive to substitute coconut milk with a dash of cinnamon than it is to undergo the traditional process that Heras describes.

Although coconut and cinnamon are both ingredients used liberally in modern Mexican cuisine, neither are actually native to Mexico. Coconuts can be traced back to the islands of the Polynesian Triangle and cinnamon to Sri Lanka. While all three cultures are known for decadent food and liberal use of spices, all three cultures also have their own pre-established traditions and values.

Horchata in coffee deserves more respect and recognition than what it’s experiencing currently—a dash of cinnamon or coconut milk does not a horchata make—as does any ingredient we choose to mix into our beloved cafecitos (Spanish for “little coffees,” specifically implying an endearing manner).

Not everything is horchata. But everything horchata is a gift from Mexico.

Cain Ariel Ramirez (@marvinhellagaye) is the and vice president of Paper Moon Coffee Co. in Santa Clara, CA. This is Cain Ariel Ramirez’s first feature for Sprudge.

*Transcribed from an interview by Kate Avansino of Cafébre. Transcription and translation provided by Anaruth Hernandez

Photo credits: Top photo by Brent Hofacker, in-story photos by Xhico.