The end of last week was such a weather tease, with temperatures in the 70s, summerlike thunderstorms and fledgling insects buzzing languorously in the first strong sunshine of the year.
It put me in mind of precious days spent in Isla Mujeres, Mexico, enjoying lunch al fresco with a cool mug of horchata before my meal.
And that was all the inspiration I needed to open up a bottle recently purchased at a Lancaster craft beer shop, Or Xata ale by The Bruery, for this week’s tasting notes.
When I hear “horchata,” I think of that sweetened rice milk beverage I buy in Mexico, and it wasn’t until I started researching that I realized the history of the drink actually dates back to ancient Egypt around 2400 B.C. —with chufa as the main ingredient.
In fact, local specialties for this drink have long been expanded past the use of just the rice to include various nuts, seeds, herbs and tubers.
Horchata de chufa is a Spanish regional version made with almondlike tiger nuts, which is a misnomer because they aren’t nuts at all; rather, they’re tubers of Cyperus esculentus, often called chufa sedge.
A wonderful use of all those cantaloupe seeds my chickens fight over is horchata de melon, a Mexican specialty. Dried seeds are blended with water and strained, resulting in a refreshing and energizing drink.
Common to Costa Rica, El Salvador and Nicaragua is semilla de jicaro, or horchata de morro, made with the seeds of the Crescentia alata trees.
While the names are different (jicaro and morro), these are regional names for the same tree. These seeds impart a delicate, licoricelike flavor that sounds intriguing.
If you’re traveling in Ecuador, horchata is a kind of herbal tea that blends up to 71 plants, several native to the lofty Andean mountains; these drinks are predominantly sold by women called horchateras, and offer a number of purported therapeutic effects.
According to an article in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, herbs discovered while researching blends from different horchateras include elderberry, foxtail amaranth, fennel, chamomile, sowthistle and dandelion.
In Mexico, horchata de arroz is one of the most-seen kinds of soft drinks to serve with a family meal.
This is the one with which I have the most familiarity, as it’s often what’s found when traveling in Mexico or eating at a Mexican restaurant in the U.S.
Horchata de arroz is sweetened with sugar, and may have cinnamon or vanilla added. The rice may be toasted or plain, and either rice milk, almond milk, cow’s milk, coconut milk or sweetened condensed milk is used depending on individual taste.
When comparing the traditional Mexican horchata de arroz and The Bruery’s Or Xata, I’d say the beer version is pretty spot-on from a flavor perspective.
This blonde ale poured creamy gold, slightly hazy with some particulates and topped with a finely dense, white head.
It smelled of cinnamon, vanilla beans and sweet rice pudding, and had boozy warmth.
Cinnamon and vanilla were pronounced characters, and it reminded me of warm rice pudding studded with raisins.
A bright candied lemon peel and piloncillo sugar emerged nicely as the beer warmed, and the dairylike sweetness was a persistent character throughout the session.
Despite a creamy mouth feel up front, there was a refreshingly thinnish body. And, while the sweetness was decidedly dessertlike, it lacked any syrupy quality that would have made it less enjoyable.
Here’s a recipe for the sweet, milky, nonalcoholic grain version.
Start to finish: 12 hours; active time 10 minutes
Makes 6 cups.
2/3 cups white rice
3 cups warm water
1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
¾ to 1 cup sugar
2 cups rice milk or cow’s milk
Ground cinnamon, for serving
In a blender, grind the rice so it is in fine pieces, roughly the consistency of very coarse polenta.
Transfer the rice to a bowl then pour warm water over it and add the cinnamon stick. Cover and refrigerate at least eight hours, but preferably overnight.
Pluck out the cinnamon stick, then puree the rice and water until it’s as smooth as possible. Strain the mixture through a sieve lined with a few layers of cheesecloth, squeezing it relatively firmly to extract as much of the rice flavor as possible.
Stir in the sugar and milk, mixing until the sugar is dissolved. Taste and adjust the sweetness, if necessary. Refrigerate until completely chilled.
Serve over ice with a sprinkling of ground cinnamon on top.
Store in the refrigerator for up to four days.
(The recipe is from Fany Gerson’s “Paletas: Authentic Recipes for Mexican Ice Pops, Shaved Ice and Aguas Frescas.”)