By: Mike Lojkutz, Director of Innovation
I’m standing in line, admiring vibrantly painted walls, falling in love with the aroma of a griddle pumping out tortillas bound to be filled with sizzling meat, onions and chilis. A single server floats through the narrow, crowded space, carrying a tray full of freshly made salsa, tortilla chips and glasses filled with colorful beverages that echo those on the wall over her head. The destination? A table of customers in small, crowded booths flanking me on both sides. The rhythm of this place is intoxicating, and my forthcoming order keeps changing in my head with every chiming of the bell that rings each time the door to this popular oasis swings open.
I’m finally at the front of the line. “Tacos al pastor.” I pause. “And what are those?” I ask, pointing to the three large, unmarked jars to the right of the cashier. “Aguas Frescas. Tamarindo, Jamaica, Horchata.” I’m out of my depth here. I shift my eyes down, noticing the cashier has a quart container filled with one of them and look up and identify which it is. The jars are unmarked, and it feels like you have to be in the know to place an order. Like the young, naive line cook that desperately wants to be on the inside track that I was, I simply point, not knowing what it is, but feel like it must be the real deal if the staff is drinking it.
I hand my cash over, turn around and slide into the booth my friends are at. What am I about to drink? Is it sweet? Boozy? Terrible? In short order, the chips, salsa and drinks arrive from overhead. I shift, sitting up a little straighter, lifting the glass to my lips. It’s sweet, tart and like nothing I’ve had before. It turns out this incredibly impactful flavor experience with a Tamarind Agua Fresca will send me deeper down the rabbit hole of flavor exploration — one that I’ve still yet to find my way out of.
So what is an Agua Fresca then? A traditional Mexican drink, translating to “fresh water” in English, offering a natural and exciting take on flavored water. While fruit is a common ingredient included in the beverage, it can also be infused with seeds, grains, nuts, herbs and flowers, making Aguas Frescas highly versatile as well as fully customizable in flavor profile. Most modern day recipes will also call for the addition of a sweetener, with cane sugar being the most “traditional,” but you’ll also find agave nectar and honey used as alternatives.
Presentation is also a hallmark of Aguas Frescas, which are commonly served from a vitrolero, a clear, bee-hive shaped jar which the drinks are ladled out of, affording operators the ability to have multiple flavors displayed together. Creating a colorful bar with Aguas Frescas in vitroleros is striking, and presenting in such a way offers an “analog Instagram” of quality to an operator’s display. Today, many operators in the U.S. have replaced those with table top bubblers or self-dispensing units where customers can pour themselves.
I’d learn the origin of this staple drink can be traced back hundreds of years. It is said that the Aztec people created Aguas Frescas on their routine journeys from their farmlands into the city of Tenochtitlan (current day Mexico City) to trade and buy goods at urban markets. The Aztecs would gather fruit along their route and begin to muddle it with water to make the refreshment. This tradition became popular in greater Mexico as well as Guatemala, and over time, consumed anywhere from homes to the streets, and sold by vendors in carts and markets. By the 1940s, the drink had also found a foothold in Southern California and Southwestern United States, eventually gaining enough traction to support food chains highlighting the beverage.
While still in an early adoption phase in most of the U.S., Aguas Frescas are growing on menus at an impressive clip, nearly 50% over the past 4 years! Only Kombucha, cold brew, almond milk and coconut water have grown more in that time. According to Datassential, 31% of U.S. consumers are familiar with the category, enjoying its highest awareness among consumers with roots in Latino culture who are searching for authentic options that celebrate their heritage. At Leahy-IFP, we fully expect numbers and awareness to continue to tick up as we see them on more menus in the coming years and as the demographics continue to change.
The most menued Agua Fresca is Horchata, a sweet rice milk (although oats, barley, almonds and coconut are all variations here) spiced with cinnamon, which stands out from others due to its striking milky white appearance, a contrast to most of the other colorful Aguas Frescas. Certain versions may remind you of the milk left in your bowl from your favorite cinnamon sugar cereal, which for many, is the best part! Next, you’re most likely to find Tamarindo, made from the tamarind pod. The seed within the tamarind pod is what you are really after here, which must be gently coaxed out of its pod by steeping it (usually in sugar syrup) to soften it, removing it from its pod and blending and straining before adding it to water. The sweet and sour profile is an incredibly unique flavor. The third most menued Agua Fresca is the strikingly beautiful Jamaica (often seen as Agua de Jamaica or hibiscus), which is made from steeping dried flowers in hot water, creating a deep magenta hue.
Other popular flavors you’ll find in the U.S. include mango, fresa (strawberry) melón (normally cantaloupe), sandiá (watermelon) and piña (pineapple), all of which are normally pureed with sugar and added to water. Yes, all these labor intensive drinks are Aguas Frescas, and the complexity and adaptability is what makes them so special. Each of these bases allow an operator to create signature programs, vary their offering and create seasonal LTOs that drive traffic.
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Undoubtedly, this versatile, customizable and visually appealing drink has taken market share from the shrinking CSD (carbonated soft drinks) and tea categories. Aguas Frescas are offered at a variety of restaurant segments, ranging from quick service to fine dining, but they are most often found in the Fast Casual space. Additionally we are seeing a lot of Agua Fresca inspired drinks, so even if they are not expressly called out as such, they are certainly making major strides across the U.S. market.
Chain activity in recent years with Aguas Frescas has been concentrated, not surprisingly, in the Mexican space, with offerings from the likes of Tex-Mex chain Taco Bueno, On The Border and most recently, Chipotle appearing on menus. Other chains like California Pizza Kitchen and Ledo Pizza have also added Agua Fresca to menus, seeing an emerging space that fills a void in their beverage programs. In more formal dining settings, Aguas Frescas are versatile enough to blend right in as well, fitting in nicely behind the bar as a component for a cocktail or by itself as a refreshing non-alcoholic alternative.
Bottom line, Aguas Frescas are delicious, offer operators a wide range of options for high margin beverages and are continuing to emerge within the foodservice beverage space. When it comes to the general U.S. consumers, Aguas Frescas offer a refreshing non-carbonated choice, especially for those who tend to go for a non-revenue drink option like water. The beverage provides a middle ground between soda, water and tea and provides increased choice for customers in a market where customizability and options have become the norm. Further, Aguas Frescas can appeal to more health-conscious, Millennials and Gen Z consumers because of its natural ingredient appeal and vibrant colors, offering a bright and refreshing drink option for your next meal.
We’re certain you’ll be seeing a lot more of Aguas Frescas in the coming years which warms my heart since I am a romantic believer that food and beverage can be a gateway to a world outside of our own. So, when the door opens, and it’s time to place your next order at your favorite taqueria or cantina, or perhaps even chain restaurant, and you are not sure what beverage they are serving, confidently ask, “What are those?” and welcome to the wide world of Aguas Frescas! Enjoy!