Picture this: you’re thirsty after a long day of work, and you’re looking for something refreshing to wet your whistle on your drive home—and accompany your favorite Mexcellent meal. While most Americans default to grabbing water, soda, or something alcoholic, there’s a delicious and healthy drink that originated right over the border, and it’s known as agua fresca. In fact, you’ve likely heard of it before, even if you don’t know it by the name “agua fresca.”
So, what is agua fresca, where is agua fresca popular, and why do we love it so much? We’ll answer each of these questions coming right up!
What Is Agua Fresca?
In English, the direct translation of agua fresca can mean “fresh water” or “cool water.” However, like many direct translations, this is a bit of a misnomer because true agua fresca is far more than just water.
In fact, agua fresca is an umbrella term for a variety of drinks made with deliciously fresh ingredients, sweeteners, and ice-cold water. The fresh ingredients are most often fruits but are sometimes grains like nuts, rice, and pumpkin seeds.
To put it simply, agua fresca drinks are made by combining the chosen ingredient(s) with sugar and water. Aside from water and sugar, what aguas frescas all have in common is that they’re healthy, straightforward, refreshing, and taste amazing. It’s the taste and health benefits that will change based on the recipe in question.
The History of Agua Fresca
Like most popular Mexican dishes, aguas frescas have a rich cultural history. In fact, aguas frescas have been around for centuries, with the general guidelines for such a drink dating back to the Aztecs. Throughout the past several hundred years, aguas frescas enthusiasts have also taken some inspiration from many other sources.
For as long as humans could infuse water with the flavor of fruits and grains, people have been making and enjoying aguas frescas—although the drinks wouldn’t have been called aguas frescas at the time. For example, the Romans made such a drink from barley and would later make a version of agua fresca with tiger nuts that eventually became the precursor to modern-day horchata. Meanwhile, in ancient Mexico, the Aztecs were believed to have already begun making fruit-based aguas frescas. When Spanish colonizers arrived, they brought with them the Roman influence and may have put their own unique twist on the recipe.
With all these influences, it’s no surprise that indigenous Mexicans and the Spanish alike realized the benefits of mixing natural ingredients with water and sugar. Eventually, aguas frescas became a staple of not only Mexican cuisine but also various cuisines throughout the rest of Central and South America.
The influence of aguas frescas caught on in Mexico and spread here in the United States. They also remain popular today across Latin America. Why? We think these drinks have qualities that simply place them above most other drinks, regardless of where you are and what you have at your disposal.
What Makes Agua Fresca So Good?
At Backyard Taco, we believe agua fresca is popular for a few key reasons.
First and foremost, there’s the fact that agua fresca just tastes great. While getting the right combination of flavors for each person may be down to guesswork and experimentation, anyone can find an agua fresca recipe that appeals to their palate. As an added benefit, you’ll find a few varieties of the drink on most authentic Mexican menus.
Simple and Versatile
With Mexican cuisine, simplicity is the key to not only a food’s staying power but also to making it taste delicious and authentic. Aguas frescas are no exception to this rule. While the versatility of agua fresca means you can swap out the fresh ingredients used in traditional recipes with ingredients that fit your taste, the recipes are fairly straightforward. Most don’t take more than a few ingredients that are accessible and can be adjusted to fit allergy guidelines. Agua fresca has maintained a special place in Mexican cuisine through the years because people can enjoy a refreshing drink made with ingredients they like without a complex preparation process.
Aguas frescas are healthy yet delicious alternatives to other popular drinks. While sugar is added to most recipes, the drinks aren’t nearly as sugar-laden as stereotypical American drinks like soda, sugary teas, and even lemonade. Instead, most of the flavor comes from fresh ingredients, which are natural and full of vitamins. For example, consider the limonada. Limes are a great source of vitamin C, and the drink is an excellent way to get the health benefits from limes, quench your thirst, and keep your sugar count lower than with a lemon-lime soda.
Types of Agua Fresca
While there are potentially endless varieties of aguas frescas for those dedicated to tweaking the basic recipe, a select few have been a part of Mexican cuisine for some time. Here are a few popular aguas frescas flavors that you may experience at an authentic Mexican eatery.
You’ve likely heard of horchata before, even if you aren’t familiar with what it actually is or how it’s made. The truth is, though, there are as many variations of horchata as there are countries and cultures that drink it. All of them qualify as a type of agua fresca.
In Mexico, horchata is made by steeping rice and cinnamon in water. However, rice wasn’t the original grain of choice. It was chosen as a substitute by the Spanish settlers who brought the recipe with them—traditional Spanish horchata was made with tiger nuts.
In Latin America today, you’ll see an endless list of horchata recipes made with a variety of local grains and nuts, with some recipes requiring far more ingredients than others.
However one chooses to make their horchata, the drink remains a staple for many Latin American countries and cultures. Here at Backyard Taco, you’ll find traditional Mexican horchata agua fresca with fresh rice, fine cinnamon, and cold water.
Another well-known flavor of agua fresca is Jamaica. Contrary to popular belief, agua fresca de Jamaica was created in Mexico and not in Jamaica, though the hibiscus flowers used to flavor the drink were brought from the island. To make Jamaica, hibiscus flowers are dried, then boiled in water with added sugar, creating a bright pink or refreshing red drink once the water cools. The key to a good Jamaica is that the hibiscus flowers should be fresh when they are dried, which prevents them from building up chemical compounds that make them bitter.
Jamaica is especially popular for the mid-day meal but can be enjoyed any time of day.
One of the reasons Jamaica is so popular is because it’s so healthy while maintaining that refreshing flavor. Hibiscus flowers can help remove excess salt from the body, reducing blood pressure while providing vitamin C. This means that when you’re drinking agua fresca de Jamaica, you’re getting health benefits and feeling refreshed at the same time.
Much like horchata, Jamaica also has several well-known variants. Hibiscus tea is popular all over the world in some form or another. For example, it appears at Egyptian weddings as a toasting drink and is termed “Italian tea” by many people in Europe. The island nation of Jamaica, appropriately enough, even has its own variant of the drink that’s sweeter than the version you’ll find in Mexico. While all these drinks are different, and not all of them can be considered agua fresca, the fact remains that agua fresca de Jamaica is a well-known version of agua fresca enjoyed in many cultures.
Limonada might be the type of agua fresca most familiar to Americans, as it’s very similar to two drinks already popular here in the US—lemonade and limeade. However, American lemonades and limeades are often much sweeter than a typical agua fresca, as they typically contain a great deal of sugar. The American version also uses far more fruit juice for a more fruit-forward flavor than the traditional Mexican limonada. Still, limeade and agua fresca de limonada are made in quite similar ways, with lime juice and limes in cold water.
Aguas frescas are popular in part for their simplicity, and limonada is no exception to that. While the precise measurements of the lime and sugar can change depending on personal preference, this simple drink shines in its straightforward, Mexican-influenced ingredients. It features a less exotic combination than some of the other popular aguas frescas, which can make it more appealing for someone new to Mexican cuisine.
Of course, there are many other aguas frescas to try. Some popular fruits used to make aguas frescas include melon, lime, strawberries, pineapples, and tamarinds. Chia seeds, vanilla, and alfalfa are possible non-fruit ingredients to make horchata-like drinks. You can also mix and match various ingredients to get even more varieties.
As mentioned, agua fresca recipes are extremely open to experimentation and even cultural shifts, which means that the flavor profiles aren’t set in stone. For those that like to experiment, learning to make agua fresca can be a wonderful way to experience a traditional drink with a unique twist. If you’re making agua fresca at home, what goes into your drink depends on what’s available and what flavors you’re into.
Where Can You Get Authentic Aguas Frescas?
While experimentation is a wonderful thing, authentic aguas frescas are the perfect accompaniment to an authentic Mexican meal. That’s why we recommend the tried and true classics that pair well with any Mexican dish. Here at Backyard Taco, we only offer three types of aguas frescas: Jamaica, horchata, and limonada. We love these flavors, and we trust that you will, too.
When you choose aguas frescas at any of our Backyard Taco locations, you can be sure that you’re getting agua fresca the way Abuela made it. You’ll find simple ingredients, classic flavors, and minimal added sugars. The result is a refreshing, healthy drink you can pick up on the go.
Visit Backyard Taco for Authentic Mexican Food
Whether you’re hungry for a classic Mexican taco made the right way, or you just want to taste an authentic agua fresca, Backyard Taco has you covered. We pride ourselves on providing authentic Mexican dishes made with fresh ingredients.
Dr. Tyler loves tacos! He is one of the owners of Backyard Taco, and can sometimes be found moonlighting there at night or on the weekends.
Dr. Tyler Robison is an alum of Mesa’s Mountain View High School. He graduted from Brigham Young University before being accepted to the “Top Ten-nationally ranked” University of Louisville in Kentucky, where he earned his Doctorate in Dental Medicine and a Master’s Degree in Oral Biology. He graduated with honors in the top ten percent of his class. Dr. Robison continued at the University of the Pacific in San Francisco, where he received a second master’s degree in dental science and his orthodontic certification.
Dr. Tyler enjoys serving in his community. He is a provider for the Smile Back Foundation, which offers scholarships for free dental treatment to underprivileged East Valley students. He is also a Major in the U.S. Army Reserve and served during Operation Enduring Freedom in 2008.
Dr. Tyler Robison’s favorite pastimes include spending time with his family on the lake, at the beach, or on the slopes. He is an avid and crazy snowboarder! He has three incredible sons and one sweet daughter: Caden, Jace, Crew, and Bliss.