Coyol, the Magical Moonshine of Rural Costa Rica
Bar La Relincha sits on a dirt road in Cartagena, Costa Rica. Equipped with a tiny kitchen, two tables and a large empty dance floor, this is where flirtatious locals congregate at night to sip on cheap imperial beers and—if they're feeling especially raucous—coyol wine.
In the corner, a girl presides over a bathtub-sized metal vat, dragging a ladle through the liquid in rhythmic strokes. Within it lies an unctuous golden broth, its fat pooling on the top in reflective circles. Bar La Relincha makes this so-called "hangover soup," a rich combination of yucca, chayote and tender pork clinging to the bone, just once a week on Sundays before the afternoon soccer crowds flood in.
Dishes begin arriving at our table at the request of Jose, a local chef and our guide for the day: heaping bowls of picadillo, sweet plantains baked to a crisp, mild Turrialba queso fresco folded into corn tortillas. Toward the end of the meal, Jose converses closely with a group of locals nearby before reappearing, grinning: "I found some. We're going to get coyol."
Coyol wine, or chicha de coyol, is both a moonshine and a lifestyle. A cheap, fermented beverage that's been consumed across Latin America for thousands of years, the beverage is famous for its surprising potency and unique lingering effect.
Though coyol's point of origin is southern Mexico, in Costa Rica's Guanacaste province—and the Nicoya Peninsula in particular—the drink is an essential part of local life, sold in foggy recycled bottles at stands along country roads for a handful of colones.
We drive to a nearby shack surrounded by fields of browned grass and cows, where a group of men stand around a pile of fallen coyol palms baking in the Central American sun. Within the trunks, which are covered in defensive four-inch spikes, the sap ferments and is extracted at three different points in the process, each with a strikingly contradictory flavor and potency.
The hole where the liquid is extracted is the size of a fist and is covered by a palm leaf fending off flies that might otherwise be drawn to the sweet nectar. The producer aligns a metal sifter over a plastic cup and begins to ladle the liquid from the trunk into the strainer, filling it and passing it to me for a sip. The mildest of coyol variations, it is sweet and light and similar in flavor to coconut water, milky in color with the consistency of saliva.
The second variation, which is served from repurposed wine bottles, is more akin to sake: refreshing, clear and smoother than the first. The coyol that's been fermenting longest—the one we've been told could get us in trouble—is thick and sweet and chalky. The producer offers up a full bottle, but I sip just a little, having been warned by Jose that not only can this variety cause a wicked hangover, but once last night's drunkenness has faded, going back out into the sun the following day will make you drunk all over again.
Though the actual alcohol content of coyol is said to be fairly low, the drink is made from a plant whose enzymes mimic the buzz of traditional liquor, producing a sustained intoxication that can last for days. Though the science behind coyol hasn't been proven in any lab—and its potency is perhaps exaggerated—the locals, and those who have sipped it for millennia before them, swear by its magical powers, relying on the elixir for not only drunken nights, but also for a guaranteed buzz the next day.
Jose buys a couple of bottles of the strongest variety; I buy some of the lighter coyol for later. Our heads buzzing from nature's curious nectar, we head back into the sun—and on to another feast on another dirt road.
This month, we're going Under the Hood and into the art and science of the culinary world to find the emerging designers, independent farmers and (spoiler) major corporations creating trends from the ground up.
Gillie Houston is Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor currently traveling the world in hunt of good stories and great tacos. Follow her culinary wanderlusting on Instagram at @gilliehouston.
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