Last fall I visited the growing, drying, and production facilities for Ancho Reyes chile liqueur near Puebla, Mexico. I learned a lot about chiles.
We flew into the city of Puebla, and the chiles are grown not far away in San Martín Texmelucan de Labastida.
Ancho chiles are the dried version of poblano peppers, much like chipotles are dried jalapenos.
Poblanos: The Reaping
We visited a field where the chiles for Ancho Reyes were being harvested. These fields are 2000 meters above sea level in a volcanic valley. Water comes down from nearby volcanoes and makes the fields very wet . We had to travel standing in the back of a big truck to get through all the mud on the roads. The water is good, because poblano chiles require lots of it.
In March and April the seeds are germinated and planted. They are delicate plants and require lots of care. The plants are supported by lines of string, so that they won't fall in the mud when the heavy peppers grow on them. It takes about 6 months before harvest.
Poblano chiles are harvested one time per year. The first ones harvested are sold as fresh green chiles.
Chiles that will become dried anchos are left on the vine longer than the ones harvested for fresh poblanos. Leaving them longer on the field concentrates flavors and sugars.
All There Is To Know about the Drying Game
Around a bend on a small street in the town of San Martín Texmelucan de Labastida, you come across a cement fence with cacti on the top in place of barbed wire. Behind it are guard dogs; a double-incentive not to hop over the top.
Inside is what looks like the foundation for a large building not yet started - a big patch of dirt, but it has been combed up to wide plateaus with narrow ditches dug through every ten feet or so. On top of those raised beds are zillions of drying poblano peppers in a limited rainbow of colors from red to brown, some still with their green stems sticking out.
Beneath the peppers are what looks like a hay mat (actually small encino oak), which allows air to flow around the peppers as they dry.
The chiles dry for between 15 and 30 days here, being flipped over every 3 days or so. The drying process both concentrates the flavor and sugar in the chiles, makes them shelf stable, and gives them more flavor complexity according to our hosts.
Not all chiles you'll find in stores are dried this way - many now come from China, where they are dried in ovens.
The Blend Of It All
The recipe for Ancho Reyes is "inspired by" a recipe from 1927.
The actual recipe is:
- 90% Ancho chile peppers
- 10% Guajilla and Pacilla peppers
- A small amount of secret ingredients
- Alcohol - 55% ABV cane syrup from Veracruz, Mexico
- Sugar syrup, also from Mexico
Guajilla peppers are hot and spicy, while pacilla are more earthy. Dried chiles come into the production facility in big bags.
The chiles are cut up with scissors. Some but not all of the seeds are discarded to get the right amount of heat in the final product.
Then the pieces of chli are infused into 1000 liter tanks of alcohol. About four of those huge bags go into each 1000L tank. They are stirred once per week and infuse for around 6 months.
Each of the three chile varieties are infused separately, then the product is blended at the end along with sugar. When they blend, there is no set amount of sugar - they match it to the heat of the product each time.
All the color of Ancho Reyes comes from the chiles; none is added.
Also: It is fun to drink.