Story Detail

21 Oct 2015

Maví - A refreshing, Caribbean drink

Vox Orbis / 21 Oct 2015 Fermentation

Photo: A glass of effervescent maví.

Languages: Spanish (Español)

Synopsis by Cultural Anthropologist Chloé Frommer. Fermentation is a cross-cultural, botanical food and beverage-processing technique that facilitates preservation, detoxification, digestion, and taste. With modernization, the visual appearance, aroma and flavor profile of some fermented products have also developed as very particular, stylized registers. But before all that there has always been meaning. Fermented products symbolize and materialize specific cosmological heritages – ranging from large ceremonial festivals to isolated, sacred rituals, or ritually-altered states. In the submission about Caribbean maví below, it’s clear that the alcoholic content, basic substance, and even sweetness levels of one drink can also be radically changed by material and social historical formations. 

Roselyn Rodriguez

Maví is a fermented drink that has been prepared for hundreds of years in the Caribbean. The exact origin of this drink is contested. It may have been a tradition of the Taino – people indigenous to the Caribbean, prepared as a tea with the bark of the maví tree (Soldierwood, Colobrina aborescens) to cure diseases and/or as a drink. Others say maví is of Afro-Caribbean origin, entering Puerto Rico with Haitian immigrants. Still others argue that mavi in Puerto Rico sprung up with sugar cane production (circa. 1520).

Photo: Maví tree (Soldierwood; Colobrina aborescens)

Unlike other beverages where fermentation is used for processing it, today’s maví has no alcohol (although it may have at one time. See reference: http://drinks.seriouseats.com/2014/03/mabi-funky-drink-caribbean-mabi-taino-review.html).

There’s no doubt an interesting story here about how maví became non-alcoholic because Caribbean people had already been known for their alcoholic sweet potato drink called: mâ'bi. When the first British colonialists arrived they also adopted this drink calling it: "mobbie". For the British, mobbie was a substitute for beer, which they could not get on the islands. Eventually, because of rum and other imported drinks, the consumption of mâ'bi by the British colonialists decreased. But poor people and slaves continued preparing and consuming the drink.

A subsequent shift from the sweet potato-based, alcoholic drink back to the bark-based maví may have occurred in the mid-19th century when worms decimated a high proportion of the sweet potato crop (Maggiolo 2015). Residents of the islands likely returned to maví bark with sweet potatoes being less abundant. They then likely also added large amounts of sugar to the recipe, along with spices such as cinnamon and other spices to reduce bitterness, help the fermentation, and increase the alcohol content. In the early 20th century, lower sugar cane yields may have led to the maví we know best today – still sweet, but less fermented and, non-alcoholic.

Perhaps because of these historic variations, today not everyone prepares maví the same. Puerto Ricans pass their own families’ recipe from generation to generation. In the Dominican Republic, a variant - mabi  - is made with cinnamon and other spices and sold either in light and dark brown colors. Whereas in Puerto Rico, maví is always dark brown.

However you call it, maví, or mabi (mauby, or pru, English beer in the Antilles and in northern Venezuela) this fermented bark drink is taken cold to cool off in hot, tropical temperatures. In Puerto Rico, now we consider it our culinary heritage so much that the House of Representatives of Puerto Rico submitted a bill to declare maví as “the artisanal drink of Puerto Rico”. 

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Roselyn Rodriguez, Vox Orbis 2015