Why the Agua Fresca Never Goes Out of Style
Whether you’re looking for fresh watermelon, cozy horchata, or tangy tamarind, the Mexican classic is a drink for all seasons.
As summer shifts into fall, most people will trade in their lemonades and frosty milk shakes for pumpkin spice lattes or hot cocoa, but one drink that remains a constant through the seasons in the agua fresca. Agua frescas—which translates to fresh water—are popular juices mixed with sugar found throughout Mexico and central America. They can be made with whatever is in season: watermelon, pineapple, tamarind, and cinnamon blended rice water—or horchata—are all popular iterations.
For Sabrina Meza, agua frescas is both a nostalgic beverage and a newfound career. When the pandemic began and Meza couldn’t find steady work as a makeup artist, she turned to the tried and true drinks and began making her own, selling as a street vendor alongside her boyfriend in their hometown of El Monte, California.
“We definitely wanted to stick to something that’s part of our heritage, being that we are both Mexican, and so we were like, ‘Let’s do this,’” Meza explains. “It was something that we were able to start [because] it’s somewhat easier.”
Meza began watching YouTube videos on how to prepare aguas and experimented with ratios of sugar, water, and fruit, adding in a squeeze of lime here and there or other secret ingredients when needed. Although she began selling in front of her home before gradually moving to a busier street, Meza and her boyfriend now run Aguas Guey, a food stop within a market that serves her signature aguas alongside trays of tacos.
Meza isn’t the only one who viewed aguas as a calling. Erin PonTell and Kayla Castañeda started Agua Bonita, a canned agua frescas company, because they wanted to make drinks that represent their cultural heritage and also focus on simple ingredients. “I grew up with them, and it’s one of those things that’s so simple in concept but just glaringly missing from the market,” Castañeda says. As a child, Castañeda would watch her grandpa bring home fruit from the fields just on the edge of becoming overripe and transform the unwanted fruit into agua frescas. “It was a way of saving that produce but making it stretch, but then also tying it into these family celebrations.”
So when it came time to craft their own product, instead of trying to pursue a trendier route with kombucha, adaptogens, or other buzzwords, the pair relied on what they already knew.
“On the flavor profile side, it’s allowed us to do some interesting things like the sweet and spicy combo, which a lot of people aren’t doing,” PonTell says of the cans of Agua Bonita, which currently come in two flavors: pineapple cucumber and watermelon chile. “It’s spicy in a culturally authentic way and not a ginger way.”
Although Meza has admitted that sales of agua frescas tend to go down during the cooler months, with customers opting for Abuelita hot chocolate over aguas, she’s found ways to keep aguas at the forefront. For starters, she’s dreamt up a pumpkin spice horchata to get into the season’s spirit, laughing that if Starbucks can do it, so can she. And regardless of the season, her limonada de fresa—or strawberry lemonade—always sells.
As for Agua Bonita, the cans of agua fresca go through a unique pasteurization process that preserves the freshness of the drinks, making them consumable year round. “We use as much rescued produce as possible in our recipes,” PonTell says of the recipe and development process and the brand’s philosophy to lower food waste. “Being pasteurized in a can allows us to extend the product life cycle, not just one day if you’re making it fresh in your house or three days if it’s in a bottle, but up to a year on a shelf, which is something we're really proud of.”
The women behind Agua Bonita are working on one of their most requested flavors, horchata, which is certainly a cozier version of aguas for the cooler months thanks to the addition of cinnamon. “When you have a drink that can really bring back those memories of celebration, it transcends just being another product on the shelf,” Castañeda says. “That is what makes us different from being just another soda or another sparkling water—we’re very deliberately doing things differently.”
Making agua frescas at home
For those that want to try their hand at making aguas at home, Meza is encouraging. “I definitely think it is super doable,” she says. “The base part, of every agua, is literally going to be fruit, water, and sugar.” For Meza, it’s all about eyeballing ingredients, adding sugar to taste, and experimenting with whatever fruit is in season.
- Fruit of choice (feel free to mix flavors, like strawberries with lemon)
- Sugar, to taste
- Optional: mint, lime juice, basil, or any other herbs
1. Blend fruit with water until desired consistency.
2. Add sugar to taste.