By Alvin Starkman, M.A., J.D.
We arrive in the fields about 5:30 pm, near the foothills of the Sierra Madre del Sur, trying to catch the final glimmer of light before dusk sets in. I’ve invited a group of Oaxacan friends to accompany me and my native Zapoteco amigos Juana, Andrés and two of their children, into the countryside to witness the harvesting of aguamiel from the majestic Agave americana. The plant is commonly known as pulquero, because it’s the main species used to make pulque in Santiago Matatlán. And that’s the motive for the trek; even Oaxacans rarely if ever have had an opportunity to learn about pulque production first hand, out amongst the towering rows of maguey (agave).
The group consists of a chef and cooking school instructor, a mezcal distiller and a couple of his friends, two of my closest confidants who have been in the tourism business for over three decades, and two academics and their spouses arriving with pen, notebook and video camera in hand to document it all.
Many confuse artisanal mezcal with pulque. The former is a distillate, produced by taking agave hearts or piñas, baking them over firewood and rocks to release their sugars, then crushing them, followed by fermenting using only environmental yeasts and added water, and finally distilling, most often employing either a copper pot still, or the more rudimentary clay ollas de barro.
Pulque, on the other hand, is produced by simply harvesting the sweet liquid known as aguamiel (honey water) from the center of the agave, and allowing it to ferment once it begins to interact with environmental bacteria. Some insert a small tree branch known as timbre into the vat of aguamiel in order to speed up fermentation, especially during cold weather months.
Pulque has been consumed by indigenous groups for at least 2,000 years, likely much longer. At one point after the arrival of the Spanish, the Crown outlawed the production and consumption of pulque, based upon suspect medical reports asserting that it was harmful to the health, inhibited the natives from doing their work, and was thus the scourge of society. But it was actually pressure brought to bear by Spanish sherry importers and rum producers, who were upset that the indigenous people were not buying what they had to sell. This led to outlawing pulque, a way to get people to buy these other alcoholic drinks.
We now know that imbibed in moderation, pulque is actually good for one’s health. Locals state that it is best consumed in the morning before breakfast in order to receive its fullest benefit, including aiding in the production of white blood cells and reducing the adverse impact of diabetes.
We meet at my Matatlán friends’ home and hop into the back of their vintage gas-guzzling long-box pick-up, and into a group member’s late model SUV. The old truck has no difficulty traversing the narrow dirt roads, and then pathways, until it’s too difficult to make our way by motor. We walk down to the bottom of a steep valley, and then up to the top of the other side, whereupon we immediately come upon several striking rows of blue-green agave (reminiscent of Dorothy and friends emerging from the forest and being captivated by the brilliance of the colorful fields), while we wait for Juana and Andrés to begin their work.
These plants have already been tapped for their aguamiel. When a plant is first ready, at about 15 – 20 years of growth, the harvester, or tlachiquero, cuts away or ties back several of the agave’s exterior leaves, so as not to hurt himself by being pricked by their needle sharp ends, and to provide access to the center of the plant. He then cuts a deep round cylindrical hole in the middle. Finally he covers this “well” with a flat river rock, a piece of agave leaf, an old shirt, or whatever else is available, to inhibit insects, possums and other creatures from getting at the sweet liquid which then seeps into the cavern.
Tlachiqueros generally depart their homes well before dawn so as to enable them to harvest aguamiel before the sun begins to beat down, and again just before dusk. At peak production a plant may yield 3 – 4 liters of aguamiel twice daily. Tapping continues anywhere from 2 – 4 months depending on the species of agave, the growing region, soil composition and other factors. After each tapping, the tlachiquero scrapes a layer out of the well before covering it, to induce more “bleeding.” He then moves on to the next plant.
Andrés gingerly climbs onto a couple of sturdy leaves and then reaches for the covering atop the well. As he removes it, a score of tiny flying insects emerge. Some remain floating on top while nourishing themselves with the aguamiel filling the well. The cover is not impregnable. Using a large half gourd or jícara, Andrés scoops out the liquid, passing it to Juana who pours it over a fine metal strainer and into a plastic container. She then transfers it into another jícara and passes it around. Each of us tastes the aguamiel. Some state it’s like coconut milk, while others fashion it to another sweet liquid or juice. But to a number we are impressed by how a plant alone, with nothing added or done to it other than tapping, can yield such a heavenly drink.
While Andrés finishes extracting the liquid near the end of the process by extending a plastic hose into the bottom and sucking, and then scraping the walls and bottom of the well before covering it, Juana has something else in store for us. She has brought along some pulque which has been fermenting at home for a few days. We taste it alone, then as a 50/50 mixture of pulque and aguamiel. Each sampling provides a very different experience, since the level or fermentation is different; honey-sweet aguamiel with nothing added, the home pulque rather pungent, and the mixture the most agreeable to many in the group.
The aguamiel from the next plant, perhaps 20 meters away from the first and closer to the gully, tastes different. Perhaps because the plant appears a darker tone of green and may be a distinct sub-species, or the point in time in its cycle the liquid is being extracted, or the particular micro-climate wherein it is closer to the creek and more shaded by trees and bushes. Or all; who knows?
After tapping a few plants, darkness is upon us. We return to Juana and Andrés’ home. We sit down at a long kitchen table, to hot chocolate Juana quickly whips up, together with sweet rolls, and of course mezcal. Although this was an aguamiel/pulque experience, no event, in at least this part of Oaxaca, is complete without Mexico’s iconic spirit.
Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D. operates Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com). He is often able to include the aguamiel/pulque experience with Juana and Andrés in an excursion.