By Julie Etra
We’ve all heard of, and no doubt tried, tequila and mezcal, which are made from the piña (heart) of the agave cactus. There are many varieties of agave in Mexico (called “maguey” locally). Tequila can be made only from Agave tequilana weber, while mezcal is made from any variety – and often from several varieties of agave at once. Agave salmiana and Agave americana grow throughout the Valley of Oaxaca. Until recently, the salmiana was identified as the species from which another traditional fermented drink – pulque – was made; botanists now identify Agave atrovirens as the variety the pulqueros (pulque makers) call “maguey pulquero” – the pulqueros, of course, are not as fussy as the botanists, and make pulque, like mezcal, from any number of different varieties.
Pulque comes from the sap of the stem of the maguey pulquero, as opposed to the heart used to produce tequila and mezcal. The liquid is called aguamiel (honey water). When the agave matures, which takes from 8 to 15 years, depending on the variety, the central “leaves,” called meyolote, are removed to prevent the plant from blooming. The resultant circular shallow pad, where the sap concentrates, oozes the aguamiel, which is then extracted with a hollowed-out gourd called an acocote (from the Náhuatl word acocohitli) by a tlachiquero (person who extracts the liquid). Once or twice a day a scraping tool called an otomio is used to enhance the process as the plant continues to exude more aguamiel. The tlachiquero pours the aguamiel into a vat for fermentation, which begins as soon as the aguamiel is exposed to air. The plant will continue producing aguamiel – up to 1,000 liters, about 264 gallons – until it dries up and dies. In between harvests, the pad is covered with pencas (maguey leaves) and rocks to protect it from wildlife, insects, rain, bacteria, etc.
Sometimes a small tree branch known as a timbre was placed in the vat of aguamiel to speed up fermentation, especially during cold weather. Word has it that other materials get added, including meat wrapped in a sock (no thanks!). Hibiscus, lime (cal) from corn processing, seeds, and roots were sometimes added to thicken the liquid. Although some of the materials used in the process have changed over the centuries, such as plastic buckets in place of gourds to collect the aguamiel, the basic processes have not changed. To cut the pencas and scratch the pad, the pre-Hispanic pulqueros fashioned knives from volcanic obsidian mined in the vicinity of Puebla (crossing the altiplano in Puebla, you can see the volcanic “twins” Popocatépetl and Iztaccihuatl – the former is still erupting).
Before the Spanish conquest, aguamiel was consumed in the central valleys of the kingdom of the Nahuatl-speaking Mexica (later known as Azteca), by the Maya in the Yucatán, and in the region known as the Huasteca (present-day Tamaulipas, Veracruz, Puebla, Hidalgo, San Luis Potosí, Querétaro and Guanajuato). In addition to its intoxicating characteristics, it was also used by some peoples as an enema. It was essential in certain pre-Hispanic rituals and central to several legends.
According to these myths, one of the creator Gods, Quetzalcoatl, sacrificed a young maiden, Mayahuel, who was reborn as the maguey deity to endow humans with the sustenance from her body. An extensive and complex symbolic system connects pulque with the moon, the underworld, rain, fertility, agriculture, and sacrifice. It is said that Mayahuel determined the method of extraction of the aguamiel, while Patecatl, the Aztec god of healing and fertility, the discoverer of peyote, and the “lord of the root of pulque,” figured out the fermentation process.
Who was allowed to drink this beverage of the gods in pre-Hispanic times? The royalty and high society, of course, but also elderly people, including women, and even soldiers, but perhaps only on particular occasions, as depicted in the Mural of the Drinkers (Mural de los Bebedores) one of the most notable works of art addressing the consumption of pulque. This great mural, approximately 60 meters long and covering the façade of a building in Cholula, Puebla, dates to approximately 200 AD. It is basically a depiction of a borcachera (binge, or drinking party). Besides the 164 guests and servants, participants include a pair of dogs and a monkey. Other extensive murals can be found in Teotihuacán, the pyramid city south of CDMX. Abundant pulque artifacts, including crocks and cups from which the beverage was imbibed, sculptures, nose rings, chest plates, and opossum-shaped urns – the opossum was supposed to have discovered pulque by scratching at the agave and drinking the sap – were found throughout pulque production sites.
And Then What Happened with Pulque?
The story of pulque after the Spanish conquest is totally different. The rituals and religious practices associated with consumption of pulque only remained in certain indigenous communities, while regular drinking of pulque became widespread among all social classes. Pulquerías (pulque cantinas) became common and flourished in the 19th century, particularly in Mexico City and surrounding areas. Paintings from the 18th century and historical photographs from the early 20th century show people drinking in the streets and in bars in Mexico City. There are advertisements for pulque from the haciendas of the Llanos de Apan in the state of Hidalgo, where pulque production was common. The mid-20th century saw a decline, as the popularity of other beverages such as beer increased, but it has recently seen a resurgence in interest and consumption. In fact, I found Pulque by Llanos de Apan, the only bottled pulque, for sale on Facebook, What’s App, and YouTube.
If you visit Mexico City on your way to Oaxaca or Huatulco, you’ll have no trouble giving it a try. There’s a 106-year-old pulquería in the Centro Histórico called Pulquería las Duelistas, the Pulquería los Insurgentes, Pulquería La Hija de los Apaches, and so on and on. They serve the brightly fizzy milk-white traditional pulque, but curados, “doctored” or flavored drinks, are more popular. At La Hija de los Apaches, you can get a curado made with melon, tomato, guayaba, blackberry, coconut, passion fruit, celery, oysters, or, of course, Viagra. Or so they say on the menu.
I, for one, have never tasted it, and have not yet seen it available on the coast. My hubby told me it was quite popular in Jalisco when he was there a few decades ago, and recalled a mucilaginous texture (think kombucha). His companions assured him it had medicinal properties and was/is a beneficial cure for cruda, or hangover.
Huatulco does have other locally fermented, readily available beverages such as tepache, which is made from pineapple juice. You can try tepache at Tepache Felix, at the southwest corner of highway 200 on the way to Copalita. Tepache Felix is owned by Felix Ramos, father of Cornelio Ramos, the well-known Huatulco bird guide. It is delicious and surprisingly strong.
For more technical information on pulque production check the publications of Eye writer Alvin Starkman:
In Mexico City, you can not only make the rounds of the pulquerías, you can visit a pulque ranch north of the city: https://www.viator.com/tours/Mexico-City/Pulque-Ranch-Day-Trip-in-Tepotzotlan/d628-40687P2.
For hispanoparlantes, the journal Arqueología Mexicana, ran a special edition (#78) on “Un Don Divino: El Pulque” (A Gift Divine: Pulque) in February 2018. It is an excellent read; you can get a copy for 98 pesos on their website: https://raices.com.mx/tienda/revistas-el-pulque-ES078.