The first reference to pulque comes from a Spanish doctor who calls it the wine of the Mexicans. Pulque is a distortion of the Nahuatl word for “decomposed” or poliuhqui. It probably derives from a text referring to a pulque that would be safe. Nahuatl is the language of the Aztecs and is still spoken in the region today. Aztec history, the Nahuatl language, and pulque are intimately linked.
Where does pulque come from?
The drink is fermented from the sap of the maguey cactus, a rosette-shaped cactus with large, flaring green leaves that can grow up to two meters long. The plant resembles a swarm of tentacles frozen in motion. The drink is obtained by letting the sap run off (aguamiel), then fermenting it to obtain a milky liquid with an alcohol content generally between 3 and 4%. The end result, known as pulque, has a high protein content, earning it the popular expression “only one degree short of meat”.
Its high carbohydrate content gives it a distinctive flavor somewhere between acidic and sweet, and its high concentration of probiotic bacteria gives it characteristics that fall under the classification of medicinal foods. On the other hand, these same advantages are also a drawback: due to its high protein and nutrient content, pulque spoils quickly and must be consumed without delay. For a long time, any attempt at large-scale brewing was hampered by the speed of contamination.
The role of pulque among the Aztecs
One of the most popular pulque legends tells the story of Mayahuel, a young girl who lived with her grandmother in Mexico. The god Quetzalcoatl fell in love with her, and they were eventually transformed into the branches of a forked tree. Mayahuel’s grandmother, furious, broke off her granddaughter’s branch and left it there to be devoured. Quetzalcoatl’s branch having remained intact, the loving god took the remains of his young lover and buried them. Thus was born the maguey plant and Mayahuel became a goddess. According to other legends, the princess was saved by Mayahuel. In all cases, divine intervention, salvation and taboo.
A ubiquitous beverage among the Aztecs, it was nevertheless religiously controlled. Consumption of the sacred drink was forbidden to the vast majority of the population due to its sacred nature. Shamans, doctors, priests and soothsayers reserved the almost exclusive use of cactus nectar. Poisoning was thought to be a telltale sign. Only people over the age of 52 (you’ll also read 70 in some texts) were allowed to consume it, and even then, they had to do so in secret in their own homes. The only exception was a kind of annual cosmic festival called Ometochtli, which allowed everyone to take great gulps of agave juice.
The drunkenness permitted at these events was considered the temporal incarnation of Mayahuel, goddess of the earth and of drunkenness. It was therefore forbidden to mock or insult anyone staggering under the powerful effect of drink, on pain of severe punishment. And if a youngster decided to serve the magic potion outside the party, the penalty could go as far as death. Let’s just say it’s a little harsher than having your driver’s license confiscated.
The Aztecs didn’t skimp on discipline. A rigorously organized militaristic regime, the Aztecs were obsessed with physical and cosmic order, as well as human sacrifice. And guess what they gave the future sacrifices to drink? Pulque.
All that changed when Hernan Cortèz savagely devastated the Aztec empire. With the fall of Emperor Moctezuma II and the dissolution of the politico-religious organization erected two hundred years earlier in Mexico City, all controls over pulque fell with him, and pulquerias gradually appeared all over the country. Semi-industrial production began on plantations. At the same time, the drink lost its religious vigor and became, so to speak, a modern beverage. In October 1858, New York family magazine Frank Leslie reported that “the inhabitants of the Mexican capital can no more live without pulque than the Germans of New York can live without lager beer.”
When revolution broke out against Porfirio Dias in the early 20th century, pulque became the official sponsor of the revolutionaries. The nutrient-rich drink was widely consumed by the so-called rebels.
Yet, less than ten years after the end of the revolution, the capital’s pulquerias had dwindled from 3,000 to fewer than 30. The new government hates this drink, which ferments unrest and brews insurrection. At the same time, the German beer market expanded and began to dominate the struggle of the country’s thirsty. Commercial beer strategists, in order to promote the attractions of lager, advertised themselves as a better alternative to maguey.
Myths soon emerged that artisanal pulque was produced using cow dung. According to researchers Rodolfo Fernández y Daria Derega, it was the new industrial breweries that created the myth that cow dung was used for fermentation, wrapped in a muñeca that was nothing more than a piece of cloth in contact with the drink. Research has shown that these muñecas were indeed used to produce tequila and mezcal, but not pulque, and only for a limited time.
In recent years, pulque has enjoyed a considerable resurgence, not only in Mexico, but also on the West Coast of the USA. This is due in part to pasteurization, first applied to pulque on a commercial scale in 1994 by Señor del Razo. There’s even a delicious podcast, Agave Road Trip, devoted to the maguey drink.
If pulque is intensely gaining in popularity, it’s a phenomenon limited by geography and propelled by tourism. Northern Mexico hardly consumes this ancient drink of the gods, and generally considers it uninteresting. By contrast, the more temperate, maguey-friendly south is a region that literally worships pulque. These are the states of Hidalgo and Oaxaca. It is customary to offer pulque even to children. Pulque is also closely linked to indigenous culture. Consumption of pulque is as much a feature of identity as language, as it lies at the heart of the human experience.
On the downside, the drink is far from unanimous and is no more popular in Mexico than craft beer, far from it. My Mexican friends assure me that pulquerias are places for tourists. The drink most often offered to tourists will be a curado, which is a mixture of pulque and fruit juice, more accommodating to the unaccustomed palate. Sergio, manager of the prestigious Hercules brewery, compares pulque to a kind of lambique. What they both have in common is a significant contribution of acetic acid and brettanomyces.
Numerous recent studies defend the drink’s medicinal virtues, painting a picture of an alcoholic superfood. Endowed with probiotic properties, pulque is a good source of iron, promotes sleep and combats stress. The drink is currently the subject of several studies in Mexico, corroborating its promising virtues for beer lovers who want more than just a commercial beer.
The pulp contains B-complex vitamins (B1, B5, B2) that help regulate the metabolism. It is rich in vitamin C, which promotes iron absorption and reduces hemoglobin and ferritin deficiencies. It also contains minerals such as phosphorus and iron, as well as certain essential amino acids (not synthesized by the body) such as lysine and tryptophan.
However, we advise you not to get too excited about pulque. While the above-mentioned studies reveal its great potential, it is not a panacea for all ills. First contact with this drink can upset your stomach and cause intestinal problems. Drink in moderation and take the time to talk to the locals to find out more.
Is it time to drink pulque?
Pierre-Olivier Bussières is the host of the Temps d’une Bière podcast.