Thursday, June 20, 2024

The renaissance of pulque, Mexico’s ‘white gold’ ancestral drink

In early 20th-century Mexico, it was common to see local tlachiqueros, or pulque makers, in small towns nationwide. These local characters rode into town on donkeys, carrying with them animal skins filled with a slightly alcoholic drink called pulque.

Even though it was originally called octli and during the colonial era its name became a pejorative, pulque remains what this sacred drink is known as colloquially.

It was sacred because during pre-Colombian times it was consumed by a small elite — mainly emperors, nobility and clergy. Because this drink was mildly intoxicating it was associated with states of ecstasy, connection to the mystic, and moments of contact with the divine.

Pulque was even offered as one of the tributes paid to the Mexica during their rule of the Valley of México. During the colonial era, its consumption was allowed and even flourished among the common people, though the Spanish found its taste not to their liking.

Pulque’s decline dates to the 20th century when, according to reports of the time, the growing Mexican beer companies started smear campaigns against this drink. It also didn’t help that pulque had a reputation for being sold in dodgy and rundown places. Its consumption was looked down upon for half of the last century and part of this one. Fortunately, pulque is coming back, assisted by international research on its properties.

Four types of magueys are used to make pulque: Salmiana, Mapisag, Manso or Noble, and Atrovirens, all of which are endemic to Mexico. Of these four Salmiana is the most well-known and most commonly used.

The pulque-making process has remained the same as it was centuries ago. In fact, it’s one of the oldest production processes on earth still in use today. It starts with the heart of the maguey plant, created by removing its innermost leaves. Early in the morning tlachiqueros scrape the heart, to extract a liquid called aguamiel or “honey water,” which can be drunk by everyone, even children.

The aguamiel is then stored in a cool area in wooden barrels called tinacales, as it begins the fermentation process catalyzed by naturally occurring bacteria in the air. The tlachiquero scrapes the heart of the plants twice a day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon. The plants require a lot of special care; without it, the pulque produced is much less quality than those looked after carefully.

No other substance is mixed in or added to the pulque barrels. New pulque is often mixed with some of an older fermented batch, similar to using a sourdough starter for bread. The process is very pure and very nutritional, something that has been researched by universities in various parts of the world. A team of researchers from the National Polytechnic Institute (IPN) discovered that pulque is an incredible probiotic and prebiotic, as it encourages healthy digestion, protects intestinal flora, and contains a high volume of vitamins. It’s also an excellent antioxidant. It was once considered a food, a fact confirmed by reports from today’s researchers and that has helped repair the damage of its bad reputation in the second part of the 20th century.

Once the fermentation has started, it’s up to the mayordomo, a pulque guardian, to carry out the process’s next step, which can take 2 to 5 days. Pulque is called different things at different moments during fermentation and depending on its alcohol percentage, which is never more than 5%. Once the mayordomo decides that the pulque is ready to be drunk, it’s kept in a cool place to maintain its characteristics, and as a “living” drink must be drunk within four or five days or it will start to go bad.

 The most common form of finishing pulque is creating curados, which means adding fruit juice or other natural flavorings to the original pulque. But this isn’t always the case: Sometimes pulque is made into a curado when it’s still fresh, adding to its nutritional properties. One of the most traditional flavors for curados is prickly pear, which some people believe was the first curado ever created and is considered to have a certain relationship with the color of blood. Another ancient and popular curado is tomato and chile pepper. Today you can also find nut-flavored, oat-flavored, passionfruit, guava, mango, and one that’s simply a “green” pulque. Curados can be made with seasonal fruit, making the drink more attractive. The drink is appealing to young palates for its low level of alcohol and its fruity flavor.

The most renowned region for pulque production is the Apan plains, an area that spans the states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, and part of México state. In the 1900s the pulque makers would arrive in the city with wineskins full, almost bursting. The wineskins were made of pigskin and the tlachiqueros brought them in so full that even the arms and legs of the pig skin filled up with pulque, which is where the popular saying, “Estás hasta las manitas” came from, which roughly translates to, You’re drunk to the very tips of your fingers.” During that era, pulque was considered a commodity and was even something requested by Hitler, who believed it to be an elixir of eternal youth. Appropriately, it’s been something that time and bad publicity have been unable to vanquish.

Today things are different; pulque is served in bars called pulquerías. There are fewer than once existed for sure, but many have been around for years. Today they have somewhat of a different vibe. Pulquerías are clean, registered, open to both men and women and dispersed throughout the country — there are over 600 just in Mexico City! It’s truly a triumphal comeback for this drink. Today visitors can take specific tours that visit several pulquerías in one day, including some of the oldest in the country like Las Duelistas, El Ombligo del Maguey, or Spica. There are also pulquerías that have a broader cultural ambiance, with books, music and art. For example, Fuego Neo on the highway from Mexico City to Cuernavaca has electronic and rock music and delicious drinks, including modern and traditional preparations.

Pulquerías are scattered throughout the center of the country, each different and representative of this drink’s incredible influence on popular culture. There are four museums dedicated to pulque, one in Mexico City, one in Puebla ( often considered the best), one in Tlaxcala and one in Hidalgo. In each, you can find stories, photos and equipment used in the pulque-making process, including dried gourds and baskets. Museum visits are a great way to learn about this fine drink and many tourism routes are designed to let you visit producers throughout the Apan plains area. In almost every state in central Mexico, there are guided visits offered to pulquerías.

A little over a year ago, the Mexican Sommeliers Association started offering specialty training to become a “pulquelier,” directed by sommelier and pulquelier Eddy Wine, who is well-known in the pulque world and was formerly the director of the pulque museum in Mexico City. Wine created the guides for pulque tastings, elevating this drink to the next level of consumption and appreciation. Wine said that pulque must express the aromas of its plant and have a certain freshness and hints of fruit or flowers. It shouldn’t have a funny smell or be slimy and should be lightly viscous, but never the same consistency as drinking nopal cactus juice.

Without a doubt, pulque is experiencing a great moment in its history. It’s now offered at many cultural events and its production supports Mexican farming. Don’t miss the opportunity to try pulque on one of the farms where it’s made or in one of the many pulquerías in the country.

Sommelier Diana Serratos writes from Mexico City.

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