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Young agave plants that will be used to make pulque. Young agave plants that will be used to make pulque.

Pulque’s resurgence strains agave supply

But biologists have developed a program to improve production

Once considered the beverage of the gods by the ancient peoples of Mesoamerica, pulque lost much of its popularity after the introduction of beverages such as beer, which have the advantage of being dependent on far more reliable and productive crops than agave.

But a resurgence in the demand for pulque has been putting pressure on supplies of agave, whose cultivation has been declining in recent years. To address the problem, a team of biologists is working to improve breeding and productivity.

Ana Laura López, Alma Martínez and Laura Trejo have started a pulquero agave propagation project at the Tlaxcala Regional Laboratory of Biodiversity and Cultivation of Vegetable Tissue, a branch of the Biology Institute of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).

In collaboration with the state government,  the researchers have been working with pulque producers from the Tlaxcala communities of Nanacamilpa, La Malinche and Atlangatepec, who have provided the biologists with plants and seeds in exchange for improved production.

The producers are also being shown the in-vitro fertilization process of agave plants, which together with controlled, sterile conditions and a nutrient-infused gel can make agave seeds sprout in two days. Under natural conditions, the process can take up to three months.

Once the plants reach an adequate size, they are removed from the gel and placed in a greenhouse before being transplanted outdoors.

While the in-vitro process produces new plants more quickly, it does so to the detriment of the species’ genetic diversity. So the researchers have also shown producers how to allow the plants to reproduce naturally.

An agave plant can take up to 15 years before reaching sexual maturity at which time a tall stalk grows from the plant, from which flowers then bloom. Bats, bees and birds enter the picture and cross-pollinate the plants.

Although lengthy, the process is seen as being vital for the future of the commercial cultivation of agave, because it produces a much desired diversity in individual plants.

Of the more than 200 species of agave — some of which are used in the production of Mexican staple spirits such as tequila and mezcal — 75% are native to Mexico.

Source: Milenio (sp)

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