All You Need To Know About Pulque - The Drink of The Gods
by Greg Rutkowski
Have you ever heard of the drink of the gods? As you walk along the streets of Mexico City in search of an alcoholic drink, pulque is one beverage that you'll definitely come across. One thing that amazes us is the sacredness that pulque, also known as octli, holds in Mexico city and all over Central Mexico. So, why the popularity? Continue reading to know more about the drink of the gods from Mexico city.
So, why the fuss about pulque?
Pulque is a vicious and milk-colored liquid produced from about six agave varieties which are primarily blue agaves. The maguey plant grows in cold and dry coastal highlands of Mexico in Tlaxcala and Hidalgo. The maguey plant has several uses historically, including the use of the fibers to make fabric, washcloths or ropes. The membrane is used for cooking and making paper, while the thorns are used to make punches or needles.
The manufacturing of pulque involves a very complex process, not to mention the killing of the plant. As the plant approaches maturity, its center starts swelling and elongating as it sends up the flower stalk by gathering the stored sugar. For the plants meant for the production of pulque, this stalk is cut off to leave a depression in which the maguey sap collects. It takes about 12 years before the full maturity of the plant to be able to produce pulque sap.
Where It All Began
Pulque has been in existence for over 2000 years, with different myths and stories explaining its origin. Most of the stories claim that sap collected at the maguey's center was the blood of goddess Mayahuel, the maguey's god.
Another story also relates pulque to opossum(Tlacuache), claiming that the opossum dug into the maguey plant using his man-like hands and extracted the naturally fermenting juice. The stories also claim that the opossum set straight the course of the rivers, and once it got drunk from the pulque, he was unable to do so anymore. Instead, he meandered from cantina to cantina.
Another story also relates the aguamiel to Toltec Empire. A noble named Papantzin wanted Toltec's emperor to take his daughter Xochitl's hand in marriage. He gave the daughter aguamiel to take to the capital as an offering. Later on, the emperor married the noble's daughter, and they named their son Meconetzin(Maguey son).
The maguey plant was among the essential and most sacred plants in Mexico, with many privileges in the Mesoamerican economy, religious rituals, and mythology. According to the indigenous people, pulque was a ritual drink, especially for festivals relating to god Mixcoatl and goddess Mayahuel and only certain people could imbibe it.
The people who could drink pulque were the priests for increasing their enthusiasm, and sacrificial victims for easing their suffering. Among the commoners, only the pregnant women and the elderly were to drink pulque. Pulque production was based entirely on rituals, and its brewers were very superstitious. They could also abstain from sex when the fermentation process was ongoing, claiming that it would sour the pulque.
Prohibitions and rituals by the priests accompany the production process, and the team may offer religious prayers and songs. Some superstitions prohibit children, strangers, and women from getting inside the fermentation area, and other superstitions do not allow people to put on hats viewing it as bad luck. Cleansing this bad luck requires that the offender pours pulque inside the hat and drinks it down.
The superstitions also do not allow people to eat canned fish inside the fermentation area, claiming that it would be bad luck for the pulque.
Despite currently being very popular, pulque makes up only 10% of Mexico's alcoholic beverages. It is still prevalent in Mexico, especially in the central Mexico and the poor and rural areas. It is generally considered a drink for people who belong to the lower class.
The Downward Spiral of Pulque
The delicate and complex fermentation process had limited the distribution of the product since there is a lot of agitation during its transportation, and it also doesn't keep long. This is why its consumption is limited to central Mexican highlands.
Pulque's decline began during the first years of the 20th century after the Mexican Revolution declined its production. The Lazaro Cardenas government also campaigned against it during the 1930s to reduce general alcohol consumption. However, the sole reason behind the decline of pulque is the introduction of beer. The brewers of European immigrant beer campaigned against pulque tequila. They claimed that the pulque producers placed a textile bag containing animal or human feces into the sap to speed up fermentation. Most of the pulque producers insisted that it was a myth, although the modern historians claim that it truly happened but only rarely. This information aimed to inhibit the sales of pulque and promote beer consumption, which they said to be very modern and hygienic.
This strategy became successful, and people started looking down upon pulque, and only a few people imbibed it. On the other hand, Mexican beer became extremely popular and ubiquitous. The popularity of pulque is shallow, and it continues to fall. Right now, only two to three trucks deliver pulque as compared to the previous years when around 20 tracks would provide the drinks . Also, only five pulquerias remain in southern Mexico, an area that used to have about 18 pulquerias, and the same situation is evident in other Mexican regions.
In Hidalgo, where most of the maguey used to grow, the fields are disappearing, and barley is taking the place of the maguey plant. Most maguey plants now act as boundary markers, and most of them are vandalized; therefore, they don't survive for too long. An estimate of about 10,000 plants undergo mutilation every week whereby the lower leaves are cut off or eradicated.
Pulquerias Today in Central Mexico
Despite the odds to kill pulque, it still held on, and the bars around Mexico have continued to sell and serve the drink. The agave plants also did not decline, and you can still find them throughout the central region of Mexico.
However, there are very few pulquerias in Mexico city nowadays, and they are meant for nostalgic purposes. It reminds the people of Mexico's past, and only a few people enjoy the old-style tavern, especially the young hipsters. According to the pulqueria owners, Mexico only has 100 pulquerias left, and the most common ones include:
Las Duelists - Las Duelistas is the most famous pulqueria in Mexico, and it is more than 100 years old. At this pulqueria, the atmosphere is historical, and the flavors are very odd.
Pulqueria Los Insurgentes - This pulqueria lies in the neighborhoods of Roma, and for this reason, it is the happiest Mexican pulqueria. The pulqueria also features live music, making it one of the most preferred pulquerias in Mexico.
La Hija de Los Apaches - This pulqueria is wide-reaching and famous, and it lies in the neighborhoods of Cuauhtemoc. It features simple decorations, and anyone goes to the pulqueria irrespective of age and class.
La Paloma Azul - This pulqueria lies in the southern region of Mexico, and its interior is stunning and spacious. The purpose of this giant mural is to pay homage to pulque's fermentation process.
Production Process of Pulque
The production of pulque tequila is very delicate and long, and the plant matures for 12 years before extraction of the sap(aguamiel). After extraction, you can drink the juice straightforward but, after fermentation, the juice gets alcoholic. The team collects the liquid from the maguey plant twice daily with a yield of about 5 to 6 liters daily. During the early days of production, the production team sucked out the juice using elongated guards, but currently, they use steel scoops.
Scraping and Extracting Aguamiel
The team bends the plant leaves over the plants' center in between the harvests, keeping out dirt and bugs. They also scrape out the center regularly to maintain an active and continuous production of the sap. Most maguey plants take around 4 to 6 months to produce the juice, after which they die. Some plants even yield as much as 600 liters of pulque.
The team then places the collected juice into barrels which they carry to the vats for fermentation. However, the production team is replacing the vats with wood, plastic vats, fiberglass, or masonry. The seed is always the inoculum or starting material for the process of fermentation of fresh aguamiel. The method of seed preparation varies from one pulque production zone to another. The practice begins by fermentation of about 10 to 50 liters of the highest quality aguamiel inside small vats that only serve one purpose; to prepare the seed.
For this preparation, the team pours a small volume of aguamiel that was previously fermented. After that, they cover the container. The aguamiel ferments at room temperature for about 1 to 4 weeks until the appearance of a layer of zurrón. The purpose of the seed is to prepare the second seed or inoculum (pie de Cuba) or to start up the production of pulque.
Unlike in beer, where the fermentation process involves yeast, pulque's fermenting agent is Zymomonas mobilis bacterium. The fermentation process involves more art than science, and it takes place for around 7 to 14 days. The duration varies the sap's quantity, temperature, and humidity. This process turns out to be delicate and complex, and the fermented pulque can develop a sour taste at any time.
Unlike tequila and mezcal, pulque does not undergo distillation, and for this reason, it is not suitable for shipping. This is why the only region you can find pulque is in Central Mexico, where the maguey plant grows. Its flavor also changes with time, and if you intend to bottle and send it to another city, it will arrive with a completely different taste. Because of this, there are very few commercial pulques, and they need to undergo pasteurization to last long in the bottles and be in good shape. However, pasteurization takes away the taste that makes it desirable.
Types of Pulque
After seed preparation, the team pours three-fourths and one-fourth of high-quality fresh aguamiel and the first inoculum respectively into new vats for the practice of the pie de Cuba (Type I pulque). The names for pulque Type I vary from one producing zone to another because of the different techniques used.
Some refer to it as pulque fuerte, Pie de pulque, nancle or asiento. Type I pulque has a pH of 3.5-4.0, the sugar content of 0.10-0.8 of reducing sugars, the alcohol content of 6-9%, and an equivalent to glucose. This pulque has a white color beverage and "sui generis" smell and taste.
Type II has a pH of 3.0-4.0, the sugar content of 0.20-0.50 of reducing sugars, and an alcohol content of 4.0-6.0 %. The commercial pulques have the taste of sour milk, although much thicker. Similar to Type I, Type II pulque also has a "sui generis" smell and taste with a white color beverage. Like any other juice bar, pulque matches perfectly with flavors of nuts and fruits ranging from almond banana to popular strawberry and any other local fruits.
Adding nuts and fruits changes pulque’s texture, which is suitable for those who dislike the slimy sensation.
Why Choose Pulque
Other than being able to embrace Mexican culture to the fullest, taking Pulque could be healthier than you actually thought.
Pulque tends not to get the drinker drunk, although it is allegedly nutritious. Some also use it during atonement in the place of blood, and it has many properties similar to blood, including calcium, zinc, and iron. Moreover, a glass of pulque consists of lots of probiotics with about 4 grams of proteins, making it a perfect food substitute.
Pulque consumption can improve your nutritional status, increase the intake of essential micronutrients, and enhance your iron status. Unadulterated pulque has a slimy sensation and is slightly viscous, and can turn you off within a short time.
Have you ever tried pulque, if not, then ensure you add that to your to-do list for the next time you travel to Central Mexico.