Pulque (1) is another marvel of nutrition from México. It a mildly alcoholic (between 2-7% ABV) (2) drink produced by fermenting the fresh sap of the maguey (3). This liquid is a highly nutritious raw probiotic drink that contains a wide range of vitamins, minerals, enzymes and amino acids and it is said in México that the only thing it lacks for being meat is the bones. This is somewhat of an over simplification but there is no doubt that this drink is more than just a mild intoxicant. Pulque has had a chequered past. The Spanish banned its consumption at various stages and during Aztec times if you were found drunk on octli at inappropriate times punishment could involve being strangled to death. Its consumption was permitted by certain people, particularly those over the age of 70 who had raised families. It was the responsibility of the grandchildren to “restrain and guide” their drunken elders and prevent them from coming to harm.
- called octli in Nahuatl
- “Tlachique”, a sweeter drink with a low degree of alcohol (between 2 and 4%) and “Pulque Fuerte” (between 5 and 7%)
- aguamiel – “honey water” or (in Nahuatl) necuhtli – “nectar”
The word “pulque” is believed to have been derived (by the Spanish) from the word poliuhquioctli. This was the name that the Aztecs used for pulque which had begun to decompose and developed a horrible odour and taste (apparently there is nothing quite so foul as rotten pulque). The Aztecs distinguished many different types of pulque. metoctli (or just octli) (from metl [agave] and octli [wine]) , iztacoctli or white wine, and teoctli or ceremonial/sacred/god wine. Teoctli was usually blended with some form of mind altering or hallucinogenic additive.(Gonçalves de Lima et al 1990)(Lappe & Ulloa et al 1993)
Pulque was quickly superseded by the new import beer and it went from being the most consumed liquid in Mesoamerica to something like the axolotl. Uniquely Mexican but in danger of extinction. It has in recent times regained a measure of popularity due to its roots to ancient Mexico and has become somewhat of a hit amongst the hipster crowd.
As of 2018-2019 pulque festivals are being held, particularly in the Distrito Federal (el D.F.)
and there are even microbus tours which visit flagship pulquerías north of the city (La Xochitl, La Victoria, La Tlaxcalteca and La Bonita) in the CDMX (1)
- CDMX – short hand for Cuidad de Mexico (the City of Mexico)
SIAP (El Servicio de Información Agroalimentaria y Pesquera) the Agri-Food and Fisheries Information Service in Mexico estimates that 186.3 million litres of pulque will be produced in 2018. This is a drink/food that could potentially be made by those with an interest in health, nutrition and self-sufficiency. It is the ultimate slow food due to the length of time it takes to grow an agave so that aguamiel can be harvested. Generally speaking you may not have the luck of living in a country where the maguey grows wild and you can wildcraft plants as they flower.
Although aguamiel can be harvested from any agave there are several varieties that are chosen for their ability to produce high volumes of aguamiel. Generally speaking these are the best varieties to use (although technically you could use any agave).
This is a very short list as there are hundreds of varieties of maguey and those of you with degrees in botany will probably note that some in the list might actually be the same plant. There can be some confusion over the naming of agaves. Salmiana, lehmanni and atrovirens may actually be the same plant (depending on who you speak to).
Many of the pulque magueys are very large plants which goes some way to demonstrating how they are able to produce large volumes of aguamiel.
The flavour profile of the aguamiel changes from plant to plant (even amongst the same variety) and can also be altered by terroir (1). This only adds to the artisanal nature of pulque and the artistry required in understanding the plant, when it’s to be harvested, and the vagaries of its production.
- The term “terroir” is usually associated with wine and is how a particular region’s climate, soils and aspect (terrain) affect the taste of the wine. This is also true of aguamiel and pulque (and tequila, mezcal, sotol etal)
According to food writer Daniel Hernandez, “Pulque should not be slimy, it should be brilliant white, not a cream colour, nor completely transparent, because then it would be aguamiel [the pre-fermented state of the maguey’s nectar]. There will always be a layer of bubbles on top because it is in a constant state of fermentation. The scent you’ll get from pulque should be like cactus, what many call nopal. The second scent should be a fruity note, coming from the ingredients added during the process of fermentation, and third, it should smell slightly acidic, which is the natural smell of fermentation.”
Don Javier, a pulquero from Tlaxcala, says there are three main tips to take into consideration when choosing good pulque
- It has to have foam.
- It has to have a slightly slimy consistency.
- It needs to be more sweet than sour. A very sour pulque means the maguey wasn’t mature enough or the aguamiel got contaminated during the processing.
Javier Marin, an expert on pulque and a collector of pulque memorabilia has this to say of the texture and flavour of pulque “pulque is not supposed to be smelly or gooey. The strong rotten-ish smell that sometimes emerges from the surface of pulque actually means that it is old, as in, past its expiration date of a few precious days. Too much of a slimey, or “baba,” texture, to pulque usually means that an extra nopal (cactus) was added, Marin says, indicating that pulqueros who distribute pulque in the city add an extra nopalillo to their pulques because “the youngsters” these days seem to think that pulque must be gooey to be good.
As the flavour of pulque can be somewhat confronting it is often mixed with other ingredients to produce a drink known as a pulque curado. Curados can be flavoured with fruits (pineapple, mango, strawberry, watermelon), vegetables (celery, tomatillo, maize), nuts (almonds, walnuts, peanuts) or other flavours (oats, tamarind, coconut, cajeta). Much like the Mexican artistry in producing unusual flavour combinations for paletas the options for pulque curados are almost infinite. They are constrained only by the pulqueros imagination.
I highly recommend a talk given by Jonathan Ott in 2004 at the Mind States Conference in Oaxaca, Mexico called “Inebriating potions from the agave” presented here on the Psychedelic Salon podcast. https://psychedelicsalon.com/podcast-269-inebriating-potions-from-agave/