Pulque Production

The processing of pulque happens in four stages.

  1. Castration
  2. Pit scraping and aguamiel extraction
  3. Seed/mother preparation
  4. Fermentation

Castration

It can take between 7 and 40 years before an agave is ready to harvest the aguamiel and it can take an expert to know when exactly to castrate the plant, if done too late then the plant will produce no aguamiel, if done too early then aguamiel production will be greatly reduced. It can be difficult to tell exactly when to begin the process. You must watch the centre section of the plant from which the new leaves peel themselves away. It will begin to become slender and more elongated. This is the beginning of the creation of the quiote (sometimes spell cuiote) the flower stalk of the plant. Don Gabriel, a tlachiquero from Apán in Hidalgo says that it is very important that the maguey is harvested at the right time as if it is left too late then you could be robbed of more than a decade of time that was invested in its cultivation. Signs that it is about to bloom include the new leaves on the outside (of the centre section where the new leaves emerge) turn purple and the centre ones begin to bend inward pointing to where the flower stalk will emerge (Youman & Estep 2005)

Once the quiote has reached this stage of maturity it is too late to castrate for optimal aguamiel production. This also signifies the end of the plant. Agaves are monocarpic, this means that an agave only flowers once in its life and it dies shortly after it has flowered.

First stage of castration (1)

It is important that the flowering process of the agave is halted if you wish to obtain the aguamiel. Once castrated (2) the energy used by the plant to produce the flower stalk will be directed inwards and will result in the optimal production of aguamiel. The plant will also produce more aguamiel during the scraping process (see step 2) as it attempts to heal the wound caused by the constant irritation of the daily scraping process.

The volume and composition of aguamiel during its production will also be affected by the species of agave harvested, the season it is harvested (usually spring or autumn), its cultivation conditions (commercial or wild harvested), relative humidity of the air (prevailing precipitation) and the conditions of the soil it is grown in.

  1. A.cupreata shown. This plant is probably going to be harvested (for its piña)  to produce mezcal
  2. Castration en espanol = capazon
Quiote just beginning to bud

At this stage it is probably still a little too early to castrate the quiote, but it would not be too far away, days perhaps.

A variation of a newly sprouting quiote.

The quiote is edible once it has been baked. On occasion the green quiote is ground with the masa used for making tortillas and gives the masa a sweet taste.

Bake the quiote (in an underground pit for authenticity) or roast it in the ashes of the fire. Cook it until it has turned a dark tan brown. Peel off the tough outer rind and eat the baked heart of the quiote. Chew it well and spit out the indigestible fibrous matter that remains.

Cooked quiote

It was believed that by castrating the plant that the god Huitzilopochtli, who was represented by a hummingbird, was being denied nourishment as it was the hummingbird who pollinated the plant when drinking the nectar from the blossoms. As a result amends needed to be made by supplying the god with nectar of a different variety. Sacrifices were made of another precious liquid, that of human blood.

Bats are also major pollinators of agave flowers.

Hummingbird feeding on agave blossoms

The pulque as blood analogy was also present in the rites that were performed before Aztec gladiatorial combat. Before the battle and ensuing sacrifice pulque was drunk through a straw. After the sacrifice had been performed and the victims heart had been removed a priestly attendant placed a straw into the blood filled cavity likening it to a vessel filled with pulque. “Thus he giveth the sun to drink”. This metaphor also extended to the harvesting of aguamiel to produce pulque as it required the excision of meyóllotl or the “heart of the maguey”.

Bodily fluids are inextricably linked with pulque. Breastmilk and semen, both considered sacred and powerful bodily fluids are aspects of the pulque iconography. The colour and texture of pulque are reflected by that of breast milk and semen. Semen is considered the “white blood” of males (Monaghan 1995) and was reflected in the habit of pouring pulque onto the earth while planting corn to increase the fertility of the earth and encourage the maize to grow. Although pulque is not specifically considered as an aphrodisiac there is the belief that consuming it will increase the production of semen (by as much as 300-400%). Breastmilk also features heavily in the iconography of pulque and can be seen to flow freely from the breasts of Mayahuel to feed the centzontotochin or the 400 rabbit gods of drunkenness.

In Acatepec in the Tlapanec region of Guerrero Don Santiago explains that as the creation of pulque causes the death of the maguey being used it is considered the taking of a life and that as a result a highly symbolic technical-ritual process has arisen to show an appropriate level of respect toward the plant and the gifts it gives.


El meyolote. The “heart of the maguey                                       

The maguey is metaphorically identified as a parturient (1) adolescent female and the sap that drains from it is like the blood from her uterus. The process of castration is likened to “opening the placenta” to “extract the foetus” (la apertura de la placenta (naon) de la adolescente para extraer su feto) and the aguamiel that flows forth is the blood of the placenta that flows until its exhausted and she (the maguey) dies like a woman who is killed by haemorrhage during childbirth.

A highly ritualised process involving prayers and penance is followed at every stage of production. Before it begins eight days of penance composed of sexual abstinence and food prohibitions is conducted. Prohibited foods vary according to the occasion but if you consume any of them it is said that the maguey will “dry up” and that various forms of misfortune may befall those who produce or consume the pulque. The dangers may come from any of three sources. For serious transgressions in penance the guardians of the gods of the hills where the maguey grows (spiders, scorpions and a poisonous snake called the coralillo) may be the instrument of punishment, the second issue may be with that of the pulque itself. It may cause diarrhoea, vomiting and stomach pain or cause the drinker to “go crazy”. The third danger is a social one and involves getting in trouble with the “law” after consuming the pulque (i.e. being subjected to a lawsuit). The Mexica did not use the metaphor of childbirth when describing this ritual. The “womb” of the plant was referred to as meyollotl or the “heart” of the maguey by the Aztec and the aguamiel as breastmilk, tears or sweat.

  1. (of a woman or female mammal) about to give birth; in labour : bringing forth or about to bring forth young

Pit scraping and aguamiel extraction

Castrated agave

Once castrated the agave is left for between 2 – 12 months (usually around 6-8) depending on the variety of agave (and no doubt environmental factors that only an experienced tlachiquero (1) can determine). After the appropriate time has passed the castration scar is reopened by repeatedly puncturing the area. This process is called “picazon”. The plant is left alone for another week and then the fibrous pulp loosened by the previous puncturing is removed to form a cavity into which the aguamiel will flow.

It has also been noted that the person who castrates the maguey can be the only one who can harvest the aguamiel. A personal relationship is created between man and plant and if any other intervenes then the plant will not produce. This relationship is initiated by the maguey as it’s only when she asks that you are able to “open it” (begin the process of castration)

 “Tienes que encontrar su cara porque esa es la puerta a su corazón”.

Aguamiel seeping into cavity

Agaves produce around 2 litres (and as many as 8L) of aguamiel per day for a period of 4-6 months and can potentially produce more than 1000 litres in its lifetime. It is usually collected twice per day, once in the morning and evening. If it is left too long inside the cavity it will begin to ferment (this can happen in a day) and spoil. Once the aguamiel is fermented into pulque it too has a very limited shelf life. It usually becomes too sour and viscous to drink within 2-3 days. It also begins to smell quite strongly and apparently there is no smell quite like that of rancid pulque. Albumins in the liquid are responsible for this strong odour when the pulque becomes “over ripe”.

  1. Tlachiquero (or Pulquero)- The “Tlachiquero” is the person who extracts the aguamiel from the maguey and then ferments it into the drink known as pulque.

Each time the cavity is drained of aguamiel the sides of the cavity are scraped so that they won’t seal up. The scrapings can be fed to barnyard animals. Traditionally, harvesters used a long, dried, hollowed-out gourd called an “acocote” to harvest the aguamiel. The tlachiquero puts one end into the sap, and sucks on the other end to draw the sap up into the gourd, then the gourd is emptied into a bucket. The sap can also be scooped/ladled out.

Using an acocote gourd to drain aguamiel                                                           

I have always found it slightly amusing that the tlachiquero harvesting the aguamiel with an acocote looks like a hummingbird feeding from a flower.

Scraping out the cavity
Scraping too

The tlachiquero must have very clean hands when scraping out the agave cavity. Any kind of toxic substance (chlorine, gasoline, insecticides) on the hands can kill the plant due to the sensitivity of exposed wound caused by castration. When not being used the cavity is covered with something, usually a large stone, to prevent bugs from getting in and to slow down spontaneous fermentation inside the cavity by keeping the air out.

Once the agave has finished producing aguamiel there is not much left of the plant. It is quite literally drained of life. The picture above shows the remnants of an agave at the end of its aguamiel production.

Variations in colour of aguamiel.

To paint a mental picture, aguamiel has been said to taste somewhere between coconut water and sugarcane juice.

In the book “Pulque – Pulqueros y Bebedores en Jalisco” pulquero Francisco Mejía from the Sierra del Tigre in Concepción de Buenos Aires mentions a process that bypasses the long waits between the castration of the quiote and the puncturing of the remaining stalk before aguamiel harvesting finally begins. This time period can be up to 12 months according to some traditions. The cogollo  of the maguey is accessed while still in a “leaf” stage while the quiote is still forming and before the quiote actually sprouts.

The pulquero will dig into the cogollo until he reaches the “meyolote” or heart of maguey and continues scraping until he “begins to see a white wheel, (where) all the pencas are finished”

Once the heart of the maguey is reached the pulquero will then use a scraper or raspador to forge a hole into which the aguamiel will eventually drain and be harvested from. The material initially removed from the maguey when the cogollo was accessed is then placed back into the wound formed and allowed to stay in place for between “eight and fifteen” days and allowed to rot.

After this period of time has passed the wound is reopened and scraped until it is clean and aguamiel begins to seep into the cavity. The cavity is covered with a stone and allowed to sit for 3 days at which time it is rescraped and daily aguamiel collection can begin.

Scraper forging the cavity

Freshly broken magueys

Agave piña harvested in preparation for tequila production                               

The magueys cogollo is shown in the top centre of this picture. This is where the new pencas form and from where the quiote will eventually sprout. In Tequila production the cogollo is a small section of the piña that is at the very tip.  The cogollo is very waxy and can impart a very bitter flavour to the distillate.  The piñas, such as the one pictured, are often cut into sections before being steamed in preparation for crushing.


Piña with cogollo removed                                                                         

The cogollo as shown is the heart from which the pencas unfold and the plant is at a period of its development before the quiote emerges and goes someway to demonstrate (in cross-section) when the correct time to harvest the piña occurs. The time between when the plant goes from producing pencas to the quiote can happen rapidly and care must be taken that it is not harvested too late (or too early for that matter).

Seed/Mother Preparation.

This is the process where the fresh aguamiel is inoculated with a previous batch of pulque in a manner similar to that of sourdough or kombucha. Pulque is fermented using natural yeasts and bacteria by exposing the aguamiel to open air, just cover it with a screen to keep bugs out. This can be problematic as, like sourdough, it may take many attempts before you get the right microorganisms and are happy with the fermentation. The process of creating a mother in this way usually takes between 1-4 weeks (depending on the season). The aguamiel will begin to ferment and a characteristic acetic/alcoholic flavour begins to develop. The liquid may take on a milky appearance and a white layer called “zurrón” develops on the surface (much like kombucha). Once you have created this it then becomes a daily process to keep the mother alive and prevent it from spoiling. It must be constantly cared for as you would a young child.

Vat of pulque seed

Fermentation

Traditionally fermentation was done in wooden barrels or leather “bags” made from cow hide or sheepskin. It can still be done this way but these days most often it is done in plastic barrels. Fermentation times can vary greatly depending on the season, the quality of the aguamiel and the maturity of the mother. It can take as little as 3-6 hours or as many as 3-12 days for proper fermentation. Once it is ready pulque can sour very quickly (1 or 2 days) and can become too viscous to drink. I have heard of the maturity of pulque being measured by “the finger”. Three finger pulque is quite young and fluid. It takes 3 fingers to scoop the pulque into your jicara (1). One finger pulque is thick and viscous and can be scooped out using only one finger. The mucilaginous texture of this drink is quite unique and is often confronting to those trying it for the first time. Instead of fermenting the aguamiel you can heat it to reduce the water content and create a sweet syrup in a manner similar to that of the maple tree and maple syrup production. Pulque is a living liquid. If you put fresh pulque into a closed container then a hole must be poked into the lid so that the still fermenting liquid can breathe and will not explode from the container. Beatriz López Mateo explains that during its production pulque must be made in spotlessly clean and dry containers as even a drop of water can ruin the entire batch (one assumes because of unwanted microbes) (Zaslavsky 1995)

  1. Jicara – a cup made from a hollowed out dried gourd. They are often elaborately carved or decorated.
Plain jicaras at a Mexican mercado

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.” (1)

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.

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 cooks’ imagination.

  1. https://www.vice.com/en_au/article/kwpgza/the-enigma-of-pulque
Amino acid and vitamin content of pulque
Calories (per 1000ml) : 574
Amino acids (mg/100ml)
Lysine 3.0 – 16.2
Tryptophan 2.5 – 2.7
Histidine 4.0 – 4.7
Phenylalanine 6.5 – 11.2
Leucine 4.0 – 10.5
Isoleucine 4.04
Threonine 1.5 – 6.4
Methionine 0.7 – 3.0
Valine 2.5 – 6.6
Arginine 2.5 – 10.9
Tyrosine 0 – 3.0
Cysteine 1.59
Vitamins (mg/100ml)
Thiamine (B1) 0.02
Riboflavin (B2) 0.02 – 0.029
Niacin (B3) 0.28 – 0.32
Pyridoxine 0.02
Biotin 0.02
Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) 4.6 – 5.6
Minerals (mg/100ml)
Iron 3.5

The amino acid content of pulque is very interesting. There are several amino acids that are not readily found in plant material and these can tend to be lacking in those following a vegetarian diet. These amino acids are lysine, methionine, threonine and tryptophan. As you can see in the table above all four of these amino acids are present in pulque (which is a vegetarian food product). These amino acids are found in pulque as a result of the fermentation processes.

Pulque being stored and transported in sheepskin bags.
Modern attempts at bottling pulque
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