Pulque: Mexico’s unique and vanishing drink

Once a commonplace with Mexico’s rural poor, this nutritious alcoholic brew, made from the dramatic maguey plant, is rapidly being replaced by nutritionless beer and cheap cane liquor.

By Don Lotter

September 28, 2004: The first time I drank pulque (pronounced pool-kay) back in the mid-1970s, I knew there was something special about it because it gave me power over the alleyway dogs that always hounded me on my walk home from the pulquería on the outskirts of Cuernavaca. Plus, it didn’t give me a hangover.

Pulque is a thick, white-colored drink of 3-4% alcohol made by a brief fermentation of the sap of the maguey plant, an Agave species. It is different from tequila and mescal in that it is not distilled.

Traditionally, pulque forms an important part of the diet of the native peoples of the central highlands of Mexico, and the maguey plant an important part of their life here. Pulque has been considered a poor person’s drink, and many a campesino has substantially bolstered his diet of tortillas and beans with the drink. It has been shown to be an important part of poor pregnant and nursing women’s diets, and that women who drink pulque are less at risk for anemia.

"The Aztecs attached such importance to the maguey, having to do with fertility, that one of their supernatural beings, Mayahuel, was pictured seated within a maguey plant, nursing a baby."
Pulque has been left out of the “modern” diet promoted by government and market forces in Mexico. In its place have come beer and spirits, neither of which have anything close to the nutrition that pulque has. Beer is much more expensive. Cheap cane spirits, the preferred alcohol of the poor now, will rot one’s gut much faster than pulque ever will.

In a country where 25-40% of rural people are malnourished, advocating the replacement of a nutritious beverage like pulque with nutritionless beverages like beer and spirits seems wrong.

Analysis of pulque has shown that it is a nutritious drink, providing thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, as well as a beneficial microbial community for the human digestive system.

Most middle class Mexicans turn up their noses at the mention of pulque. It is considered a crude, peasant drink, and not nearly as desirable as beer and spirits. Part of pulque’s bad reputation comes from years of abuse by alcoholic campesinos, who would drink gallons of it daily, starting in the morning and going all day.

The maguey plant has traditionally been much more than just a source of drink. The Spanish explorer Francisco Hernández wrote in 1577 about the maguey in the central highlands of Mexico:

“As a whole (maguey) can be used as fuel or to fence fields. Its shoots can be used as wood and its leave as roofing materials, as plates or platters, to make paper, to make cord with which they make shoes, cloth, and all kinds of clothes…. From the sap…they make wines, honey, vinegar, and sugar…From the root, they also make very strong ropes which are useful for many things. The thicker part of the leaves as well as the trunk, cooked underground…are good to eat…There is nothing which gives a higher return.

The Aztecs attached such importance to the maguey, having to do with fertility, that one of their supernatural beings, Mayahuel, was pictured seated within a maguey plant, nursing a baby.

The people who still drink pulque, mostly campesinos, swear by its health properties. One farmer, Guadalupe Hernandez Garcia, in his 70s and still actively farming, recalls when he was sick with some kind of kidney ailment. “I went to the doctor and was given expensive medicines. After a month, I was still sick. I ran into an old guy who told me to drink a liter of pulque everyday. After a couple of weeks I was completely better,” said Guadalupe. He balled his fists and showed his muscles, “And look at me now!”

The magueys that are used for pulque can be from several species of Agave, the most common being Agave atrovirens, which can grow to ten feet tall (non-flowering stage) and 12-14 feet across. The maguey has much thicker leaves and is much larger than the Agaves traditionally used for making tequila and mescal.

Maguey plants are traditionally grown around the edges of crop fields, on non-crop land, and along paths and roadways.

The state of Hidalgo, about 100 miles north of Mexico City, is considered to be Mexico’s pulque center, where the best pulque is still produced. The town of Tepotzotlan, where this article is being written, is on the southern edge of Hidalgo.

Making pulque

Unlike tequila and mescal production, where the plant heart is extracted and cooked, in pulque production the maguey heart is tapped while the plant is still alive. This gives many times the volume of sweet sap, called aguamiel (honey water), than if the heart was simply cut out, cooked and crushed. Aguamiel flow lasts for up to six months and can yield 1000 liters over that time.

SLIDESHOW: Making pulque
Above: the sap of the maguey plant gathers in what remains of the plant's bud. This cement like sap is what is used to make Pulque.

The process of selecting a maguey plant and preparing it for aguamiel production is quite involved, the whole process taking nearly a year. When a plant is about to send up its enormous flowering stalk at the end of its 7-15 year lifetime, it is selected for agualmiel tapping. It is at this stage that the plant has conserved large amounts of nutritious sap in order to send its flowering stalk 20 feet in the air.

First the protective sheath of leaves around the flower bud are removed. The floral embryo is then killed by puncturing it with a sharp object. This is left for several months, during which time the bud around the dead embryo swells but can’t grow vertically. After this period it is ready to be hollowed out, and the bud is repeatedly punctured again so that its center rots out. After a week the rotted material is cleaned out of the center of the plant, leaving a cavity for the aguamiel to collect.

Plant sap fills up the cavity rapidly and must be harvested twice a day. Each time the aguamiel is extracted, the sides of the cavity are scraped clean of scar tissue, and the shavings saved for feeding to animals.

The extraction of the aguamiel is done using a long calabash gourd called an acocote. The harvester uses his mouth, placed on a hole at the top of the acocote, to provide suction for the aguamiel to flow up into the gourd, which is then emptied into a bucket.

Aguamiel contains about 10% sugar. The fermentation process is started by seeding the aguamiel with “mother of pulque”, a culture containing the right microorganisms.

A couple of days of fermentation later a drink of about 3-4% alcohol is obtained. The fermentation process is biochemically a different one than beer or wine. In beer and wine production, the yeast organism Saccharomyces ferments sugars into alcohol. In the pulque fermentation it is another organism, of the genus Zymomonas, which produces alcohol from sugar. Zymomonas is resident on the surfaces of the maguey plant and naturally colonizes the aguamiel. Zymomonas uses an entirely different biochemical pathway for the production of alcohol, called the Entner-Deuderoff pathway, than Saccharomyces.

Other unique microbial processes are part of the pulque fermentation. A bacterium of the genus Leuconostoc is partly responsible for pulque’s famous viscosity (Mexicans who do not like pulque joke most about its viscosity). Leuconostoc produces dextrans from sugars, which makes for the viscosity. Lactobacilli, well known for promoting gastrointestinal health, are also active in the fermentation.

During the fermentation the vitamin content (milligrams of vitamins per 100g of product) of pulque increases from 5 to 29 for thiamine, 54 to 515 for niacin and 18 to 33 for riboflavin, according to one analysis.

Pulque must be drunk within a day after its 36-48 hour fermentation, or refrigerated, and is famous for its awful smell when allowed to putrify. Pulque contains albumins, which when allowed to putrify, cause a terrible stench. A Spanish traveler wrote in 1552 “There are no dead dogs, nor a bomb, that can clear a path as well as the smell of…. (putrified pulque).

Pulque is sold in casual backyard type businesses called pulquerías. Usually just a few tables and chairs, sometimes pigs, chickens, or dogs kick around at one’s feet. The pulque is traditionally served in calabash gourds, but by the 1970s, plastic buckets were commonly being used.

In the old days pulque haciendas, farms which specialized in growing maguey and making pulque, were the centers of pulque production. Very few, if any, of these exist anymore.

Pulque should only be bought at reputable pulquerías, as contamination can be a problem if not made and stored properly. Many a case of the skitters has been caused by poorly made pulque.

Vidal Aguillon, proprietor for 40 years of what is now the last pulquería in Tepotzotlan, Pulquería El Mirador, reflected on the demise of pulque. “The days of the old pulque haciendas are over and there aren’t any left around here. Maybe one or two in the state of Hidalgo. The magueys are being used up or allowed to flower and aren’t being replanted. People aren’t interested in pulque anymore.”