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.
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
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
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