In the popular consciousness, Mexico is commonly associated with the tequilas and lagers that are exported in mass quantities. Homebrewers would be interested to know, however, that the nation is also home to several traditional, homemade libations: colonche is made from the fermented prickly pear; tepache from pineapple or cane sugar, tesgüino from corn, and tuba from the nectar of palm trees.
None of these folk brews are more intricately interwoven with Mexico’s history and national identity, however, than pulque (pronounced POOL-kay), the fermented nectar of the maguey cactus. The beverage has served as sacramental wine for the Aztecs, materia prima for the distillation of tequila and mescal, and a national institution at the turn of the 20th Century. As the drama of Mexico’s history has unfolded, the maguey and its fermented juice have always occupied center stage.
THE GODDESS MAYAHUEL
In ancient Mexico, the lunar goddess Mayahuel watched over the miracle of fermentation. The maguey plant itself was considered sacred in the Aztec cosmology, associated with Mayahuel as a connecting point between the divine and the earthly realms — some legends even described the nectar of the maguey as the blood of Mayahuel herself. Given the holy nature of the plant, maguey was used ceremonially by the ancient Aztecs; the spines of the cactus were used by the faithful to pierce their flesh in a physical act of contrition evocative of medieval Catholic penitentes.
Mayahuel’s husband was the god Pantecatl, the deity who is said to have discovered the process of fermentation. Pantecatl was also the first to brew pulque using the ocpactli root: this infusion was added to pulque in order to aid in fermentation, add a bitter flavor and preserve the drink from spoilage. For his discovery, Pantecatl was honored with his own month in the Aztec calendar, Panquetzaliztli, a time of massive celebration.
In this sense, pulque was viewed by the ancients as the result of the union between the female and male archetypes — agave nectar and ocpactli. Curiously enough, in many European languages, the word for barley malt is feminine while the word for hops is masculine.
400 FURRY FERMENTERS
Abusing pulque in a secular context was harshly punished among the Aztecs — the offender’s house might be torn down, his hair burned off or he may even be beaten to death.
In the religious, ceremonial context, on the other hand, drunkenness was tolerated, as it was viewed as “possession by the gods.” In fact, intoxication is still associated with the intervention of supernatural forces in many modern-day communities of Mexico which speak Nahuatl, the Aztec language.
Mayahuel reigned over a pantheon of 400 divine rabbits, the patron gods of fermentation, which represent the variety of forms which intoxication might take. The number is largely symbolic, signifying a large, nearly uncountable number. Some of the sacred rabbits had specific names, associated with specific forms of intoxication — anger, sleepiness, joviality, etc.
Pulque was used for a variety of religious purposes. Before being consumed, a bit of pulque would be poured onto the ground as a symbolic offering to the gods. Pulque was used to christen newborn infants, and given to prisoners about to be sacrificed. The Aztecs even held gladiator-type spectacles in which pulque-fortified prisoners would be stripped naked and left to fight five warriors, armed only with a wooden stick.
Like beer in medieval Europe, pulque was infused with different herbs, plants, roots and minerals, creating several varieties. Some records survived the Spanish conquest, alluding to the numerous varietals and their uses in Aztec ceremonial life. Teoctli, or “divine pulque,” was given to court musicians for inspiration. During the festivities of the month of Panquetzaliztli, a bluish-colored pulque known as matlaloctli was served; a different variety was named tlilioctli, or “black pulque.”
THE LIBATION OF NEW SPAIN
From the very beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the maguey plant was associated with resistance to the invasion. Legend has it that in a last act of desperation, the Aztecs planted the sacred maguey cacti along the road to Tenochtitlan, hoping to invoke Mayahuel’s protection in the face of the advancing conquistadores.
After the emperor had been dethroned and the nation of Mexica renamed “La Nueva España,” pulque was ever-present in the Spaniards’ struggle to consolidate their authority. In fact, the word “pulque” itself may derive from a manifestation of passive resistance to Spanish rule. In Nahuatl, the proper name for the drink is octli; it is believed that the Spanish word “pulque” derives from the Nahuatl phrase octli poliuhqui, meaning “rotten pulque.” Apparently, the Aztecs gave their conquerors the skunky, oxidized leftovers and kept the higher quality pulque for their own clandestine consumption.
In what appears to have been an arbitrary assertion of their authority, the governors of “New Spain” attempted to regulate the production of pulque on various occasions. The Catholic hierarchy pressured the colonial authorities to prohibit the use of the ocpactli root, claiming that it increased drunken, disorderly conduct.
Throughout the three centuries of foreign rule, pulque became associated with the assertion of native identity in the face of colonial domination. In 1692, a limited uprising of indigenous and mestizo peasants against the Viceroy of New Spain took place; as they marched through the streets, the crowds shouted, “Viva el pulque!” Of course, this was only a precursor to the actual Mexican War for Independence . . . in which the maguey plant was ever-present.
THE VIRGIN AND
Perhaps no icon symbolizes the identity of Mexico as much as the Virgin of Guadalupe. According to tradition, the Mother of Christ appeared to the peasant Juan Diego in 1531; she was dressed in the traditional garb of the indigenous poor and spoke to Juan Diego in the Nahuatl language. The startled peasant was told to collect roses from a bush that appeared at the Virgin’s feet and bring them to the local Catholic bishop as proof of the divine apparition. He collected the flowers in his cloak; upon arrival at the parish, he found that the Virgin’s image had been miraculously imprinted on the cloth.
This cloth was an ayate, a traditional Aztec cloak sewn from the fibers of the maguey plant. The visual depiction of the Virgin of Guadalupe, as well, is heavily embedded with imagery reminiscent of Mayahuel and the maguey plant. Some scholars have suggested that the halo surrounding her represents maguey leaves, and the moon beneath her feet suggests a connection with the ancient moon goddess. Indeed, among many Nahuatl-speaking people, the Virgin has been referred to as la Virgen del Maguey and pulque has been described as “the milk of the Virgin.”
The Virgin of Guadalupe represents the process of mestizaje: the blending of the indigenous and the European, the Old and New Worlds, the fusion that would result in the modern nation of Mexico. The Virgin of Guadalupe became further associated with the identity of the Mexican nation during the War of Independence. In 1810, the patriot-priest Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla carried a banner which bore the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe as he declared Mexico a free and sovereign nation. This flag, the first national banner of independent Mexico, bore a sacred image intricately connected to pulque and the maguey plant.
THE RISE AND FALL OF PULQUE
By the early 20th Century, the production of pulque had become a vast commercial enterprise, filling the coffers of landowners who oversaw expansive haciendas across central Mexico. The drink was carted into the nation’s capital by the barrelful and served in elegant drinking halls, known as pulquerías, which numbered well over a thousand in Mexico City alone. The bartender would serve the pulque out of barrels using a hollow gourd, earning him the title of jicarero — the bearer of the gourd. Pulque was drunk from green-tinted mugs made of blown glass. In continuity with Aztec tradition, many different varieties were produced using various additives to enhance flavor.
This national institution suffered a nearly fatal blow in the late 20th Century, however, at the hands of the beer breweries founded by European immigrants. Urban Mexicans gradually began to drink beer more than pulque as the century wore on, and the number of pulquerías severely atrophied. This transition was artificially accelerated by an aggressive marketing campaign.
A common urban legend regarding pulque is the claim that a piece of excrement is dropped into the fresh agave nectar to aid fermentation (referred to euphemistically as la muñeca — “the little doll”). While this may or may not have been the case in some remote past, I have not been able to find any modern pulqueros who actually use this technique; indeed, a starter of pre-fermented pulque is much more effective. Still, the truth never gets in the way of a good story . . . especially when scatology is involved.
Rather, the belief appears to be the result of a “smear campaign” launched by beer breweries in the early 20th Century as they muscled their way into the Mexican alcoholic beverage market. Breweries sponsored widespread advertisements which associated pulque with dangerous, unsanitary practices. In contrast, they touted European beer as sanitary and hygienic.
The tendency to reject national traditions in favor of all things foreign is known pejoratively in Mexico as malinchismo, referring to the indigenous woman La Malinche who aided the Spanish in their invasion. Malinchismo became firmly entrenched in many sectors of society during the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. With it, beer pushed pulque to the marginal edges of society. The pulque market would never recover; in the 21st Century, urban pulquerías are ever more difficult to come by.
I recently visited one of the last remaining establishments in Mexico City, shortly after the Day of the Dead celebrations. Amidst ancient colonial churches, vendors selling cempaxúchitl marigold flowers and public altars dedicated to the deceased, I found the Pulquería El Casino tucked away on an inconspicuous side street. I stepped through the saloon-style swinging doors to find a small, one-room establishment. The walls were adorned with photographs of bull fighters and 1950’s pinup girls; a handful of local men sat at the metal tables, sipping pulque and watching a Spanish language translation of The Simpsons on a diminutive television set.
The bartender served me up a liter of plain white pulque, explaining that it is trucked in from the nearby countryside in enormous barrels. True to tradition, this establishment offers a variety of pulques curados, involving the infusion of various flavors. In addition to the unadulterated beverage, patrons can order the creamy, sweet peanut pulque, spicy tomato pulque, and even a varietal with whole shrimp in it.
The atmosphere was intimate and familiar. Given its location in the colonial city center, this pulquería is a place where social class carries little bearing: it is not uncommon to witness mechanics and day laborers sharing a table with businessmen and college students. I was encouraged by the numerous newspaper and magazine articles on display that mention the establishment, which I took to represent a possible resurgence of interest in the traditional beverage. Regardless of the potential expansion of the urban pulque market in the near future, however, the heart of Pulque Country remains firmly rooted in Mexico’s central countryside.
A RURAL HOMEBREW
The small town of Jilotepec sits nestled amidst pine forests and maguey fields. It is emblematic of many rural towns in central Mexico: Ancient Mexican delicacies, including escamoles (ant larvae collected from the forest) and huitlacoche (fungi that grow on the ears of corn), are still prepared by the townsfolk. An enormous cathedral overlooks the town from the highest mountaintop; when I visited Jilotepec years ago during Holy Week, I joined the faithful in climbing the many steps up to the church.
As is the case in hundreds of towns throughout the Valley of Mexico, pulque is brewed there. After descending the mountainside, I was parched, and ready to break my Lenten fast from alcoholic beverages. The friends I was visiting told me that a few of their neighbors brewed pulque, and I anxiously followed them to the nearest residence. The pulquero pulled the top off a large plastic barrel and drew about four liters of the frothy substance into a plastic canister for us, explaining to me the work that goes into creating a batch of pulque. The production involves three basic steps: 1.) cultivating maguey plants, 2.) harvesting the nectar from the maguey plants and 3.) fermenting it.
To harvest the nectar, a few of the fronds are cut away from the side of a mature maguey plant, and an opening is cut into the heart of the plant. One legend claims that the opossum discovered pulque, becoming the first creature on earth to get drunk. This story derives from the fact that opossums do indeed scratch at the maguey to drink the rich nectar from it. Since wild yeasts grow on the maguey plant, some of these animals may indeed enjoy the mild “buzz” of naturally fermented pulque.
Traditionally, the nectar was harvested from the maguey plant by sucking it out through a long, hollow gourd; many modern pulqueros, however, use a metal ladle to remove the syrup. After removing up to 6.3 qts (6.0 L) of nectar, the inside of the plant is scraped to induce the production of more nectar. Many plants will continue to produce for 4–6 months until they eventually die.
We returned to my friends’ home, where a family gathering was well underway. Jilotepec townsfolk danced and drank with relatives who had driven in from Mexico City for the holiday. I drank my first glass of pulque while cumbias blared from the nearby speakers and children danced with their aunts and uncles. The beverage appeared milky and viscous, had a sweetish sour flavor to it, and went down smooth, not unlike some Belgian sour ales. Many of the urban youth who were visiting for the weekend eyed the pitcher of pulque suspiciously, and turned back to their familiar Victoria and Sol beers.
I chatted with some elderly Jilotepec natives as the sun slowly went down, learning that pulque was still a ubiquitous part of daily life for this rural community. Two women, ages 80 and 97, told me that they drank pulque on a daily basis as children, given its high vitamin content. In a household of seven people, they would drink at least ~5 qts. (5 L) of the beverage every day. Waxing nostalgic, the women told me how they used to wash clothes in a nearby river as they leisurely drank pulque and gossiped with each other. A middle-aged man told me that, for most of his life, he drank pulque instead of water, as it was more nutritious and sanitary.
Many of the native peoples of the Americas have recognized the medicinal values of the maguey plant. Among indigenous groups, it has been used as a diuretic, an antirrheumatic, a laxative and a digestion agent. The root of the plant is even used as a soap and shampoo by some of the native peoples of North America.
By its very nature, pulque does not lend itself to long-term storage, making it difficult to commercialize. A few companies have attempted to bottle and can the beverage; the brand “Néctar del Razo” is exported to many parts of the United States. Still, the canned pulque doesn’t hold a candle to the real thing. (Think of comparing a packet of “fancy ketchup” with a fresh, homegrown tomato.) As a result, pulque remains tied closely to the communities that produce it, a fact that should bring satisfaction to aficionados of the “slow food” movement and fans of local small-scale microbrews.
In spite of the drastic changes which have taken place over the past 500 years of Mexican history, pulque remains indelibly printed on the national consciousness, and remains a mainstay in hundreds of towns across the diverse, picturesque countryside.
(5 gallons / 19 L)
OG = 1.055 FG = 1.010
IBU = 0 SRM = varies
(depending on color of nectar)
ABV = 4.25% (average)
Readers should keep in mind that it is difficult to replicate true pulque using only the ingredients in a home brewer’s pharmacopeia. It is common for pulque brewers in Mexico to reproduce their own strains of yeast, using a starter of fermented pulque (known as the “semilla”, or seed) to ferment a fresh batch of agave nectar. These yeast strains, like many tricks of the trade, are closely guarded secrets amongst pulqueros — indeed, some of these strains of yeast may be as old as the Aztec Empire itself.
8.0 lbs. (3.6 kg) agave (maguey)
nectar (Madhava brand agave
nectar is available at Henry’s and
other organic markets in light and
dark versions. Either works.)
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale),
White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) or Safale US-05 yeast (Traditionally, a yeast strain known as Saccharomyces carbajali is commonly used.)
Step by Step
Dissolve the agave nectar into the water, much as when making a mead. Heat for as long as it takes to dissolve nectar, but do not boil. After cooling wort, add the yeast (and bacteria, if using. See below). Ferment at 65 °F (18 °C). Fermentation time may vary. Best if served shortly after fermenting. If bottling, let cure in bottles for a few days, then keep refrigerated.
You can ferment the agave using only yeast; however, to replicate the sour flavor common in true pulque, I recommend adding a bacterial culture. You can use a commercially available lambic blend — such as Wyeast 3278 (Lambic Blend) or White Labs WLP655 (Belgian Sour Mix 1) — or a culture of Brettanomyces lambicus or Lactobacillus delbrueckii will also work.
David J. Schmidt is a writer and translator in San Diego, California. He speaks seven languages, has been to 25 countries, and has spent the last ten years exploring rural Mexico.