“Pulque bendito, dulce tormento, que haces afuera, vente pa’ dentro!”
“Blessed pulque, sweet torture, don’t stay outside, come in where it’s warmer!”
Before there was tequila, before there was mezcal, before there was even raicilla, there was pulque. Enjoyed by the people of central Mexico for at least 2,000 years, pulque is a refreshing beer-like beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey (agave). It is a milky, semi-viscous liquid with a slightly sweet and yeasty flavor. And it’s worth getting to know.
The History of Pulque and How It's Made
Pulque wasn’t so much invented as it was discovered. As an agave plant matures, it shoots up a flowering stalk from its center, which eventually grows flowers and functions as its reproductive organ. When the stalk is cut out, it leaves behind a gaping hole, which fills with sweet sap called aguamiel, or honeywater. This pool of nutritive and delicious liquid was a hot drinking spot in the animal kingdom, and humans were no exception—especially when they came across a surreptitiously boozy batch.
Thanks to airborne yeasts, the liquid naturally ferments, becomes a bit fizzy and develops an alcoholic kick. Humans quickly realized that letting the aguamiel ferment briefly enhanced its potency and made them feel amazing. So they developed a process to extract the aguamiel from the hole while encouraging more to collect by scraping the sides of the hole. Pulque-giving plants can survive in the ground and continue to give up aguamiel for months after a stalk has been removed.
As pulque production evolved, people discovered that the plants gave up a better quality of aguamiel if the stalk was cut just as it started to shoot up, rather than when it had reached maturity and begun to flower. Different plants were used to start and accelerate the fermentation process, which can take between a few days up to two weeks depending on the climate and location. Today, the process remains largely unchanged and dependent on natural airborne yeasts of the environment along with using a mother pulque culture to start new batches.
How Do You Drink Pulque?
Thanks to its many uses, pulque became a central element of society in ancient Mexico, right up there with the moon, sacrificial blood and life giving semen. The intoxication it imparts is said to be lucid, and a way to connect with divine and cosmic wisdom. There have been many gods associated with pulque, and more than one cautionary tale about consuming more than five cups in a social setting. Up to four cups of pulque was generally regarded as safe and fun, but five or more was purported to propel one into a hallucinogenic state, and reserved for spiritual conduits only. In one account, one of five men indulged in a fifth cup and took his clothes off, offending his companions who punished him with exile. These days, with high proof mezcal being served alongside this mildly alcoholic traditional drink, there are few cases of people losing their sensibilities—even after five cups. But those who are not used to drinking pulque, which continues to ferment in the stomach, may want to heed the mythic advise anyway.
Much like kombucha, pulque is a freshly fermented beverage containing a multitude of healthy probiotics that help cleanse and fortify the digestive tract. It is extremely delicate and spoils quickly; depending on the heat of the region, a batch you buy on Monday may be undrinkable by Thursday. The best restaurants and bars get their pulque fresh every day or every other day. Served slightly cold, and sometimes over ice, it is a refreshing beverage that can be enjoyed any time of day. It is often mixed with natural fruit flavors like pineapple and guava, which cover up some of the more pungently yeasty aromas.
Where to Find Pulque
Like mezcal, pulque exhibits differences based on the region it comes from. There is said to be a (mostly) friendly rivalry between the pulque drinkers of Oaxaca and the pulque drinkers of Puebla. Oaxacan pulque tends to be light- to medium-bodied, while the pulque from Puebla is more viscous, resembling a cornstarch-thickened sauce. Preferences are highly subjective.
Traveling with pulque accelerates its devolution, turning it into a sour, skanky drink that hits the stomach hard. This means that pulque, like 50-cent tacos, is a pleasure only to be had in its native land. The canned pulque that is available outside of a pulque producing region is pasteurized, which kills the beneficial probiotics and a lot of the flavor. Pulque is alive, and while the stuff from the can was once pulque, the end product doesn’t resemble the real thing any more than a cardboard cutout of a real person.