Everything You Need to Know About Pulque, Mezcal's Fizzy Sister
Let’s get one thing straight: Pulque is not technically related to tequila or mezal. Nor is it a byproduct of making tequila or mezcal. Pulque’s only relation to the agave spirits is that it also comes from agave plants. While mezcal and tequila are derived from the piña—or heart—of the agave plant, pulque is made from the sap of the plant, which is known as aguamiel (honey water). But that’s not the only difference. Here, everything that you need to know about pulque.
You Don’t Kill the Agave Plant to Make Pulque
In order to make mezcal and tequila you have to extract the maguey (agave plant) from the ground, effectively killing it. Aguamiel, however, is produced naturally by the plant near the end of its lifespan. The sap gathers at the center of the plant’s leaves, and the plant will typically secrete it for up to a year before it finally dies. During the period when an agave plant is producing aguamiel,it can release up to 600 liters of sap.
To make pulque, which is a thick, syrupy but effervescent, beer-like drink, producers collect the aguamiel with a steel scoop or bucket (in pre-colonial Mexico it was collected in a gourd) and then ferment it in a barrel (traditionally, pulque was fermented in open-topped wooden barrels but now it is more common to use plastic drums or plastic tanks). Pulque can be fermented with the wild yeast and bacteria in the air, but it primarily draws from the bacteria leftover from the previous batch of pulque.
Pulque Has Been Consumed in Mexico for Centuries
Pre-Spanish colonial rule, indigenous people considered pulque to be a drink of the gods. It was revered for its perceived health benefits and was often only consumed by priests or nobility. The only commoners allowed to drink pulque were the elderly and pregnant women. (While it’s probably not a godly beverage, pulque is packed with iron and vitamin C, along with lactic acid and probiotics.) After the Spanish arrived in Mexico, pulque was almost entirely eradicated. The Spaniards brought beer to the country and deemed pulque uncivilized, stigmatizing those who drank it, while in turn boosting their own beer sales. Although pulque survived, it wasn’t until recently that it became popular once again, especially with younger Mexicans.
Pulque Can Be Used in Cocktails
After fermentation, pulque is typically only 5-7 percent ABV—about the same as a standard beer. While fermenting pulque for a longer amount of time will create something with a higher ABV, leaving it out also increases the risk of contamination, sourness or spoilage. To give pulque an alcoholic boost, people add either mezcal or tequila. People also mix it with fresh juice—like guava or pineapple—pistachio milk, coconut water or even tomato juice.
Pulque Is Better Fresh Than Commercially Produced
Sadly, if you want to drink “real” pulque, you have to go to Mexico. While there are technically commercial brands that import canned or bottled pulque, these products are pasteurized and don’t have the same fizziness or flavor as fresh pulque. Most commercial pulques that we’ve tried taste like sour milk—albeit much thicker. Good pulque should taste like a mix between a lager, aloe vera sap and kefir. While some American bars have tried smuggling in fresh aguamiel from Mexico to make their own pulque (which is illegal in all sorts of ways and we can’t condone it) or have resorted to making a pulque-esque beverage from agave nectar, it’s best to just book a flight to Mexico City and get a taste of the good stuff at a pulqueria.