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Updated May, 2011
Tequila's mystical ancestor, pulque, produced since Aztec times
Tequila's predecessor, pulque, was made from as many as six types of agave grown in the Mexican highlands - but not the blue agave, however. Pulque is one of about 30 different alcoholic beverages made from agave in Mexico - many of which are still made regionally, although seldom available commercially. Pulque has remained essential to diet in the central highlands of Mexico since pre-Aztec times.
Pulque is like beer - it has a low alcohol content, about 4-8%, but also contains vegetable proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins, so it also acts as a nutritional supplement in many communities.
Unlike tequila or mezcal, the agave sap is not cooked prior to fermentation for pulque.
Pulque use dates back to at least 200 CE and perhaps much further. It was first made by the Aztecs around 1172-1291 CE, and was used by them as a ritual and ceremonial drink. A similar fermented drink from the southern part of the country is called tepache and in some places it is known as octli.
Agave may have been cultivated for aguamiel - agave nectar - as early as 1239 CE, according to archeological records.
Aztecs were very strict about pulque's use, and only priests were allowed to drink a fifth glass of pulque - often to help keep them in the mood for their frequent ritual sacrifice and cannibalism. Aztec punishment for public drunkenness was beating, loss of public office and even death, except on the five last days of the calendar year, known as the 'Days of the Dead.' Seniors were generally exempt from these laws.
Other pre-Columbian Mexicans fermented the agave sap into a drink the Aztecs called octili poliqhui - which the Spaniards corrupted into pulque. Teo octli was the finest quality, or the 'octli of the gods.'
The 16th century Franciscan friar, Torbio de Benavente, wrote about the curative powers of pulque and agave sap - as mentioned in the Florentine Codex. Pulque was used at ceremonies during harvests, marriages, births, and burials. Its use became linked with many myths and deities.
"I break up the maguey. I pierce the center. I pierce the stalk. I clean the
surface. I scrape it. [...] I remove the maguey syrup from each one. I heat the
maguey syrup. I make wine."
Vasco de Quiroga, who built a utopian colony in Michoacan in the 1550s, wrote about the Purepecha Indians becoming drunk on pulque.
The Aztecs also had Tepoztecal, the god of alcoholic merriment.
Pulque was originally used in religious festivals, dedicated to the god Ometotchtli - Two Rabbit (one of the Centzon Totochtin, or 400 rabbits; Tochtli, or Ometotchli, was also a figure in the Aztec calendar - day eight of the 20-day cycle). There was no "One Rabbit." When they looked at the moon, the Mexica saw a rabbit in its face.
Olmec legend credits the discovery of aguamiel to a woman, Mayahuetl, and fermentation of the sap to her husband, Petecatl. Aztec legend says fermented maguey sap was revealed to them by the gods who split a ripe plant with a lightning bolt. To the Nahuatl, the maguey was divine, represented by the goddess Mayahuel, who had 400 breasts which oozed pulque.
A similar legend says Mayahuel, a farmer's wife, was chasing rabbits from her agave fields, when she found a rabbit that staggered in circles instead of running. She found it had been drinking aguamiel from the heart of an agave. So she and her husband collected the nectar in a jar, and drank it after work. It made them happy, fearless, then sleepy. Afterwards, Mayahuel was made goddess of the agave, and was sometimes pictured by the Aztecs sitting in the middle of an agave, with a rabbit nearby.
Ron Cooper, of Del Maguey mezcal producers, was quoted in Metro Active as saying, "The Aztec's 400 gods of pulque were representative of the infinite forms that intoxication takes. The native culture was sensitized to the immense release of being in an altered state - it's considered liberating."
The ancient Zapotec legend tells of Mayatl, the mezcal goddess, who fell in love with a handsome warrior and produced a wondrous elixir from her breast for him to drink. Such is one story of the origin of pulque.
The Hnahnu people live in the semi-arid regions of Hidalgo state, around the Valley of Mezquital. They use the agave salminae for more than 100 products, including pulque. They call the plant el arbol de las maravillas - the tree of wonders. For most indigenous Mexican peoples, the agave was the source of food, fibre, thread, rope, soap, sugars and other products. Little wonder that they worshipped (or respected) the plant: its versatility gave them many components of everyday life.
One of the lesser Aztec pulque deities was Tepoztecatl, who is still remembered by the town that bears his name: Tepoztlán. There is still a pyramid to Tepoztecatl, pulque festivals are held there.
Pulque was served at religious ceremonies as a ritual intoxicant for priests, for sacrificial victims to ease suffering before death and as a medicinal drink. It was also served in elaborate ceremonies to celebrate brave heroes of battle and was so sacred as to be an acceptable substitute for blood in certain ancient rituals.
When the Spanish arrived, pulque use was so prevalent among the natives, that Cortes described pulque in his first letter to King Carlos V. The drink was exported back to Europe very early, but it is doubtful the brew survived the voyage without becoming sour and unfit to drink.
It was the Spanish Conquistadors who had the knowledge to distill the local pulque brew into something stronger. The Conquistadors had no local source of grapes for wine, and found pulque too weak or short-lived for their tastes. They may have started distilling it into mezcal wine in the 1520s.
Pulque is fermented from the uncooked agave syrup or nectar that collects in the hollowed head of the plant. Fermentation using natural yeast can take up to 10 days, and a small amount of the final product is saved as a starter for the next batch. The aguamiel has about 10% natural sugars.
Pulque is fermented but not distilled, resulting in a sweet, milky and fruity drink, rich in vitamins but prone to going sour from continued fermentation by airborne yeasts. Its content is 100% natural, providing thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid as well as helpful microbes to aid digestion.
A study of the diet of the Otomi Indians found pulque their single largest source of vitamin C and second only to tortillas in its contribution of calories, thiamin, riboflavin, niacin, calcium, and iron. A recent dietary study in the Solis Valley found that the iron absorption-enhancing effect of pulque’s ascorbic acid makes it the single best predictor against anemia. Researchers have also inferred the presence of folic acid in pulque.
Pulque may help reduce inflammation: precursors for the synthesis of steroidal
hormones such as cortisone have been isolated from certain species of Agave
(esp. A. americana). Known as ’steroidal sapogenins’, these compounds - namely
tigogenin and hecogenin - have recently been investigated for their bioactivity
in reducing inflammation.
To harvest the agave sap, the tlachiquero cuts a cavity into a ripe (10-12-year old) maguey piña. The sap (aguamiel) flows into this hollow and is siphoned off by hand using a long-necked gourd (acocote) or a hollow stick of bamboo and carried in a pitcher (apilote).
An agave may produce five to eight litres of sap a day, but it has to be collected frequently because natural fermentation from airborne yeasts and bacteria will start.
A good maguey can last up to a year, or even say some sources, as long as three, and will continue to produce many liters of aguamiel during that period. However, most agaves last four-six months.
The sap is collected in a wooden barrel and fermented overnight in a place called a tinacal (a place where the tinas, or fermentation tubs, are stored). Sometimes it is fermented with cultivated yeast, but more often from naturally-occurring yeasts (from the air or the leaves of the maguey).
Pulquerias thrived during the colonial period (1520-1810) because many were integral to the large haciendas and became a source of significant revenue. The Iturbe family near Apan produced about 110 barrels (27.500 liters) of pulque daily on their farm at Hacienda San Nicolas de Grande - the largest producer of its day. Landowners promoted cultivating agave for their own pulquerias to control production and costs. The tinacal was the room (rooms or even whole buildings) set aside in the hacienda for pulque production, with its tubs for fermentation. Each tinacal had its own staff; to guard it, harvest the sap, measure the production and usually an administrator.
Pulque developed its own rich sub-culture, which remained strong in the rural communities for several centuries, but barely survives today. Each pulqueria had its own name, as did the barrels of foaming liquid - The Brave Man, the Dancing Lady, the Cry Baby, the Repentant Woman. Each pulqueria had its own decor, traditions, drinks and songs. They had murals, games and poetry. Pulque de Apan (from the plains of Apan) was widely considered the best. Pulque glasses were named according to their size: flowerpot (maceta) for the largest - one liter. Then came screw (tornillo) for half liter, and so on down to the tiny cacarizo used for tasting. Pulque glasses and mugs were often decorated and painted.
As more and more land fell into a smaller circle of families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the hacienda became a restrictive feudal environment. A small aristocracy had absolute control over thousands - even tens of thousands - of indentured and impoverished workers. Pulque was the peon's drink, and often used to keep the overworked farm labourers content through drunkenness. Mondays became 'Saint Monday' or 'Holy Monday' - San Lunes, the day when workers drank to excess, ate and brawled in the pulquerias while local musicians played. The rich drank French wines and cognac, but were called the 'Pulque Aristocracy' during the regime of Porfirio Diaz, because of the profit they made from the production.
Some pulque makers added other intoxicating herbs to their mix, creating 'ocpatli.' The Spanish banned at least one of these mixtures.
Viceroy Revilla Gigedo (D. Juan Francisco Guemez y Horcasitas, Conde de Revilla Gigedo) issued a sweeping decree regulating the manufacture, sale, and consumption of all alcoholic beverages, including pulque, in the mid-1700s. His decree was similar to decrees by two earlier viceroys (Vizarrón y Eguiarreta and the Conde de Fuenclara). But since pulque contains many proteins, carbohydrates and vitamins, it is an integral part of the diet of the indigenous peoples, so control proved difficult. A report from 1777 indicates 750-800 loads of pulque arriving in Mexico City daily.
There was another downside to the pulque culture. The unsanitary conditions and the lack of regulation of the hacienda pulquerias led to widespread toxemia during the late 19th century. At the same time, a strong anti-alcohol sentiment arose, fueled by a campaign in the Catholic press, which propelled the Diaz government to impose legislation reducing the hours of pulquerias, and forbidding them to have music, chairs and even windows. Women were forbidden to enter them. Drinkers were forbidden to linger in pulquerias.
The efforts didn't seem to reduce either alcoholism or toxemia associated with pulque, however. But the expansion of the middle class during this time probably had the greatest impact, as pulque was abandoned as a lower-class drink. In 1950-51, Dr. Manuel Gamio attempted to get Mexican villagers to plant soya beans to provide additional protein in their diets, and to diminish their consumption of pulque at the same time. His efforts proved unsuccessful and were soon discontinued.
There were strict rules for pulquerias that didn't seem to reduce their popularity:
During colonial times pulque was the 4th most important source of revenue for the government. In the early 1900s a train arrived in Mexico City every morning bearing pulque from haciendas such as Tenexac (which produced as much as 364,800 liters per day in 1896). By 1953, the 2 largest pulque-producing states were still Hidalgo and Tlaxcala. But due to its low alcohol content, complex and fragile fermentation process and the popularity of beer and other spirits in Mexico, the availability of this historic drink has been greatly reduced to the few remaining pulquerias
In 1870, there were 822 pulquerias in Mexico City and that number dwindled to 212 by 1890. But a growing popularity and a new 'pulque aristocracy' that monopolized and spread production saw the numbers rise dramatically in the early 20th century. However, this monopoly consisted of 40 landowners linked to the Diaz regime, and when the Revolution of 1910 broke out, it too fell apart. Presidents Francisco Madero and Venustiano Carranza also attempted to combat alcohol abuse and tried to shut down the outlets. By 1937 they were only 460 expendios (sellers) left. In 1951, after a period of resurgence, the Department of the Federal District (DDF) cancelled more than thousand licenses to pulquerias for hygiene reasons, claiming "they were bad example for the decent families."
Another attempt to control the pulque trade was made in 1960, with the formation of the Patronato Del maguey, or Maguey Board. It also tried to encourage total utilization of the plant, increased cleanliness and greater hygiene in pulque production. The board was merged with the National Program for the Maguey and the Nopal in 1985.
Pulque underwent a Renaissance in the 1960s, under President Adolph Lopez Mateos, and a regulatory agency was set up in 1964 to regulate the quality, measurement and the taxes on pulque originating of the states of Mexico, Hidalgo, Tlaxcala and Puebla. By the 1970s, 1,000 barrels of pulque were consumed daily in Mexico City.
Today pulque is almost unknown among young Mexicans in many areas, especially urban or tourist zones, and inquiries about obtaining it in tourist areas are generally met with shrugs or shaking heads. In my own experience, pulque is unknown to the younger generation of Mexicans who inhabit the urban or tourist areas. They tend to prefer American soft drinks or beer, and tequila.
One report says there were about 1,500 pulquerias in the 1980s; but by one count, in 1998 there were only 80. A report in Notas de Hoy said there were 92 in 2004, compared to 150 in 2000, and fewer than 2,000 in the traditional pulque-producing regions.
Despite its noble origins, pulque has been steadily falling in popularity. More than 1,000 watering holes, known as pulquerias, blanked Mexico City a century ago. Large haciendas sent fresh pulque by the trainload from the central Mexican states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala and Morelos into the capital, creating a pulque aristocracy. Nowadays less than 100 pulquerias remain, catering to mostly older crowds in rather seedy settings. Freshly harvested agua miel (honey water), the non-fermented version of pulque, is still fairly common in rural communities.
Young Mexicans have moved on to other alcoholic drinks like beer, wine and tequila. Besides its offensive taste, rumors of using a sack full of human feces to speed up the fermentation process also dampened pulque's appeal. For many, it has simply become a novelty beverage.
The slow erosion and disappearance of pulque culture prompted Pedro Flores, a commentator on popular culture, to opine,
"The death of queen Xóchitl is imminent. Nobody or very few people remember pulque in the Federal District and pulquerías disappears day to day, along with their supply of nutritious, soul-destroying, and subversive wine Mexican of other times."
Pulque, however, is still available in many smaller Mexican communities, usually sold as homebrew made in small pulquerias, far less common than they were in Colonial days, but it has assumed a more romantic and mythic stature. The association between pulque and the 'lower class' has also hurt its popularity among the rising Mexican middle class. Pulquerias are likely to be club-like, and unwelcoming to strangers or women.
It's still a custom to spill a few drops of your drink on the floor of the pulqueria before drinking, in homage to Two Rabbit. sometimes it is mixed with sangre de conejo - "rabbit's blood" - juice from the red prickly pear cactus, or sometimes just food colouring and sugar). There are even street vendors who sell pulque from their carts in some communities. Pulque dulce (also called tlachique) is young and sweet; pulque fuerte is older, stronger and sometimes acidic or sour. A batch of pulque only lasts a couple of days after fermentation before becoming too sour to drink 9the result of continued yeast and bacterial action).
Sometimes pulque is mixed with fruit juices or pureed nuts for drinking, and to make it sweeter.
Pulque is still a local drink in some parts of Jalisco, made from sap from the flower stalk of the agave. It can be had natural, or mixed with a variety of crushed fruit to soften the sour flavour. Even today, pulque and its communal, almost ritual, closeness are not commonly shared with gringos or outsiders - and most pulquerias are still male-only. You may, however, be able to buy some from friends, or get a delicious bread made from pulque at the local market.
You can also find pulque in Tlaxcala, where it is known as Charagua, and served mixed with red chile and corn leaf. In Guerrero chiocle is pulque mixed with ancho chilies, epazote, salt and garlic; in San Luis Potosi is mixed with opuntia. Ojo de Gallo (rooster's eye) is pulque mixed with pepper, salt, anisette and ancho chilies. A commercial pulque is produced and sold in cans in Santa Maria Tejacate. A Mexican company, Bebidas Naturales San Tsidro, sells a pasteurized pulque as Nectar de Apan in specialty stores (the Plains of Apan were the source of the best pulque).
Pulque is available commercially, in cans. While it normally doesn't preserve well, and is not commonly available commercially. However, some companies have come up with an enzymatic solution and introduced pasteurization that slows pulque's deterioration and lets is be canned for sale. There are now several producers making commercial pulque, although aficionados say it is inferior to the natural product.
As the pulque industry disappeared over the last century, the land used for the maguey was turned over to other crops. This has led to the disappearance of the maguey in many areas, and pressure from agriculture continues in others. In a story in Mileno, May 29, 2007, Francisco Jiménez Islands, representative of the 450 producers of the municipality of Singuilucan, Hidalgo, has been fighting for government support to save the agave for the last six years. The loss of agave has caused soil and erosion problems in many areas. Jimenez said approximately 200,000 agave plants are needed to rescue the pulquera zone of Singuilucan, and the results of replanting would be seen within 15 years. However, he said the government has not responded to his request.
Annual Pulque Fairs are held in Singuilucan and many other communities in Mexico (especially in Hidalgo) every year.