Any local history worth its salt will tell you that this is the drink that the Aztecs used for spiritual connections, that was also forbidden to anyone else except the pregnant and elderly because they knew just how powerful the lure of alcoholic escape was. While Pulque has been consumed for millennia it had a near death experience in the 20th Century; fortunately it has come roaring back in just the past two decades. We can all toast to that in the local Pulquerias that dot Mexico City and many other cities in Central Mexico.
What is it?Simply put, Pulque is fermented agave sap. The fuller explanation is that when a large species of agave matures, especially the Agave salmiana, a Pulque producer cuts a bowl shaped basin in the top of the agave. Over the ensuing hours the agave rushes to seal off that wound with agave sap, the producer returns to collect the sap twice daily, carries it to his facility where it ferments into a 5-8% ABV beverage, and then ships it out to local bars and restaurants.
This process is repeated on the agave and farm scale. Each agave will produce sap for at least weeks, potentially months, even a year. Each farm has hundreds, if not thousands, of agave at various stages of maturity because the farmer has to manage everything so that enough agaves are mature at every point of the year to produce enough Pulque for thirsty customers. And, since agave takes about a decade to mature, this requires incredible foresight and investment.
Another amazing facet of Pulque is that it needs to be consumed fresh. It’s the original active fermented beverage which will simply go bad after a few days so it’s truly a locavore phenomenon.
True, there are pasteurized Pulques with long shelf lives but they don’t taste or feel like truly fresh Pulque. Nor do they carry with them the [purported health benefits] of fresh Pulque so make sure to taste it next time you’re in Mexico.
I only know of one person producing it outside of that country, an elderly gentleman in Northern California. Feel free to inform me otherwise, I’m always on the hunt for more Pulque!
What’s it taste like?This is where people can get grossed out because unadulterated Pulque is a truly unique sensation, it’s off white, slightly viscous, and has a bit of that slimy sensation that you might associate with an oyster.
As a flavor I usually taste chalk like alkaline and a strong fresh fermentation similar to Kombucha. While you definitely need to try Pulque on its own it is also served just like a juice bar with a menu of fruit and nut flavors ranging from the ever popular strawberry to almond, banana, and pretty much any local fruit.
The addition of fruits and nuts changes the texture so people who are really turned off by that slimy sensation, and that’s most of them, prefer it this way.
How we almost lost PulquePulque grew alongside Spanish exploitation and became the emerging nation’s alcoholic drink of choice in the 19th Century when massive agave farms coated central Mexico. Pulquerias exploded in the areas where Pulque agaves crew around Mexico City and places like the states of Hidalgo and Oaxaca. The image of the classic Pulque purveyor, a man leading a donkey with Pulque in ceramic vessels strapped to its side, was a common place in towns and big city neighborhoods.
And then it almost died. The late 19th Century saw a newly independent Mexico looking to Europe for inspiration. Europeans immigrated to Mexico and brought their fashions and tastes which included Beer. They founded breweries and a confluence of that aspiration towards Europe, a perception of Beer as more contemporary, and the Beer industry’s campaign to portray Pulque as unhygienic almost annihilated it.
Despite all the odds Pulque held on in small redoubts, bars around Mexico City’s Garibaldi Square which is famous for its roving bands of mariachis continued to serve it. All those massive agave farms didn’t go away either, they’re still out there throughout Central Mexico.
Perhaps the size of these operations, the hundreds of acres needed by the agaves, their long life cycles, and the large facilities needed to produce pulque helped preserve this drink because it would have been just too much work to eliminate them.
Pulque fights backThen a funny thing happened in the late-90’s. Just like that confluence of Euro fetishization and Beer money combined to crush Pulque a hundred years before, the combination of burgeoning pride in Mexican products and a trend towards locavorism combined to put Pulque back on the map.
Suddenly all those dusty old Pulquerias were in vogue because that whiff of the disreputable, the dirty, the underground, the original was cool again. Younger drinkers flocked to these places because it was fun, the Pulque was cheap, and the whole scene was and continues to be incredibly social; the old rub shoulders with the youth, political rivals have earnest discussions, and on a recent visit, one table even took time out to tell me that Trump wasn’t my fault.
Sharp eyed entrepreneurs have opened up higher end Pulquerias, especially in Mexico City, while many restaurants now offer Pulque on their menus. And the old traditional way of drinking it, straight from the guy leading a donkey through town, continues to this day.
Those farms are back in business and new forms of Pulque are appearing or being rediscovered. Pulque is such an active ferment that some Mezcal and Sotol producers use it to spark the fermentation in their production. Others are just distilling straight from the final product and making destilados de Pulque; are at least two on the US market now and they’re just as rich and exciting as the drink at their base. Who knows what’s next, it’s already in cocktails throughout Mexico and featured in many dishes in restaurants there, so look out for it when you travel!
Where to try itThere are two justifiably classic pulquerias in Mexico City, Las Duelistas and Los Insurgentes. Puebla boasts many pulquerias but Sapito Pulquero is a really fun and casual place to try it.
Pulque pops up on a variety of menus across Oaxaca but one of most delightful locations to try it is La Biznaga’s open air patio.