Pulque: a forgotten tradition
“Mayahuel (the Aztec goddess of maguey) gave humanity pulque through a young girl, Xochitl, who prepared the drink to her father as an offering so that he would approve her union with Tecpalcatzin, one so sincere and pure. Her father would not allow this union since Tecpalcatzin was not of noble birth but a peasant. After her gift, her father was unable to impede the affection and union of these two lovers. Aztec Legend
Little by little, some traditions have disappeared; new generations begin to lose interest in what they regard as old, nonsensical customs. For younger people, globalization and technological innovation require entrepreneurs to update the methods by which they elaborate craft products so that these can be part of a fairer system of competence. A clear example of this is pulque, the drink that has very strong cultural ties mainly back to pre-Columbian times and that, over the years, developed a bad reputation, one that is fortunately starting to change. Currently, it is quite challenging to find pulque producing as a profitable activity since its consumption plummeted in the last decades. However, just recently, a new interest about this whiteish, viscous, drink has emerged and its future seems brighter.
Writing about pulque can lead to a thousand-page document; the information on it is so vast. My intention is to offer a more general outlook about it and help wipe out that bad reputation by entering its wonderful world.
In order to do this, we will travel through time to understand a little about the importance of this alcoholic beverage for pre-Hispanic cultures, especially for the Aztec. Many myths and legends are attributed to its creation but nobody really knows for a fact how it happened. It must have taken a very curious person, though; to first prepare this sacred drink since it requires that the cactus sap undergoes a fermentation process.
Pulque is made using a species of cactus known as “maguey pulquero” or Agave atrovirens, found in many regions of Mexico. However, it is mostly found in the Central Valley of Mexico and the Bajio, where great pre-Hispanic civilizations developed the best techniques to elaborate pulque. The way to extract the sugary sap of the maguey (known as aguamiel) is not simple at all, it takes a lot of time for the maguey to grow, develop its ripeness and be ready for a good extraction. Therefore, a maguey can provide us with a suitable aguamiel 10 years after it has been planted, then its pulpy heart will be hollowed out and removed. The tlachiquero (the name given to the pulque producer) will extract the sugary liquid and place it in a tinacal (a jug) and then taken to tanks for its fermentation.
Consumption of pulque during the dominion of the Spanish Crown in Mexico was not approved. The reason mainly being that this was considered a sacred drink by prehispanic cultures, mainly the Aztec. Spanish colonists banned it in order to distance themselves from the indigenous peoples and their religious practices, thus reinforcing Christianity. In the seventeenth century it was again considered all right to drink pulque and it became a very popular drink among both mestizos and indigenous peoples. With this new interest, the Spanish crown implemented new laws to moderate its consumption to avoid illegal activities.
In the twentieth century, thanks to the expansionism implemented by President Porfirio Díaz, foreign industries began to arrive to the country, developing a powerful infrastructure that allowed the creation of new sources of income,such as breweries. Years passed and pulque became an important symbol of the social classes that were suppressed during the Revolutionary War, being favored by revolutionary groups like the Zapatistas.
Over the course of the century, policies implemented by the government have undermined the work of small, rural producers, reducing the production of maguey and therefore pulque. Despite this, there are people who are still involved in the conservation of this millennial tradition. States such as Tlaxcala and Mexico City are working to keep the millenial tradition alive, the first by promoting research and production of pulque and the second by marketing the product in many of its pulquerías (pulque shops or cantinas).
It cannot be said that pulque is completely extinct, but it is definitely in peril of being forgotten. Fortunately, little by little you will find more people interested in consuming it and there are also cooks who incorporate it in some of their recipes such as rabbit mixiote (which uses pulque in its sauce) or braised pork with pulque sauce. The traditional salsa with which you accompany Mexican barbacoa is known as “salsa borracha” and it has pulque as an ingredient. Despite all these efforts, it is still not enough and it seems necessary to encourage people to get to know it more and consume it more so I have made a small list of places where you can drink a delicious glass of plain –or cured (flavored)—pulque. Please go out there and contribute to the cultural heritage of Mexico.
- Salón Casino, Obrera, Isabel la Católica #250.
- Los Duelistas, Centro Histórico, Aranda #28.
- La Pirata, Escandón, Corner of 13 de Septiembre & 12 de Diciembre.
- Pulquería Insurgentes, Roma Norte, A. Insurgentes Sur #226.
- La Burra Blanca del 56, Centro Histórico, Regina #88.