Those who are familiar with pulque will tell you that it won’t get you intoxicated – not exactly. Mexico’s oldest alcoholic beverage works in strange ways.
“You can sit there and drink pulque for hours and you just don't get drunk,” said my friend Donnie Masterson, an expert in Mexico’s epicurean delights. “Then you get up to leave and realize your legs don’t really work right. Your mind is completely clear, but your body doesn’t work.”
Coconut pulque on ice. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty)
Pulque also has a penchant for making gringos like myself sick. In fact, whenever I mentioned the beverage during a recent trip to Mexico, I was usually met with the kind of tempting warning an evil older brother gives his younger sibling – something akin to, “I don’t know if you should try it. It’s only for real men.”
Obviously, I had to try it.
Pulque is the stuff of legend. The frothy white beverage predates the arrival of the Spanish by at least 1,500 years; it’s the ancient ancestor of mescal and tequila. All three drinks come from the same family of plants, but pulque is made by fermenting – as opposed to distilling – the sap of maguey, or agave. The maguey plant can take eight to 12 years to reach maturity and produce sap, or aguamiel – literally honey water. Fermentation starts almost immediately after the plant is cut and the aguamiel begins to run; the beverage continues to ferment – and become more alcoholic – as it makes its way down your throat. It’s usually between 2% and 8% alcohol but tends toward the lower end of the spectrum.
Agave plant in Oaxaca state. (Brad Cohen)
For some Indians of the central highlands, pulque was once at the centre of their religion and the cure for just about everything – from diabetes and intestinal problems to sleep disorders. (Pulque is reportedly a great source of probiotics, protein, and various vitamins and minerals, too.) In its long and strange life, it’s been used as an aphrodisiac, a fuel for celebrations, and to ease the pain of sacrificial victims. Because it’s so vitamin- and mineral-rich, it was once consumed in arid parts of Mexico when water was scarce, and some pregnant women and new mothers still drink it to promote health and lactation.
While it’s known as the Aztec drink of the gods, to the uninitiated, pulque seems anything but divine. Before I ever tried it, I listened to dozens of people struggle to describe its texture. Descriptions were invariably of the sexual or scatological variety – filthy and vivid enough to make a ranchero blush.
Pulque with friends at La Risa. (Brad Cohen)
My first battle with pulque was in the centre of Mexico City at a pulqueria called La Risa, whose saloon-style swinging doors have been open to pulque faithful since 1903. For years, pulquerias like La Risa flourished in Mexico, with more than 1,000 in Mexico City and the surrounding farming regions. But between the early 20th Century and early 21st that number tumbled to around 80. Cerveza (beer), which arrived in Mexico with the Spanish, took pulque’s place behind the bar, thanks to beer’s relatively long shelf life and status-symbol image.
But in the last five or six years, pulque has made a small resurgence, thanks mostly to young artists and punks who view the ancient drink as everything beer is not — fiercely Mexican.
Inside La Risa, tattooed and pierced punks, a man in a business suit and a crowd of teenage girls who insisted they were “old enough” to drink were gulping down pulque. Murals of dragons and Mayahuel (the goddess of maguey), and pictures of the Virgin Mary, surrounded small, stained metal tables.
A metal bucket of pulque was soon placed before me, along with an accompanying pink scoop. In colour and texture, the drink resembled the top of a pancake just before it’s ready to flip; it certainly didn’t resemble anything meant to be drunk. When my nose first got a whiff of its pungent, acidic odour, my stomach began to churn.
I poured a glass and strings of the viscous liquid clung to the scoop like mucous that refuses to fully drop from the nose after a violent sneeze. I took a deep breath, braced myself and brought a glass to my lips.
It wasn’t bad. Actually, it was almost enjoyable except for the unsettling feeling I had that pulque was meant to be consumed only on a very serious dare – like eating insects for the first time.
After finishing the bucket, my Mexican friends asked if I was ready to try pure pulque. Apparently, the beverage I had just ingested was curado, or cured pulque, in this case mixed with oatmeal, which explained the slight sweetness. Pulque curado, which is mixed with any number of flavours but usually fruit, became popular in the early 19th Century, perhaps as a way to make the beverage palatable to more people. Today, at least with the younger crowds of Mexico City’s resurgent pulque scene, curado is at least as popular as pure pulque.
I wanted to sample uncured pulque, but after piling one-third of a bucket of curado on top of a bellyful of chilaquiles, that seemed like a bad idea. Besides, I was told, the fresher the pulque, the better. It would be best to go straight to the source.
About 270km northwest of Mexico City in the colonial town of San Miguel de Allende, I got my first chance to sample pure pulque, as it was made 2,000 years ago. In the parking lot of a market on the edge of town, I approached a boy manning a small table. He couldn’t have been older than 12. He sat in front of a water cooler full of chalk-white pulque. It was a hissing, frothing cauldron.
The boy funnelled the pulque into two used 2L soda bottles and closed the top. The liquid attempted to bubble its way back out of the bottle, wheezing like an angry rat and smelling of acid and yeast and human gas. This is what my friends and I would be drinking – a litre each, apparently, for a combined 80 pesos.
We sat on the curb in front of a band of idle musicians and began to drink. The texture was less offensive than that of the curado – more like spit than mucus. It was room temperature, sour, acidic and yeasty. The first cup was a little hard to get down, but as I continued to drink, I warmed up to the flavour. It even started tasting a little fruity. By the third glass, I had acquired a taste for the drink of the Aztec gods. My limbs began to relax and my mind was still clear. A smile was plastered across my face. The band launched into a song.
Under the heat of the Mexican sun, I watched the guys pluck their strings. The room-temperature pulque might not have been as refreshing as sipping an ice-cold cerveza, but at that moment, it tasted just right.
Oatmeal, guava and tomato pulque. (katebordner/Flickr/Creative Commons)
Enter at your own risk. (Brad Cohen)
Behind the bar at La Risa. (Brad Cohen)
Bucket of pulque. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty)
Pulque curado at La Risa. (Brad Cohen)
Stirring pulque in Mexico City. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty)
A tall glass of pulque. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty)
Pouring pineaple pulque in Mexico City. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty)
God of pulque statue, 10th Century. (DeAgostini/Getty)