Pulque in Mexico

Pulque, for a couple of hundred years had been associated with an elixir for the masses, a mild intoxicant with curative powers. Buoyed by the natural/organic and to a lesser extent the slow food movement, it has been elevated to trendiness. The predominantly middle and upper class millennials living in Mexico’s larger urban centers such as Monterrey, Puebla, Guadalajara and of course Mexico City, flock to pulquerías. However most of what is being served up is an adulterated form of pulque known as curados. A base of pulque, sometimes even canned, is combined with a selection of processed fruits, grains and/or vegetables, sugar or another sweetener, and sometimes milk/cream and/or a thickener such as corn starch. These curados could not be further from the real deal, and likely by the time they arrive at the table any beneficial attributes, medicinal or otherwise, have been long lost due to its commercial handling. However pulque available in bars and restaurants in cities close to rural regions where aguamiel is extracted (i.e. Oaxaca, from the fields outside of the town Santiago Matatlán) is anything but 100% unadulterated. The closer proximity the cantina or comedor is to the field from which the aguamiel has been harvested, the greater the likelihood that the pulque has not been bastardized and that it has retained its positive properties.

The wide diversity of micro-climates in which the species of agave are grown suggests that the attributes of the resultant pulque must inevitably vary, significantly at times. And, each specie of plant in and of itself has a unique series of compounds, minerals, vitamins, etc., which are transformed in a different way. This depends on the sub-region of Mexico, as well as the then prevailing bacteria and to a lesser extent yeasts in the environment. Species of agave used to extract aguamiel which have been noted in the literature include salmiana, americana, deserti, mapisaga, atrovirens, ferrox and hookeri. Different roots, including and in particular acacia (referred to in parts of the state of Oaxaca as timbre), have been customarily used to make the pulque stronger, hotter, more intoxicating or spicier. It also accelerates the fermentation process particularly during colder weather months. Such additions further alter the properties of the pulque.

The name pulque was likely derived from the Nahuatl word poliuhqui, meaning spoiled. During the pre-Hispanic era in many regions of the country it was a drink reserved for high priests, warriors and the wise. It was used ceremonially as part of the celebration of the harvest, to induce the rain to fall, as a way or honoring certain gods, and during rites of passage such as marriage, birth and death. Divergent rules abound as to the appropriate way to imbibe, and there is a plethora of myths as to its origins. But the nationwide thread which binds is its medicinal value. It should come as little surprise that populaces which drank pulque were generally immune to the cholera epidemic of the 19th century.

Pulque has been viewed nationwide as a healthy drink, a nutritional supplement. In areas of Mexico where there is a lack of safely drinkable water due to human or animal contaminants, it is used as a thirst quencher. But its constituent elements including but not restricted to iron, carotene, thiamine, folate, riboflavin, niacin, ascorbic acid, protein, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C, fiber, bioactive compounds, phosphorus and ash, have likely lead to its predominant curative role in traditional medicine and as a preventive foodstuff.

Ask pretty well any tlachiquero (someone who taps agave to extract the aguamiel) in Santiago Matatlán, and he (or she, since at least in the state of Oaxaca producing pulque is a vocation not just reserved for men) will tell you that pulque is 100% natural in part since the only fertilizer, if any, used to stimulate growth of the agave, is abono from cows, sheep or goats and the mulch used is bagazo (waste fiber from distilling mezcal); and that pulque’s attributes include stimulating production of white blood cells, being good for triglycerides, and controlling diabetes especially if consumed first thing in the morning well before breakfast.