Don’t be fooled by its milky appearance—this ain't no drink for teetotalers.
Pulque, an unassumingly lacteous and disarmingly frothy beverage, is the stuff that Aztec emperors drank to get hammered. And it undoubtedly led to more than a few bad decisions by Spanish conquistadors, too. In ancient Mexico, pulque was considered the nectar of the gods. Over time, however, it lost its popularity to beer, tequila and mezcal — the libations more commonly associated with Spring Break Mexico.
Still, pulque has lived on in working-class cantinas, known as pulquerias. And now the drink is making a comeback among hip young Mexicans attracted to the drink's retro-cool nationalistic flavor and its rumored qualities as an aphrodisiac.
Pulque has moved uptown; it's no longer just the drink of choice in ramshackle pulquerias, but also sold in hipster bars where the middle- and upper-class patrons reconnect with the drink of their ancestors.
Here's another reason why pulque is suddenly trendy — it's difficult to make and nearly impossible to export.
The pulque-making process begins when producers tap the center of a matured maguey plant (maguey pulquero) to drain its sweet-tasting liquid called aguamiel, or honey water. The process is called lagrimear, or shedding of tears.
This nectar is collected by farmers using a strawlike tool named acocote, then transported in flasks strapped to a donkey. The aguamiel can also be placed in animal skin to generate a slow but steady fermentation process.
“It’s a completely hand-crafted drink,” renowned Mexican chef and pulque expert Ricardo Muñoz told Fusion. “There’s a slight problem though; fermentation never stops. By the time pulque arrives in the cities, it has already gone bad.”
That's why pure pulque cannot be bottled or exported. It's rare and delicate — and that makes it a novelty.
"That’s the revenge of the Aztec gods: pulque cannot be taken away from Mexico.” — Ricardo Muñoz
Muñoz says, “the drink is best consumed immediately after production in the states of Hidalgo and Tlaxcala."
There are, however, some companies that export pulque to the United States in cans. Leonardo Peña, a spokesman for investment-promotion agency ProMexico, said these pulque-exporters are mainly targeting hispanic consumers in California and Chicago.
“Mexicans in the U.S. yearn for this product,” said Daniel Del Razo, whose family owns Pulque Hacienda 1881, a company that has been selling canned pulque for five generations. Del Razo said the pulque is pasteurized to stunt fermentation— a process, which left to continue unchecked, will eventually cause the cans to explode on the shelf. “It’s been a complicated process since the drink is not well known here, but we are making progress thanks to word-of-mouth marketing,” Del Razo told Fusion.
Pulque hasn't exactly reached the levels of popularity enjoyed by tequila and mezcal, but it's now trendy enough to get its picture in the government's tourism-promotion campaigns. There are even pulque tasting tours where people can visit haciendas and get tipsy while learning stuff about Mexico's past. In states like Tlaxcala, Hidalgo, Puebla, Guerrero and Veracruz, tourists can try the real stuff, plus drink from authentic pulque glasses known as tornillos and chivos.
The beverage has a high dose of protein, which is why it's considered an aphrodisiac. It also makes it one of the most nutritious beverages in Mexico — with an alcoholic punch to boot. Some Mexicans still have the tradition of giving pulque to new mothers to help their bodies heal after childbirth.
In Pre-Hispanic Mexico, pulque was consumed only by high-ranking members of the clergy and other elite. Drinking pulque was a spiritual ritual, so when the conquest began the Spaniards replaced pulque with wine. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Mexican beer companies put another nail in pulque's coffin. Beer companies engaged in smear campaigns in an attempt to push pulque out of the market. The drink was slandered as immoral and hazardous. Pulque went underground.
Now it's fighting back to popularity. Today there are some 50 pulquerias in Mexico City (down from a thousand-plus back in the day). The surviving businesses maintain their usual clientele—mostly men tipping back cups— with a smattering of young Mexicans and other curious passersby who wander in to investigate rumors about the drink's mystical qualities.
“Wichitos” pulqueria, located in the bohemian La Condesa neighborhood, is frequented by tourists and well-to-do Mexicans. It opens until late and offers a wide selection of food and other alcoholic drinks. But people come here for the pulque.
"La Chulada" (The Cutest) is one of the cantinas in the old-school category. It's walls are decorated with ancient motifs, offering a wide selection of pulque curado or curated pulque.
While pure and fresh pulque is considered a delicacy, Mexicans have added a twist by combining it with fruits and other pairings: mango, celery, pecan nuts, peach, tuna, you name it.
“La Titina” is a 70-year-old pulqueria owned by Celia Muñoz, an elderly woman who can still outdrink any client foolish enough to challenge her to cups. La Titina, like most pulquerias, first started admitting women several decades ago. Originally, women were only allowed to sit in an adjacent room, separated from the all-male clientele, where they would order pulque through a small window into the bar. Now the pulqueria is frequented by street musicians, who give the drunks joy playing everything from mariachi tunes to politicized Mexican rap.
“La Pirata” (The Pirate) is one of the more famous traditional pulquerias. The floor here layered with sawdust to absorb the frequently spilled alcohol. These pulquerias are packed in the afternoons and early evenings, but don't stay open late at night.
“La Malquerida” (The Badly Loved One) marks an intersection between the old and new pulquerias. It opens after hours and draws a younger crowd eager to get their sexual groove on.
"La Purisma" —the only gay pulqueria in Mexico City— attempts to draw a non-traditional segment of the population.
"Puto" is a defamatory word for homosexuals, but at La Purisima the word is used to mock prejudices and stereotypes. Also, the bartenders dress as priests.
“A few years ago, it was unthinkable to have a gay club selling pulque, the drink was considered to be very weird and disgusting because of its smell, viscosity and taste, but all of our clientele loves it now,” said bartender Person Jay Ramirez.
Maybe pulque can't solve all of Mexico's problems, but the drink is starting to bring people together from all socioeconomic backgrounds —and that's an achievement that's worthy of a toast.
Interested in social justice, human rights, women voices, travelling and learning.
Currently working on a project about women migration from Central America and Mexico to the US.
Leslie-Anne Frye, a storyteller by nature, is an artist-activist and video producer for Fusion's digital team.
Rafa Fernandez De Castro is a Fusion consultant for Mexico and Latin America. He covers Mexican youth, politics, culture, narcos and funny stuff once in a while.