A return for one of Mexico’s oldest drinks
On the slope of the La Malinche volcano, Gaudencio “Shaggy” Díaz burrows between the flared inner leaves of a taller maguey. It scrapes its center for sap. Here, on the rural outskirts of one of Mexico’s smallest states, east of Mexico City, it’s a dazzling morning: bright sunshine, blue skies. Díaz climbs down from the plant, fashions a small container from a maguey stalk – known as a xoma, from the Náhuatl word “xomatli” or “clay spoon” – and passes it to Jessica Vázquez Reyna, so that she can taste what he has just extracted.
Díaz, nicknamed Shaggy because of his striking resemblance to the character of Scooby-Doo, especially when he puts on a smirk, is a master of tlachiquero and pulque. He specializes in extracting aguamiel to produce pulque, a traditional alcoholic beverage about as strong as beer, milky white and slightly viscous, which has been produced in central Mexico for thousands of years. years. Díaz gleaned his mastery of pulque and his intimate understanding of the maguey plants used to make it from his father. This generational knowledge has been passed down over the centuries. Vázquez, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the business. A year ago, she took a leap of faith and bought a pulquería, a pulque tavern, in the town of Tlaxcala that she had frequented for a long time.
But Vázquez and Díaz are united by a common desire: to revive the drink once known as the nectar of the Aztec gods.
As the sun rises in the sky, they continue up the volcano, Díaz on a motorbike with his wife, Vázquez following them in a car. The maguey are planted in mesurcos, or furrows: long narrow trenches, between fields of corn and beans, which help retain water and fight against erosion. Díaz and Vázquez are quick to point out that Agave salmiana, or green maguey, as it’s commonly known, plays a crucial role in maintaining the forested foothills of La Malinche, which are prone to tree-killing bark beetles.
Díaz lives in a house in the shadow of La Malinche. When you walk in he places a little rag doll of Shaggy, the cartoon character, on his shoulder – he’s in on the joke. In his house is a tinacal – from the Spanish “tina” and from the Náhuatl “calli”, literally “house of tubs”. It’s a small, dark and cool room where Díaz strains freshly harvested aguamiel to get rid of fruit flies, then pours it into vats to ferment. He says, “It’s strong, the kind that first makes you go, ‘Oh, how delicious,’ and then, ‘Where’s more of that?’ and finally, ‘Where do I lie?’
Vázquez takes a sip, swells it in his mouth, savoring its sweet, sour notes. Pulque is typically a little sour and fizzy, an acquired taste. It is also known for its nutritional properties; it contains calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamin C. In some rural communities, children drink pulque in the absence of potable water. The pulque Díaz made has a shelf life of three days. Vázquez calculates how much she will take with her. She will be back for more soon. “Pulque,” she says, “is a living drink.”
Once upon a time, Ehecatl, Mesoamerican god of wind and rainy breeze and manifestation of the great feathered serpent god Quetzalcóatl, encountered Mayahuel, goddess of fertility, in the sky. Together they descended to Earth and transformed into intertwined branches. Mayahuel’s grandmother, livid at this development, ordered his death. A heartbroken Quetzalcóatl buried Mayahuel’s remains – and from there emerged the maguey plant, a bedrock of Aztec culture and cosmology. So goes the story.
Scientists date the origin of the genus agave, of which the maguey is a species, to around 10 million years ago. Mesoamericans used the plant in several ways: thorns for ritual bloodletting, fibers for rope and cloth, and sap for pulque. The consumption of pulque is a thousand-year-old tradition: an 1,800-year-old mural discovered in Cholula depicts 164 people drinking the drink, in various states of inebriation. Among the Aztecs, pulque was reserved for gods and priests, offered only to commoners who were old, sick or had just given birth. During Spanish colonial rule and after, anyone could drink it – and pulque quickly exploded in popularity, accounting for 94% of all beverages consumed in 1882.
During the 20th century, however, it fell out of favor. By the end of World War II, it accounted for less than half of the country’s beverage consumption. Rumors abounded that it was fermented using feces. People began to associate the drink with poverty, a notion encouraged by some politicians and the mainstream press to reduce public intoxication. Most importantly, beer has entered the fray, replacing pulque as the drink of choice in central Mexico. According to 2011 estimates from the National Institute of Public Health, 50% of Mexican men and 30% of Mexican women drink beer, while less than 5% of the population drinks local fermented beverages like pulque.
Pulque never completely disappeared, says historian Ulises Ortega of Colectivo El Tinacal, a collective of pulque researchers. It was kept alive by informal vendors known as bullfighters, even as the pulquerías dwindled to near oblivion. Vázquez, for example, remembers his grandfather always drinking pulque – he even scratched his own aguamiel. “It was the drink he always drank,” she said. “I think when I was little I was given a sip – I can’t remember it well, but I don’t think I liked it.” Today, pulque is produced primarily in the states of Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, Morelos, Mexico State and Michoacán and Mexico City.
Vázquez, who hails from a small town outside the city of Tlaxcala, worked as a tour guide and often explored the city on her own to discover hidden gems. At the end of 2020, in the midst of the coronavirus crisis, she stumbled upon a sign in the street: TACOS Y PULQUE. “I was like, ‘Pulque? Here ?’ Known at the time as Pulquería Los Jarritos, the bar was small, holding no more than six tables, unassuming but inviting. “I walked in and liked it,” she says. She quickly became a regular.
In January 2021, she owned it.
Pulquería Los Jarritos is now called La Polinizadora Cultural and looks more like a cafe than a bar. During a typical day, painters and poets, students and teachers, office workers and housewives rub shoulders, discussing their passions and occupations: visual arts, photography, children’s library. Mexican singer Don Castrejón, who has been drinking pulque since 2015, comes every day; he lives two doors down. “I found very nice artists and people here,” he says. “It really is a cultural pollinator rather than a canteen – I come here to feel good.” Then, he bursts into a classic early 20th-century Mexican bolero.
In the 1980s, explains historian Ortega, newspapers warned of the imminent extinction of pulque, arguing that it had to be saved, that it was a mystical drink that was an integral part of the culture. mexican. Over the following decades, the number of cultural offerings related to pulque increased: books, courses, tastings and guided tours. But it wasn’t until the 2010s that pulque consumption rebounded, Ortega says. And when beer supplies became scarce during the coronavirus pandemic, Mexicans once again turned to pulque.
Running a pulquería is not easy, even today. A whirlwind of taboos still haunts the drink: women, for example, are generally told to stay away, especially if they are menstruating; some aspect of their femininity will allegedly spoil the drink. Running a bar as a woman also tends to raise eyebrows: How will she handle rowdy drunks or avoid harassment or work late nights without a man?
Vázquez, 30, was determined but nervous. On the first day, “I didn’t want any customers coming in,” she says sheepishly. The first thing she did was stop selling beer, a bold move as it was usually the most popular drink. Many unhappy customers stopped coming, but those who liked the pulque stayed and they come back.
Some hope to popularize pulque beyond Mexico, a particularly difficult task given the drink’s limited shelf life. One such company, Penca Larga, exports bottled pulque to Arizona and California. There is a strong demand for their product in the United States, says Felipe López, the company’s marketing manager. However, regular pulque drinkers tend to be skeptical. “Some people said it was disrespectful to bottle pulque,” says López. “However, our vision is to generate an industry around pulque, an industry that provides jobs and makes a Mexican product available to all our compatriots in Mexico and the United States… within reach of anyone who wants to open their refrigerator at any time, take a bottle and drink a pulque.
Vázquez’s motivations are different. She knows that revival can easily turn into commercialization and gentrification. Tequila and mezcal, also agave products, are instructive examples. She wants to popularize the drink to support and honor agave growers and tlachiqueros like Díaz. All customers of La Polinizadora Cultural, for example, know where their pulque comes from: names; details; stories; the particular confluence of culture, geography, and circumstances that produced that particular batch of the drink. Vázquez is also quick to remind his customers that they are consuming “a living drink that evolves with each passing moment, that defies the logic of an industrialized product that can be bought at any time of the day. “. Pulque is constantly evolving. It is also a form of resistance.