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Pulque - Wonder drink of the Aztecs

"A pulque high was graded in rabbit units, with total drunkenness apparently reaching 400 rabbits."

Catherine Krantz

The maguey, aka the agave, aka the century plant is the marvelous botanical to which we owe much reverence and revelry. It produces Pulque, Mezcal and Tequila. Pulque is made from the fermented (not distilled) sap of the maguey plant and was a sacred drink of the Aztecs. Pulque and alcohol consumption, itself, was serious business for the Aztecs, it was a part of their religion and their religious ceremonies.
Long before tequila, pulque was the maguey drink of choice. In 1968, excavations of the Great Pyramid in Cholula, Puebla revealed a mural of joyous pulque drinkers, dating at about 1000 AD. The drink is thought to be much older than that and is considered to be around 2,000 years old. The goddess Mayahuel discovered pulque and it is known for its virility, fertility and aphrodisiac properties. The supreme god of Pulque was Two Rabbit, he was said to have had 400 sons. There was an entire group of pulque gods who all had other duties as harvest and fertility related deities, of water, rain and agriculture. The group of gods were called the Centzon Totochtin or 400 Rabbits, 400 being a synonym for innumerable. The hierarchy of pulque gods represents the infinite number of forms of intoxication, how it affects individuals differently. A pulque high was graded in rabbit units, with total drunkenness apparently reaching 400 rabbits.

One of the lesser pulque deities was Tepoztecatl, who you should remember from last month's article on the town of his name sake, Tepoztlán, where his pyramid is located and where pulque festivals are held. Pulque was served at religious ceremonies as a ritual intoxicant for priests, for sacrificial victims to ease suffering before death and as a medicinal drink. It was also served in elaborate ceremonies to celebrate brave heroes of battle and was so sacred as to be an acceptable substitute for blood in certain ancient rituals.

The process of making pulque is very simple but loaded with superstition and ritual that continue to this day. The giant pulque maguey (most commonly the San Francisco Tlaculapan) are processed after 12 years of growth and a good plant can continue to produce for up to one year. When the maguey prepares to sprout a tall pole like flower emerges from the center of the maguey, but before the sprout develops, a deep depression is gouged from the center. The heart of the maguey fills with sap called agua miel (honey water). This liquid is drawn off by siphoning with a long gourd called acocote. A good plant will produce a gallon a day. The agua miel is collected in vats or huge pottery urns in the fermenting house, called the tinacal. The heavy gourds of sap had to be transplanted to the fermenting house by hand, because passage on the back of a mule would stir it too much and upset its delicate balance. The tinacal is still a semi-sacred place, a holdover from Aztec beliefs. Women are not allowed and men must remove their hats. Strangers are also prohibited. There were rituals in every step of the process. The plants were treated with great reverence and ceremonies were held to encourage the plants to produce more or in honor of its first time to produce agua miel. The Catholic church considered pulque production idolatry because the plants were treated with reverence and spoken to. The pulque producers had to abstain from any contact with women and women were in no way allowed in the fermenting room, lest the fragile concoction be soured. This tradition holds over to the present with pulquerias being predominantly male only establishments. It is not uncommon for local politicians in maguey regions to attend inaugural ceremonies for outstanding plants of great potential, in hopes of a long and fruitful production period.

The end result of all this pomp and circumstance is pulque, a milk colored beverage, that is slightly foamy and a little on the sour and slimy side. It has an alcohol content somewhere between beer and wine.

Pulque is so rich in vitamins that in some areas of Mexico poor people literally live off pulque. The Mexican government encourages pulque drinking and has tried in vain for years to bottle it without affecting its flavor, but the soft drink and beer industries have tried to destroy the competition. Also with the ever increasing demand for tequila, the number of pulque producing plantations is diminishing. The remaining pulquerias, bars selling pulque, are mainly located in Mexico City and Oaxaca. In pulquerias, it is customary to spill some pulque on the floor before drinking as an offering to Two Rabbit. Better pulquerias offer customers a wide variety of mugs to choose from, made from glass or jicaras, decorated gourds ranging from the one drink size to the 1/4 liter to a full liter size. Some even offer fruits to be mashed up into the pulque to sweeten the taste.

Pulque has a long illustrious history of sacred exclusion which holds over into the few remaining pulquerias. They are renowned for their quaint atmosphere and club "members only" spirit, women and strangers may feel very unwelcome. Despite the seeming exclusiveness, pulque is in fact stigmatized as being a drink of the lower classes, which is leading to its demise among the younger generations.

Pulque is not easy for a tourist to find. The heavy demand for pulque and its limited supply make people guard their pulque secrets jealously. The best way to get the pure stuff, pulque dulce, young and sweet or pulque fuerte, older and stronger is through a Mexican friend. Only one company, Bebidas Naturales San Tsidro, is marketing a pulque in a pop top can, sold as "Nectar de Apam", it can be found in specialty stores in tourist regions such as Tijuana, Cancun and Acapulco. Straight up pulque is most often found only in maguey producing regions, ie not here. Personally I have never heard of pulque, canned or otherwise, being found in Zihuatanejo, but if you have a source, let me know -- for the history alone, its worth a try.

Summary - Beginner's Maguey: Tequila, Mezcal & Pulque

Fermenting the sap of the maguey creates Pulque. Distilling the sap of the maguey creates Mezcal. If the mezcal is produced from the blue maguey in an accredited tequila producing region, you're allowed to call it Tequila. There will be a pop quiz later, at the bar. Possible exam questions and excellent information can be found at www.mezcal.com

March 2001

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