Pulque has been enjoyed in what’s now Mexico for a millennium or more. This naturally fermented drink was consumed for ritual and recreational purposes by the Aztec and, until recently, it was the drink of the Mexican people: inexpensive, abundant and, for some of us, quite pleasant.
Pulque is made from agave, the same indigenous plant that gives us tequila, mezcal and a few other, lesser-known spirits. Unlike those spirits, pulque is more like beer: it’s fermented but not distilled.
To make pulque, the core of a mature agave plant is carved open, and the sap from the agave leaves—called aguamiel, or honey water—flows into the center. Once this sugar-rich liquid collects in the scooped-out center of the plant, it starts to ferment very quickly. Within a day or up to eight days or more (depending on temperature and other climactic factors), sugars in the sap are converted to alcohol and you have a relatively low-alcohol beverage.
Not many people that I’ve met have enjoyed pulque, which ferments to become a thick, cloudy white beverage that, to say the least, turns off many drinkers. I find the flavor of fresh pulque to be somewhat sour, yes, but with a latent sweetness that in the best of circumstances makes this a balanced, somewhat lightweight sip.
Unchecked by pasteurization or freezing, the pulque’s fermentation process may continue, and after a certain point, the beverage becomes too sour to consume. If the sourness has not become too extreme, the pulque may be “cured,” or fixed, through the addition of fruit juices or even wine, salsa or other beers. Me, I usually prefer pulque straight up, unadulterated, though this ancient beverage is pretty much a blank canvas, and you can flavor it in many ways.
On Day(s) of the Dead (November 1-2), we put up an ofrenda, the traditional Mexican table of photos and favorite foods and drinks of the deceased. On our table I put pictures of my departed parents, and some of their favorite consumables (chocolate for my mother, Scotch for my father). Placing favored objects on the ofrenda, along with marigolds, is thought to be a way to attract the dead to return and rejoin the living if only for an evening. Our purpose, and I suspect the purpose to many who make ofrendas, is simply to remember and honor those who came before.
Mexican culture is much more accepting of the place of death in our lives, and visitors from the spirit world are welcomed into the house. In Mexico, during Day of the Dead festivities, people go to the local cemetery to visit the gravesites of deceased friends and relations, sometimes having a picnic hoping to attract the spirits of the deceased… And to celebrate life.
Around Day of the Dead, skeletons are popular: children are fond of sugar skulls, and everyone enjoys pan de muerte—bread of the dead—a loaf with a crossed-bone design on the upper crust. The skeletal figures—calaveras—in the drawings of Jose Guadalupe Posada, are portrayed dancing, cavorting and having a generally good time. These internationally recognized skeletal antics illustrate the comfort that many Mexicans seem to feel regarding the world of the dead and our inevitable passage into it.
Skeletons have found their way into much of Mexican art and culture, most prominently into the cult of Santa Muerte, currently the fastest-growing religion in the world. On a recent trip to Mexico City, I found a driver who would take me to the National Sanctuary of Santa Muerte, the beloved skeleton saint, dressed in blues and whites just like the Virgin Mary. As with the Day of the Dead ofrendas, it’s customary to place consumables on the altar of Santa Muerte, including fruit, candy and pulque.
Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and author of “Devoted to Death: Santa Muerte, the Skeleton Saint,” tells me in a recent communication that “Many Santa Muerte devotees believe the Mexican skeleton saint favors ritual offerings that are native to Mexico and the Americas. As such, pulque was the most important fermented drink in Mexico, and it was offered to the Aztec gods and goddesses, most importantly, Tepoztecatl, god of pulque and fertility.”
In Mexico City pulquerias, like Las Duelistas and Pulqueria Insurgentes, you’ll see representations of Tepoztecatl as well as Mayahuel, a goddess associated with the agave plant, who is said to have four-hundred breasts (perhaps corresponding to the many spikes of an agave) from which she nursed the four-hundred rabbits of drunkenness. In these pulque bars, you will see lots of locals as well as visitors, enjoying the fermented sap of the agave.
Pulque consumption reached a high point in the nineteenth century, but with the rise of alternatives (like beer in a can), consumption of this time-honored sip had declined. But pulque has seen a resurgence in popularity. Just as Chicago’s Malört was once consumed mostly by old men but is now a drink favored by the young and in-the-know, so too are Mexico City hipsters rediscovering pulque.
The best pulque I enjoyed in Mexico City was at The Pulque Museum; the cost of admission will get you a sample of pulque at the first-floor café, but if you like the beverage even a little bit, you’re going to want more.
Drunkenness was not okay with the ancient Aztec. Only Aztec nobility and elders could get tipsy; other over-imbibers could face severe penalties, including death, for having too much of a good thing. But a little bit of pulque was considered not merely okay but medicinal. Bernardino de Sahagún, in his sixteenth-century encyclopedic “General History of the Things of New Spain” (commonly referred to as the Florentine Codex), recognized the nutritional benefits of pulque, writing that it was frequently consumed with other medications.
Sahagún was undoubtedly referring to pulque that had not been pasteurized—Pasteur was born in 1822, several centuries after Sahagún—and unpasteurized pulque is still what you will find in Mexico City. Pasteurized pulque, like pasteurized milk, has been heated to destroy microbial life, but there’s a penalty for taking that health measure: pasteurization also kills flavor. Try tasting a cheese, for instance, made of pasteurized milk and one made of raw milk; you will find that the latter is more delicious.
Unpasteurized pulque is largely unavailable in Chicago. You will typically find pulque only where many agaves are growing, and mostly in Mexico. And pulque goes bad quickly, so to keep it from going bad too fast—in, for instance, transit from Mexico to the United States—it’s been pasteurized.
Pulque in Chicago
You can sometimes find canned (pasteurized) pulque in liquor stores and Mexican restaurants. Some popular brands include Pulque Hacienda 1881, the original canned pulque, and Casa Marinez Pulque. I’ve tried canned pulques, and although they may be acceptable in a pinch, they lack the vibrancy and depth of uncooked, living pulque. I find the best way to consume canned pulque is to cure the stuff with a fruit juice.
Lou Bank, mezcal maven and Newcity contributor, tells us that “The best pulque I’ve had in Chicagoland was at Taste of Mexico, 14N630 IL-25, Dundee Township. The people at the booth said they froze it and drove it up. Maybe true, maybe not. But decent result, whatever they did.”
Freezing the aguamiel would stop the fermentation process and make it possible to transport the pulque. And drinking previously frozen pulque might be the only way to enjoy fresh pulque in Chicago—and fresh is really the way you want it.
“One of the things I love about pulque,” says Bank, “is that it does not cross borders, or even travel well within borders. You can do it, but it’s never the same. It’s the drink of the place, and it’s best consumed in that place. If you want to know it, you have to go to its home to meet it. And in the same way that we evolve during our short lives, pulque evolves, too, though on a much tighter timeline. And just as we die, so does pulque, though we hope we don’t end on as sour a note.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org