Pulque: A Pre-Columbian Alcoholic Beverage of Mexico
Summary and Keywords
Pulque, the alcoholic beverage of pre-Columbian highland Mesoamerica is the fermented derivative of aguamiel, the juice or sap of the agave known as agave pulquero—principally Agave salmiana. Aguamiel is a sweet, somewhat heavy juice that collects in a scraped out basin in the heart of the agave pulquero and, unless refrigerated, rapidly ferments into the alcoholic pulque. The agents of fermentation are ambient and plant-colonizing bacteria and yeasts. Fresh pulque is a frothy, cloudy brew with a slightly sour taste, usually containing around 2 percent alcohol or somewhat higher, meaning it can be drunk in large quantities without intoxicating the imbiber. Although it is a nutritious drink, consumption was condemned by Spaniards in varying degrees during the Colonial Period. Its popularity in contemporary southern Mexico is increasing after more than a century of persecution and public disparagement. Pulque figures prominently in pre- and post-Columbian Mesoamerican history.
Production of tequila and mezcal is completely different from production of pulque. The former are distilled from the pressed juice (tepache) of macerated and roasted hearts of certain agaves. The juice is fermented in vats for several days, then heated in a still, evaporated, and condensed. Tequila, by law is made from A. tequilana, and mezcal by custom is made primarily from A. angustifolia. Both these distillates contain about 40 percent alcohol. Pulque is a naturally occurring product consumed by native peoples for at least two millennia. Tequila and mezcal are industrial products derived from processes introduced into the Americas by Europeans.
Pulque and Mesoamerica
People enjoy being intoxicated. The variety of intoxicating substances we employ is impressive, as are the strategies for imbibing or absorbing them, which include drinking, smoking, chewing, sucking, injecting, sniffing, snorting, rubbing on the skin, and internal insertion. Researchers and experimentalists, both lay and specialized, go to great lengths to expand and describe the spectrum of available intoxicants and hallucinogens. Cultural authorities, police, and military personnel expend significant resources in limiting the distribution of these substances. These efforts frequently fail.
In the central highlands of pre-Columbian Mesoamerica, the alcoholic intoxicant of choice was pulque, a slightly cloudy, frothy fermented beverage, one of many mind-altering substances Mesoamericans incorporated into their pharmacopeia. Throughout its lengthy history—at least two millennia—its consumption has from time to time fallen under the regulatory arm of stern authorities. Producers have persevered through periods of hardship and persecution.
As an intoxicant, pulque’s alcohol concentration is relatively dilute. It remains popular in the same highlands where it was first served those many centuries ago. A survey of pulques, beginning in the year 2000, formed a means of determining if what was good for Mesoamericans would be good for a contemporary, non-native drinker. The beverages sampled came from a variety of locations in pulque country.1 Much of the material in this article combines information from published sources with information gleaned from conversations with pulque producers and consumers, supplemented with consumption of pulque in a variety of locales. A study of pulque is also a study of the biogeography of agaves and their ethnobotany.
Pulque is the beverage naturally fermented from aguamiel, the juice (or sap) of certain Mesoamerican magueyes, plants of the genus Agave.2 Aguamiel accumulates in a basin excavated, or scraped out, from the basal center of a maguey on the verge of sexual maturity whose flowering stalk has been lopped off. Liquid seeps into the cavity and harvesters transfer it into vessels, where fermentation into pulque begins immediately. The harvester collects the liquid regularly, usually twice daily, but sometimes more often, until the maguey produces no more liquid. The plant then dies.
Agaves: The Source
Agaves are monocots, close relatives of asparagus. They occur naturally throughout tropical and neotropical North America, well into the American Southwest, the Caribbean, and Central America, and are cultivated worldwide. A few are native to northern South America, but the center of their evolution is in Mexico, which is also the center of traditional agave cultivation for fiber, paper, a host of folk medicine remedies, and, most important for this article, alcoholic beverages.
The geographical distribution and proliferation of agave species in Mexico is roughly the same as that of cacti. Like cacti, agaves incorporate CAM photosynthesis (Crassulacean acid metabolism), a biochemical pathway for production of sugars peculiar to plants growing in arid and semiarid conditions. CAM plants carry on their metabolic activity during the night, which enables them to withstand extremes of temperatures and drought. This makes agaves peculiarly efficient at growing and flourishing in climatic conditions common in Mexico.
Taxonomists recognize more than two hundred species of agave, but only a few of these are harvested for pulque production, none of them occurring in northern Mexico. By far the most common pulque-producing species is Agave salmiana, commonly known as maguey pulquero or maguey grande. Its wide and curved pencas (leaves) easily distinguish it from A. tequilana and A. angustifolia, which have been domesticated and from which tequila and mezcal are made, and both of which have narrow, erect, sword-like leaves.3 A. atrovirens and A. mapisaga, which can become gigantic, reaching 3 meters in height and 4 meters in breadth, are also sources of pulque. Both produce enormous pencas that curve and descend with age. A. atrovirens grows wild or semi-wild and is mostly confined to the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Puebla and Veracruz at elevations well above 2000 meters. It reproduces only from seed, not by offshoots (young plants that grow from the base of the parent), hence cultivation requires a longer period of time. A. mapisaga grows in the same range as A. salmiana, but grows larger. It produces fewer transplantable offshoots than A. salmiana, so is less favored for pulque production.
Agave salmiana has been subject to selection and domestication for many centuries, and cultivars appear over a broad range of habitats at elevations from roughly 1800 meters to 2,500 meters, primarily in the central and southern Mexican states of Guanajuato, Hidalgo, Jalisco, México, Michoacán, Morelos, Puebla, Oaxaca, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Tlaxcala, and the Distrito Federal. Whether plants still grow in the wild is difficult to ascertain, so widely are the plants horticulturally integrated into rural life. Mature plants of A. salmiana become enormous—as much as 2.5 meters in height and equally wide, so large that the harvesters must often climb into them, fighting their way through the thick growth of pencas. Dozens of varieties of maguey pulquero produce pulque, thirty strains in the state of Hidalgo alone.4 A. salmiana, like many agave species, produces offshoots. These are easily gathered and planted. Alexander von Humboldt observed, with characteristic accuracy, “no plant multiplies with greater facility.”5
Production of intoxicating beverages is but one of the agave’s human uses. As the source of ixtle (agave fiber), agaves have achieved prominence throughout Mesoamerica. They have been and continue to be a widespread source of rope, mats, saddle blankets, sandals, luggage, and an array of clothing—from coarse to fine. During the 19th and 20th centuries, many thousands of hectares, mostly in Yucatán, were devoted to the planting of henequén, an agave, as a source of fiber for rope and twine. For thousands of years, roasted agave bases have provided a vital food source: Apaches were said to have been able to sustain themselves with roasted agave hearts and leaf bases as the central element of their non-meat diet.6 Quids, spent wads of cellulose from roasted agave, spat out after the nutrition has been chewed from a mouthful, show up in archaeological sites throughout Greater Mexico.
Agaves, Tequila, and Mezcal
Tequila, mezcal, and their local variants, including bacanora (in Sonora), lechuguilla (in various northwestern states), and raicilla (in Jalisco), are all distilled liquors produced from different species of agave through processes entirely unrelated to production of pulque. Mezcal, once a generic name for distilled agave liquor, has come to be identified for the most part with agave distillates from Oaxaca.
For distilled beverages, the agave bases (piñas) are stripped of leaves and pried from the ground. These are then taken to a distillery (artisanal or industrial), chopped into manageable sections, and roasted in an oven, which may be a simple stone-lined pit covered over with a thick mound of earth, or a massive gas-fired, cast iron behemoth—for extended cooking—48 hours is a common period. The cooked portions are then shredded and pressed to extract the juice called tepache. Its alcohol content ranges from 12 to about 18 percent. Tepache is fermented in vats for several days, usually more than four. The resulting fermented liquid is heated. The alcohol then evaporates, is condensed and collected through distillation, and after varying degrees of refinement results in the final product. A repetition of the distillation supposedly enhances quality and removes potentially toxic evaporates.
Local distillers incorporate different agave species throughout Mexico, but only a few taxa produce aguamiel/pulque. Some apparently knowledgeable writers consider the distilled liquors to be derived from pulque.7 They are not. Several anecdotal sources report that A. salmiana can be used in producing mezcal, but these plants would not be used for producing pulque as well: removal of the piña removes the source of potential pulque as well. Pulque is a naturally occurring, indigenous beverage, still associated with Mesoamerican Indians. Tequila and mezcal are distilled beverages of European-originated processing.8 Tequila, throughout its history, has been produced mostly by non-Indian Mexicans in west-central Mexico, distillers who historically have viewed pulque with disdain.9 Tequila production in Mexico is highly industrialized and largely under the control of multinational corporations.10 Pulque production, though in some instances carried out in large haciendas, is mostly decentralized and in the hands of individual producers. Furthermore, several species of agave that yield distillates abound in northern Mexico, but native agaves of the region (including Jalisco, the center of tequila production) do not yield aguamiel. In Chihuahua and Durango, sotol (Dasylirion wheeleri), a close relative of the agave, is used to produce a distillate called, appropriately, sotol.
Pulque and the Agave
These many centuries of selection of A. salmiana have resulted in plants of impressive size, vigor (when not planted in monoculture), and productivity: a respectably generous plant will yield as much as 8 liters of aguamiel a day, translating into an equal amount of pulque. Plants will usually continue to produce for six to eight months, some as long as a year. Thanks largely to CAM, the chain of biochemical processes they share with cacti, they can survive and produce aguamiel/pulque in a variety of habitats ranging from near desert conditions to humid montane forest landscapes. Most commonly, though they flourish in semi-arid conditions with thin soils of poor quality.11 In this capacity, the magueyes are more reliable sources of nutrition than corn or other crops, for they produce even in years of drought or famine, yielding liquid even when growing on barren, rocky substrate. The plants are not damaged by high winds nor by hail or moderate frost and, because they seem content to grow in rocky, elevated locations, are seldom affected by floods. Thus the maguey pulquero has long been viewed as a hedge against times of nutritional scarcity.
The methods for producing and collecting pulque have changed little over the centuries.12 The tlachiquero (pulque field worker, sometimes also called pulquero), monitors his magueyes (agave plants) religiously. New dagger-like leaves emerge at the center of the plant, each armed with a viciously sharp spine at the apex and (usually) scythe-like thorns along the leaf margins, capable of inflicting painful and dangerous injuries. As the plant grows, the leaves gradually migrate to the sides and flare outwards and eventually downwards, while new leaves sprout upright from the center. When the plants become sexually mature, usually at between seven and ten years of age, the central growth area swells as the agave gives birth to a flowering stalk (quiote). If left undisturbed, the quiote will grow upwards and gradually issue buds called cacayas, which are edible in some species of agaves, followed by flowers. The quiote ultimately reaches as much as 10 meters in height. Within a year or so the plant will be dead.
To intervene in the death cycle and harvest aguamiel, the tlachiqueros monitor the plants. According to some, when the plants reach maturity, the older pencas that pointed toward the ground rise somewhat upward while the central, emerging leaves take on a bright green hue.13 At this point the harvesters se caponizan (castrate) the plant by lopping off the developing quiote and associated tissues before it emerges, a process they refer to as desquiotando. They leave the stalkless maguey for a few days to allow the base of the plant to store energy while the injury from the desquiotando scars over. When the proper time has passed, they scrape away the plant tissues from the point where the stalk was cut, employing a metal rasp 8–12 centimeters wide, and hollow out a basin some 16–25 centimeters in diameter and 5–10 centimeters deep. Liquid seeps into this basin, the aguamiel, that is the precursor of pulque. The agave, deprived of its reproductive structure, pours its energy into producing aguamiel. This juice is a sweet, rich liquid that can be drunk immediately and has a flavor reminiscent of pineapple juice. The tlachiquero usually visits the plants twice daily, sometimes three times, extracting up to 8 liters of liquid per day.
On some large pulque haciendas (plantations), especially in the state of Hidalgo, mass planting and more organized harvesting have replaced artisanal production. Large-scale production there dates from at least the early 19th century and expanded greatly when railroads became available for shipping the liquid into Mexico City. But the process of extraction for most small producers is little changed from pre-Columbian times. The basic tools are a sharp knife (a machete is now the knife of choice, but an obsidian blade would have sufficed for centuries) to desquiotar the plant and to remove interfering pencas, a metal mexal or raspa (also a replacement for an obsidian prototype) to scratch out and gradually widen the basin in the heart of the maguey, and an acocote (also called alacate in Puebla and Oaxaca), an elongated gourd (from the Cucurbit genus Lagenaria) with a hole drilled into each end. The harvester inserts this remarkable tool into the pool of aguamiel and inhales through the upper hole, partially filling the gourd with liquid. He removes the gourd from the liquid, corks the end with his finger, transfers the end of the gourd to a bucket or other container and releases the liquid. The length of the gourd prevents the harvester from inhaling the liquid and choking. When he has accumulated a gallon or so, the tlachiquero usually transfers the aguamiel from the collection bucket or jug into a large container, traditionally a goatskin, pigskin, or cowhide bag or, often, small wooden barrels, but now usually plastic jugs with a capacity of several gallons. Since colonial times, harvesters have mounted the skins or equivalent on burros, one to each side, and transported them to a central marketing location where the aguamiel is mixed with pulque to enhance fermentation. As road networks in central Mexico have expanded, burro transportation has continued to dwindle. Tlachiqueros in Zapotitlán Salinas, near Tehuacán, Puebla, however, still use burros to transport aguamiel, collected in large plastic jugs, from mesas high above the town down the steep slopes to a central location, called a tinacal, where it is poured into larger plastic barrels (traditionally into huge cowhide tanks) and rapidly ferments into pulque. Customers there usually exhaust the harvest by noon. At San Bernardino las Lagunas in the Sierra Zongolica of Puebla, most producers use pickup trucks to transport their pulque to the densely populated Valley of Tehuacán below, though in more remote locations burros still provide shipping. Certain revolving locations, usually remote from tax collectors and government regulators and in a relaxing, shady atmosphere, become locally established as vending points, rural, portable pulquerías where the beverage is dispensed from the back of a pickup truck. Regular customers bring their own containers, though most vendors provide disposable plastic cups to more casual imbibers.
Producers from the state of Hidalgo claim their magueyes produce the best pulque. Producers from other states contest those remarks. The famed Pulquería Las Duelistas, in Mexico City, purchases its pulque from producers in Tlaxcala—up to one thousand liters a day. Sterling brews are derived from magueyes in the Sierra Zongolica in southern Puebla and from the southern mountains of the Distrito Federal. One fine liter that influenced this article was dispensed from a pickup truck in Hidalgo’s Barranca de Metztitlán.
Aguamiel is unstable at ambient temperatures due to the wealth of microscopic fermenting organisms—a combination of yeasts and bacteria—flourishing on the agave plants and in the adjacent atmosphere.14 Once gathered, the sweet liquid begins the transition to pulque almost immediately and gradually assumes pulque’s characteristic slightly cloudy hue and sour taste. Yeast, of course, is the traditional organism responsible for fermentation, but in the case of pulque, yeasts are accompanied by a rich mixture of bacteria, which appear to be more critical to the transformation of plant sugars into alcohol. Fruit flies often gather in great numbers around the basin that has been excavated in the maguey. And, if the basin is left uncovered, it will also be visited by all manner of mammals, such as raccoons, squirrels, and opossums. Tlachiqueros protect their basins from these intruders by covering the exposed surface after removing the liquid, resorting to improvised covers—first a heavy object such as a rock or a cork-like chunk of agave heart, followed by agave leaves, rags, or clumps of weeds.
Pulque’s Alcohol Content
While literature about the composition of pulque is voluminous on the Internet and elsewhere, reliable information is far less so. Indeed, pronouncements as to its alcohol content vary considerably. Some sites announce the alcohol content of pulque to be between 3 and 4 percent, others as high as 8 percent, but authoritative citations for such figures are usually lacking and the information seems to have been gleaned from a mere handful of anecdotal sources.15 (By way of comparison, most commercial beers contain around 5 percent alcohol.) The alcohol content increases as the product ages, and that of fresh pulque is elusive: nearly all studies provide no indication of the freshness of the samples. Pulque is best drunk fresh, not aged, which would provide a lower alcohol content than an aged draught. As the product sits, alcohol content can be expected to rise, so the pulque becomes more intoxicating, but its quality deteriorates rapidly with age and higher alcohol pulques would not pass muster among pulque experts. Fresh pulque has a slightly sour, alcoholic taste, but the flavor of aguamiel still pervades the drink. Sources intimately involved with pulque research have reported to me that the alcohol content of fresh pulque—the sort consumed in rural areas adjacent to the centers of production—is between 1 and 2 percent. This figure seems more likely, given widespread accounts of imbibing pulque compared with the ingestion of other more industrially produced intoxicants.
Tentative verification of the low-alcohol content of pulque derives from the writings of the Franciscan Friar Toribio de Benavente de Motolinía in the mid-16th century. He observed that the Indians of southern Puebla consumed vast quantities of pulque, amounts so prodigious that he was left incredulous. This imbibing led to drunkenness and debauchery, but the sheer volume of the liquid imbibed attests to its low alcohol content. Motolinía also noted that the natives were rendered nearly dead by the Europeans’ wine, which was so strong the Indians could not tolerate it. Wine averages around 12 percent alcohol, a concentration that was clearly far greater than that of pulque, which the Indians could pack away in draught after draught.16
Additional anecdotal verification of the low alcohol content of pulque comes from tlachiqueros of San Bernardino Lagunas in southeastern Puebla. If one spends an entire harvesting day with the workers, details of pulque and its culture are bound to emerge. In that region they report that they drink no water, only pulque, up to four liters a day. Four liters of 8 percent alcohol would leave most people in a drunken stupor. Children of pulque-producing households begin to drink the beverage at the time they are weaned. The parents believe the children are better off drinking pulque than water (sources of potable water have often been few and of questionable purity) or sugary commercial beverages. Most pulque producers encourage pregnant women to drink pulque as an abundant source of vitamins and minerals, claiming no adverse effects on their child or their pregnancy. If pulque were of alcohol content comparable to that of beer, large segments of the pulque-imbibing population would exhibit most undesirable symptoms of excessive alcohol consumption.
Some Internet sites pronounce the requisite fermentation time as up to two weeks. Six to twelve hours is more realistic, but longer times are required at lower ambient temperatures. Other sites state that pulque is now stored in wooden barrels. While small wooden barrels were commonly used to transport pulque by burro before plastic containers became available, wooden storage or fermentation barrels appear to be absent in field encounters with pulque. Such storage implies the need for aging. Proper pulque should be consumed fresh, not aged in any way apart from the few hours required for fermentation. Plastic containers with loose covers to keep out fruit flies and dirt seem now to be the storage device of choice, and are intended as temporary pulque-holders only, since same-day consumption is necessary for the highest quality pulque. This information is based on interviews with tlachiqueros in Oaxaca, Puebla, Distrito Federal, and Hidalgo, including several tlachiqueros working in the fields.
The relationship between the pulquero and the magueyes he exploits is intimate, but ownership is variable. The individual maguey plants are a valuable resource, so ownership or rights to production are of critical importance to the pulque industry. Since each plant may produce as much as 1,600 liters of aguamiel over its lifetime, (in 2014 the price of pulque per liter from the producer ranged from 10 to 15 pesos (US $.80–$1.20) the individual magueyes assume considerable value and conflicts can arise over access to the plants and the liquid. In Hidalgo and Tlaxcala, some plantations are considered haciendas, large estates that are individually owned and the workers employed by the owners. On these large farms, the magueyes are carefully planted in rows where tlachiqueros can conveniently and efficiently remove the quiotes, trim the leaves, and scratch out the collecting basins in an assembly line fashion. Over much of pulque’s range, however, production is artisanal or individual. Often the plantings appear to be helter skelter. In some cases, the plants are communally owned, but individual ownership is more common. In pulque territory, plants may form hedgerows, or boundaries between fields, and have done so for decades or centuries. The vicious terminal spines of a well-planted row of agaves prevent incursions by livestock, which can destroy a corn or bean crop in minutes. These plants are typically owned by those who have rights to the fields or, in some cases, they are owned by others who have planted them through arrangement with the master of the field. Ownership may become complicated.
Pulqueros of Santa Ana Tlacotenco, a Nahua indigenous community near Milpa Alta at the southeastern boundary of the Distrito Federal, purchase plants in situ from landowners and gain the right to all production for the life of that plant, but only that plant. One harvester, whom we shall call Hugo, reported that as of 2015, he paid the landowner $450 pesos (about US $35 in 2014) per plant for rights to the aguamiel. He pointed out that offshoots (new plants emerging from the roots or plant base) remain the property of the landowner. On the land where Hugo’s plants are located, other pulqueros also purchase harvesting rights. Hugo scratches his name into a penca of his plants and, he reports, other tlachiqueros then respect his rights. His income ranges between 600 and 900 pesos per day ($45–$60 in 2014) for seven to eight months of the year. The income compares favorably with that of other rural agricultural jobs.
Hugo is one of four full-time producers in the community. Thirteen part-time producers also sell pulque. All of their product is consumed in the vicinity of their town. Hugo’s pulque is renowned in the region for its high quality. Unlike most producers, he learned production of pulque, not from his father or ancestors, but from another producer. Hugo was born in northern Veracruz state and migrated to Santa Ana, where he became a pulquero.
The agave plants’ value means that individual producers are constantly on the lookout for new plants in which to invest. Purchasing plants before they produce is a gamble, however, since, as Hugo notes, some of the plants are considered machos (males). These do not produce aguamiel and are deemed worthless, and predicting which plants will fall into the macho category is a throw of the dice.17 But the value of the productive plants makes the gamble worthwhile. In this economic milieu, the harvesters must accept nature’s dispersion of new plants and hope the plants in which they have invested will prove productive. Hugo has also planted offshoots on his lot in the town, which will someday, usually around seven years after planting, provide him with income. In other areas, pulqueros will establish orchards or hedgerows where they maintain rights to the pulque or sell rights to the plants to other pulqueros. On communally owned lands (common in Oaxaca), they will select planting sites and then claim the plants as their own. Pulqueros may also plant seed from plants that have been allowed to mature and flower, banking on productivity after somewhat over seven years.
The manufacture of pulque is simple, but plant husbandry involves important work in preparation for the production of aguamiel and during the time of non-production as well. The tlachiqueros remove leaves that might pose a hazard or that interfere with access to the plant’s center. They have all received painful punctures from the lengthy and stout terminal spines and have been slashed by lateral thorns as well. To protect themselves from injury, they bind vertical leaves with wire into a tight sheaf to allow themselves better and safer access to the aguamiel, but do not remove any more leaves than necessary since they provide protection for the basin of aguamiel and because removal would decrease photosynthesis and the plant’s production of aguamiel. In rocky and hilly fields (common in the pulque region) tlachiqueros must provide an access path and a means of climbing inside the agave so that their acocote can reach the basin without great effort on their part. They must also provide a level place to set their bucket or jug in which to empty the acocote.
During the season of decreased or non-production, usually the hot months of March through mid-May, tlachiqueros may seek other employment or spend the time trimming their plants and planting new ones.
True pulqueros love their wares. Drinking pulque produces a noticeable flush of the cheeks, and pulqueros usually sport rosy faces. This is apparently the result of rapid absorption of B-vitamins, especially niacin (pulque is rich in a lengthy list of nutrients), and it clearly marks the producer and makes him easier to identify and felicitar (congratulate). The traditional vessel for consuming pulque in pulquerías is the jícara, a half-moon shaped bowl with no handle, fashioned from a gourd gathered from the tree Crescentia alata (Bignoniaceae). In colder climates where the gourds are not available, clay mugs are favored. Some more permanent dispensaries advertise the availability of pulque by hoisting a white flag on the building’s exterior.
Most, but not all, tlachiqueros are men. In the year 2000, a tlachiquera (woman pulque harvester) near Reyes Metzlontla, Puebla, was well known in the region and an important repository of knowledge about pulque. Until quite recently, custom forbade women to drink pulque in pulquerías. In rural Mexico, the exclusion of women is still in effect, and traditions warn of dire effects on pulque production if women and men drink together or if women are involved in producing. On the other hand, women have been owners and operators of pulquerías as well as vendors of the brew since colonial times,18 and establishments often employed younger women to serve and entertain the male clientele. Serving was acceptable; producing was not. The clientele of Pulquería Los Duelistas in Mexico City, however, is mostly youthful and nearly evenly divided between the sexes.
Uses of pulque are not limited to direct imbibing of the liquid. Pan de pulque (pulque bread) is popular in several localities, including much of the state of Hidalgo and in the wheat-growing region of the Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca. The addition of pulque to kneaded wheat flour dough makes the addition of yeast unnecessary. The bread has a mildly sweet taste and a slight aroma of pulque. Another product has become popular internationally: aguamiel boiled until the residue is the consistency of syrup. It is marketed in the United States as agave syrup. Claims for its beneficent properties are dubious, certainly less reliable than claims for pulque’s curative virtues, promoted by pulque partisans.
Pulque’s Political History
Pulque’s human importance extends far back in Mesoamerican pre-history. The Aztec goddess Mayahuel, the goddess of maguey, and her consort Patécatl were associated with pulque, which the Aztecs called octli.19 Some popular histories attribute the discovery of pulque to the Toltec goddess Xiuhtlatzin.20 Toltecs preceded the Aztecs by at least five centuries, but pulque producers preceded the Toltec by another several centuries.21 Classical documentary sources seem to regard pulque as a powerful intoxicant, and for hundreds of years authorities in Mexico have complained about drunkenness and alcoholism connected with pulque consumption. The pre-Columbian Codex Chimalpopoca noted that anyone who drank more than four draughts was a considered a drunk.22 Since a standard jícara—approximately one draught—holds roughly a pint, this would entail drinking more than two liters. At 1 or even 2 percent alcohol, even this quantity would produce only mild intoxication in the average adult. As knowledgeable consumers will testify, seasoned pulque drinkers can down more than that quantity without obvious signs of intoxication. Even so, descriptions of Aztec life depict widespread drunkenness from ingestion of pulque among the macehuales—the Aztec proletariat—due to the misery of their oppressed lives under the tyranny of the Aztec nobility.23 As a result, some Aztec kings forbade consumption of pulque by anyone other than nobility, with multiple infractions warranting the death penalty. The kings found the nobility to be clearly superior in their ability to savor the drink and appreciate its divine properties without succumbing to debauchery. Youths in military training were also prohibited from drinking pulque, perhaps for fear it might stunt their growth or make them less effective warriors.24 Enforcement of these provisions was difficult outside the urban districts of the Aztec capital city of Tenochtitlán, which were well policed by the king’s minions.
Spaniards were quick to discover the properties and the cultural role of pulque and many quickly overcame any initial resistance to the drink, which they regarded with skepticism due to its frothy, sometimes slightly gelatinous texture. During the Colonial period, officials made various attempts to prohibit the production of pulque or, failing that, levied taxes on it. As early as 1591 villagers in the Mixteca Alta of Oaxaca complained that Spanish officials were entering their dwellings without permission in search of pulque to tax.25 In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the production or consumption of pulque was punishable with fifty lashes.26
Prohibition yielded no revenue to the royal treasury, however, and since pulque was widely drunk (and increasingly popular with Spaniards) it provided an easy target for tax collectors. In the latter part of the 18th century, the Inspector General, José de Gálvez (after whose nephew Galveston, Texas was named), was charged by the Spanish Crown with expanding revenue sources to finance wars and courtly life. After initially banning its production and consumption, he placed pulque under Crown supervision, taxing both production and consumption.27 Thereafter, the pulque tax became an important source of revenue for the Crown and, following Independence, for the Mexican state. Urban vending locations, bars known as pulquerías, sprang up throughout the Valley of Mexico and beyond and became easy targets for tax collectors and other government agents.
Many Spaniards appear to have become regular drinkers, and some quickly saw an opportunity to profit from the pulque trade and the brisk business evident at the pulquerías, as well. Pulque was, after all, far more easily produced than wine and, though perhaps not as symbolically sophisticated, was readily available through much of the year and a more nutritious drink than wine or its distillates. By the early 19th century if not earlier, pulquerías became popular in Mexico City and came to be accompanied by street vendors of popular Mexican food. Urban poor could dine and drink for a pittance. The Spanish Crown granted exclusive franchises for producing pulque to aristocratic families, which were often ruled over by women who parlayed their monopolies into sizeable fortunes.28 These few families came to rule the urban pulque trade with iron fists. After independence in Mexico in 1821, the pulque industry remained dominated by a few families, some headed by women, who accumulated considerable wealth.29
By the 1880s, new railroads were helping maintain adequate supplies of pulque in the burgeoning capital, where the thirsty downed 500,000 liters per day.30 The dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz ended in 1910, and with its demise came a puritanical crackdown on pulque. Consumption of artisanal pulque had already been demonized under the Porfiriato, whose apologists viewed things Indian or indigenous as backwards and a hindrance to progress. In the early 1900s, a tax was levied on small producers of pulque. Large producers—hacendados and friends of the Porfirio Díaz regime—from time to time gained exemption from the tax.31 All told, however, as of the year 1903, pulque taxes collected in Mexico City alone (all the haciendas lay outside the city) constituted more than 10 percent of city tax revenues.32 Even with its tax collections filling government coffers, however, pulque became widely regarded as a drink of vice-ridden and backward Indians and members of the lowest classes. Following the Mexican Revolution, tequila and beer producers would promote this association to disparage pulque as “dirty” and contrast it with tequila and beer, which were non-Indian and “pure.”33
For pulqueros, things became even worse after the overthrow of President Porfirio Díaz. During the Mexican Revolution the followers of Francisco I. Madero and those who succeeded him attempted to address Mexico’s chronic problem of alcoholism by adopting various forms of prohibition, especially condemning the production of pulque. Madero himself decried what he considered the degenerative effects of pulque and urged Maderistas to abolish its consumption.34 Under the revolutionary administration of Madero’s successor, Victoriano Huerta, all the pulquerías of Mexico City were ordered shut down.35 Though Huerta’s successors eased off on demonizing pulque, during the 1920s the Mexican government adopted the ley dominical, which mandated closure of all pulquerías on Sundays. The virtues of prohibition were loudly proclaimed in government circles, mirroring or even inspired by such “blue laws” in the United States, where prohibition, the 18th amendment to the U.S. constitution, had been ratified in 1919. Sunday was traditionally the day of maximum consumption. Since pulque is perishable, the ley dominical penalized pulque producers and vendors and resulted in a huge loss of product and revenue for them. Those hardest hit were the thousands of poorer citizens involved in production, transportation, and sale of pulque and the legions of women who supported their families selling food outside the pulquerías.
For the tlachiqueros, the effects of the ley dominical in urban areas were devastating. The number of Mexicans affected by pulque production (including families of producers and food workers who plied their trade in the vicinity of pulquerías and their dependents) may have been as high as 600,000.36 In spite of the negative economic consequences, bans on pulque continued on and off as part of a national temperance movement through the administration of Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940). Owners of large-scale productions, as well as enterprises dealing in distilled spirits, however, often evaded prosecution, while small producers were harassed and even, in some cases, executed.
To an extent, though, the attempts at eliminating consumption of pulque (as opposed to distilled liquors, whose operations were easier targets) were doomed due by the ease of production of the product. Maguey pulquero can grow in a wide variety of soils and conditions and requires little or no attention during its maturation, and for centuries it played an important role in the aboriginal Mesoamerican diet. Thousands of rural Mexicans had a deep understanding of the production of pulque, adopting techniques and knowledge refined and inherited over many generations and had but to venture into a field, tap a maguey plant, collect the aguamiel, and wait a few hours for pulque to appear. In times of scarcity of basic food, pulque filled a nutritional void and still does.
Pulque since the Turn of the 20th Century
The most powerful social tool against pulque culture, however, came from manufacturers of industrial-grade alcoholic beverages, principally beer and tequila. Beer manufacturers saw in Mexico’s pulque consumers a vast potential market for their product. In the 1920s, to tap this source revenue, they undertook a marketing campaign that associated pulque with dark skin, poverty, squalor, and disease while pairing beer with glamour, sophistication, proper hygiene, and blonde hair. They circulated the rumor that pulque producers introduced human feces as a fermenting agent, a rumor based on some isolated use of excrement among some traditional producers.37 This slur on pulque helped create the image of pulque consumers as Indian, poor, dirty, swarthy, and without civilization. Pulque, the beer people sneered, was unsanitary and capable of transmitting disease. Though the characterizations were largely false, the beer promoters won. Beer sales skyrocketed. Mexicans praised beer in its sanitary bottles, bottled in hygienically certified, modern factories, bearing easily recognizable labels. Beer producers poured millions of pesos into publicity campaigns designed to promote their brand and deprecate pulque, depicting beer drinkers as affluent, happy, and light-skinned. Pulque sales plummeted as beer sales shot up.
Tequila producers undertook similar campaigns, taking pains to portray tequila as a sophisticated drink of the more respectable wealthy and propertied classes, hoping to distance tequila from the pre-Columbian and primitive (dirty) beverages native to Mexico. The campaigns succeeded, and by the early 1970s, pulque consumption had plummeted by 90 percent.38
Consumption of pulque today, although steadily rising, according to local sources, is but a small fraction of that of earlier times. Hard figures are elusive. Pulque enthusiasts, however, in addition to traditional rural consumers who remain faithful to their traditional diet and cultural history, tend to be young, urban, educated, influential, and nationalistic. Their growing enthusiasm for the beverage appears to be genuine, their praises are honest, and their future consumption seems guaranteed. Production is destined to continue its rise.
Although overall production practices of pulque may vary, and consumption rates may decline in times of national economic distress, it is difficult to imagine a time when rural residents of central and southern Mexico will not harvest the liquid. The plants require virtually no soil amendments, they grow in places and under conditions where other market-directed plants cannot survive, they constitute an important source of nutrition, and they provide a fine aesthetic enhancement to the landscape, an emblem of Mexico. Travels through pulque country still reveal thousands of plants of a fine mix of ages, waiting their turn to be tapped. As long as machetes, rasps, and acocotes are available and A. salmiana flourishes on the landscape, pulque will prevail.
Discussion of the Literature
Pulque has been the object of literary description since the creation of Aztec Codices in the 15th century and probably earlier in Mixtec Codices. Pre-Columbian depictions are almost uniformly flattering, tracing pulque’s origins to several divinities. An out of print but useful source of these pictorial representations is El Maguey y el Pulque in Códices Mexicanos by Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima. Virtually every commentary composed in the first decades following the Conquest mentions pulque and underscores its role as an alcoholic beverage with religious significance. Several of the authors of pre-Columbian history written shortly after the Conquest afford extended discussions to pulque. Especially accessible is Fray Diego Durán’s The History of the Indies of New Spain. Durán was himself of Indian extraction, as were the sources of several other histories (relaciones) recorded in the years following the Conquest. It is important to recall that oral traditions were the center of pre-Columbian history, and great care was taken to keep them consistent and, unless instructions were otherwise, true to the historical oral accounts.39
Many standard histories of the Conquest refer to pulque’s role in cultures of the Basin of Mexico. Among the best is R. C. Padden’s The Hummingbird and the Hawk, a work surprisingly ignored in contemporary literature of the Conquest. Alan Knight’s description of attempts to suppress pulque during the porfiriato are especially insightful.40
We must keep in mind that pulque was a regional drink, available only in the highlands of south-central and southern Mexico, so scholarly discussions will be confined to commentaries of that region. Foreigners as well as natives were impressed with pulque consumption, notably Fannie Calderón de la Barca and Alexander von Humboldt. Their accounts are unbiased and make for refreshing reading and accurate descriptions of pulque production and consumption nearly two hundred years after they were published. Indeed, the accuracy of their observations surpasses that of many more contemporary accounts.41
More popular or politically motivated writings abound, many accessible by Internet, where thousands of references to pulque are available. Voluminous essays and articles either praise or condemn pulque, but only a small portion present a critical or analytic approach. Internet searches attest to the popularity of pulque, including the emergence (surely only temporary) of “pulque tourism.” Scholarly articles are also available online, but even these often carry a personal bias concerning the beverage. In Mexico, it is difficult to be neutral about pulque. Raúl Guerrero Guerrero’s useful 1985 volume El Pulque, presents a semi-geographical, semi-historical, semi-cultural polemic/defense of the brew. Both Alan Knight’s History of the Mexican Revolution and two Ph.D. dissertations are especially useful. They are Sobering the Revolution: Mexico’s Anti-Alcohol Campaigns and the Process of State-Building by Gretchen Pierce (2008), and “El Recreo de los Amigos.” Mexico City’s Pulquerías during the Liberal Republic by Áurea Toxqui (2008). Summaries of their work are also available in Alcohol in Latin America, edited by Pierce and Toxqui.42
A computer search for pulque in Mexico’s Archivo General de la Nación will produce thousands of results. Many thousands more will turn up on a general Internet search. This result is not surprising, for consumption of pulque was not far behind that of corn among native consumers of Mesoamerica, and a resurgence of the popularity of the beverage began around the turn of the 21st century. For pre-Columbian primary source material, several codices, pictorial representations, depict pulque consumption among gods and royalty, while relaciones, accounts of pre-Columbian Mexico transcribed shortly after the Conquest, provide detailed descriptions of the beverage and its cultural importance. Of the codices, the most comprehensive is the book by Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima, El Maguey y el Pulque en Códices Mexicanos. Of the relaciones the most accessible is that of Fray Diego Durán, which has been translated into English under the title of The History of the Indies of New Spain. Also informative is the lengthy volume by Fray Toribio de Benavente de Motolinía, Historia de los Indios de la Nueva España.43
Later works providing eyewitness and detailed descriptions include those by the Jesuit Francisco Clavijero, The History of Mexico, Alexander von Humboldt, and Fanny Calderón de la Barca.44
Numerous journal articles by scientists and social scientists appear in an extended Internet search for material on pulque. The reader must be prepared to distinguish material of legitimate scientific research from that based largely on surmise and hearsay.
For precise information on the genus Agave and which agaves produce pulque, Agaves of Continental North America by Howard Scott Gentry remains the authoritative source.
Barrios, Virginia B. A Guide to Tequila, Mezcal, and Pulque. Mexico City: Minutiae Mexicana, 2002.Find this resource:
Bierhorst, John. History and Mythology of the Aztecs: Codex Chimalpopoca. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.Find this resource:
Burkholder, Mark, and Suzanne Hiles. “An Empire beyond Compare.” In The Oxford History of Mexico. Edited by Michael Meyer and William Beezley, 115–150. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.Find this resource:
Clavijero, Francesco. The History of Mexico. Translated and edited by Charles Cullen. London: J. Johnson, 1807.Find this resource:
Durán, Fray Diego de. The History of the Indies of New Spain. Translated by Doris Heyden. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994.Find this resource:
Gentry, Howard Scott. Agaves of Continental North America. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982.Find this resource:
Gonçalves de Lima, Oswaldo. El Maguey y el Pulque en Códices Mexicanos. Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1956.Find this resource:
Guerrero Guerrero, Raúl. El Pulque. Mexico City: INAH, 1985.Find this resource:
Humboldt, Alexander von. Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972.Find this resource:
Knight, Alan. The Mexican Revolution. Vols. 1–2. Omaha: University of Nebraska Press, 1986.Find this resource:
Motolinía, Fray Toribio de Benavente. La Historia de los Indios de Nueva España. Barcelona: Linkgua Ediciones, 2009.Find this resource:
Orozco, José. “Tequila and the Redemption of Mexico’s Vital Fluids.” In Alcohol in Latin America. Edited by Gretchen Pierce and Áurea Toxqui, 185–209. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014.Find this resource:
Padden, R. C. The Hummingbird and the Hawk. New York: Harper Colophon, 1967.Find this resource:
(1.) Almeaca, QTO; Cieneguilla, OAX; El Morral, OAX (2); Jazmín de Apoala, OAX; numerous markets, OAX and PUE; Pulquería Las Duelistas, México, DF; Restaurant Biznaga, Oaxaca, OAX; San Bernardino Lagunas, PUE (3); San Diego Chalma, PUE; San Juan Raya, PUE; Santa Ana Tlacotenco, DF; Valle de Metztitlán, HGO; and Zapotitlán de Salinas, PUE.
(2.) Agaves are not cacti. They are as closely related to cacti as humans are to elephants.
(3.) Howard Scott Gentry, Agaves of Continental North America (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1982), whose seminal work on agaves is still authoritative, distinguished between A. tequilana, the blue agave, and A. angustifolia, a widely distributed species from which both Oaxacan mezcal and Sonoran bacanora are produced. He acknowledged that the two are closely related. (Gentry, Agaves of Continental North America, 11.) Most agave taxonomists agree that the taxonomic differences between the two species are nominal.
(4.) Raúl Guerrero Guerrero, El Pulque (Mexico City: INAH, 1985), 68.
(5.) Alexander von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom of New Spain (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 112. The lack of genetic diversity in the repeated planting of offshoots, combined with inevitable genetic drift, has resulted in greater susceptibility to disease and decreased production from the maguey pulquero plants over recent decades. Producers in Puebla are now receiving seed from plants selected for greater genetic diversity, yield, and size. Seeds, not clones, are needed to insure genetic diversity. See Edgar Ávila, “Pulque: Se apoyan en la genética para mejorar el maguey,” El Universal, September 15, 2015.
(6.) Edward Castetter and M. E. Opler, Ethnobiology of the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache (University of New Mexico Bulletin, 1936 4), 35–38.
(7.) Guerrero Guerrero, El Pulque, 91.
(8.) The apparatus for distilling is called the alambique, a word derived from Arabic, speakers of which apparently introduced distilling into Castile.
(9.) Tequila, which has its region of production strictly defined by the Mexican government, also has its ingredients legally restricted. Ana Valenzuela Zapata and Alejandro Macías Macías, La indicación geográfica tequila (Mexico City: CONABIO, 2014), 13, present the legal description (denominación de origen) of tequila.
(10.) Valenzuela Zapata and Macías Macías, La indicación geográfica, 35–40.
(11.) Guerrero Guerrero, El Pulque, 89, 130.
(12.) An 1842 description of pulque is provided by Frances Calderón de la Barca, Life in Mexico during Residence of Two Years in that Country (Mexico City: Ediciones Tolteca, 1952), 73–74. None better exists. Also instructive are descriptions provided in mid-18th century by Francesco Clavijero, The History of Mexico (London: J. Johnson, 1807), 256–258; and, in 1803–1804, Alexander von Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdome, 110–116.
(13.) Guerrero Guerrero, El Pulque, 63, 88.
(14.) P. Lappe-Oliveras, R. Moreno-Terrazas, J. Arrizón-Gaviño, T. Herrera-Suárez, A. García-Mendoza, and A. Gschaedler-Mathis, “Yeasts Associated with Production of Mexican Alcoholic Nondistilled and Distilled Agave Beverages,” FEMS Yeast Research 8 (2008): 1037–1052.
(15.) See, for example José Orozco, “Tequila and the Redemption of Mexico’s Vital Fluids,” in Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History, ed. Gretchen Pierce and Áurea Toxqui (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014), 195. Lappe-Oliveras et al. suggest alcohol content of less than 6 percent; see, also In Search of the Blue Agave: Tequila and the Heart of Mexico. This source considers pulque to have a “low alcohol content” of between 6 and 8 percent. These figures seem unreasonably high. The Encyclopedia Britannica: Pulque = Mexican Beer without citation lists the alcohol content at 6 percent. The Internet site called “Cooks Info” pronounces the content to be 2 to 4 percent.
(16.) Toribio de Benavente de Motolinía, Historia de los Indios de Nueva España (Barcelona: Linkgua ediciones, 2009), 32, 94.
(17.) Flowers (reproductive structures) of agaves are hermaphroditic, not dioecious—that is, separate male and female plants or flowers do not exist. Plants of most agave species require pollination, however—see Gentry, Agaves of Continental North America, 42–45. Why some plants do not produce juice is not clear, but it would appear to be related to part of the agave genome. Even a non-pulque producing plant has numerous uses, including the production of ixtle (agave fiber) that can be made from its leaves, for roofing material, and livestock fodder that can be gleaned from the leaves.
(18.) Áurea Toxqui, Breadwinners or Entrepreneurs? in Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History, ed. Pierce and Áurea, 108.
(19.) Diego Durán, The History of the Indies of New Spain (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), 186n; Calderón de la Barca, Life in Mexico, 73; and Guerrero Guerrero, El Pulque, 52
(20.) Edmundo Aragonés, “Xiuhtlatzin, primera reina tolteca y Xochitl, reina tolteca descubridora del pulque,” El Sol de México, January 20, 2008.
(21.) Gentry, Agaves of Continental North America, 8.
(22.) John Bierhorst, History and Mythology of the Aztecs: Codex Chimalpopoca (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1992.)
(23.) R. C. Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk (New York: Harper Colophon 1967).
(24.) Ross Hassig, Aztec Warfare (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1988), 34.
(25.) Kevin Terraciano, The Mixtecs of Colonial Oaxaca (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press 2001), 249.
(26.) Guerrero Guerrero, El Pulque, 117.
(27.) Mark Burkholder and Suzanne Hiles, “An Empire beyond Compare,” in The Oxford History of Mexico, ed. Michael Meyer and William Beezley (Oxford: Oxford University Press 2000), 144.
(28.) Toxqui, Breadwinners or Entrepreneurs? 112
(29.) Calderón de la Barca, Life in Mexico, 74.
(30.) Alan Knight, The Mexican Revolution, Vol. 1 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1986), 80.
(32.) Toxqui, Breadwinners or Entrepreneurs? 116.
(33.) Orozco, “Tequila and the Redemption,” 186.
(34.) Knight, The Mexican Revolution, Vol. 1, 433.
(35.) Knight, The Mexican Revolution, Vol. 2, 92. The order came from Aureliano Urrutia, Ministro de Gobernación, an act for which, Knight notes, “he is most if not best remembered.”
(36.) Gretchen Pierce, Pulqueros, cerveceros, and mezcaleros in Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History, 163, 165, 172.
(37.) Orozco, “Tequila and the Redemption,” 195.
(38.) This figure is widely circulated. See Dan Lotter, Pulque: Mexico’s Unique and Vanishing Drink (The New Farm, Kutztown, PA: Rodale Press, 2004).
(39.) Oswaldo Gonçalves de Lima, El Maguey y el Pulque in Códices Mexicanos (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1956); and Durán, The History of the Indies of New Spain.
(40.) Padden, The Hummingbird and the Hawk; and Knight, The Mexican Revolutioni.
(41.) Calderón de la Barca, Life in Mexico; and Humboldt, Political Essay on the Kingdom.
(42.) Guerrero Guerrero, El Pulque; Knight, The Mexican Revolution; and see Gretchen Pierce, “Sobering the Revolution: Mexico’s Anti-Alcohol Campaigns and the Process of State-Building, 1910–1940” (PhD Diss., Pro-Quest, 2008); and Áurea Toxqui, “El Recreo de los Amigos: Mexico City’s Pulquerías during the Liberal Republic (1856–1911)” (PhD Diss., University of Arizona, 2008). Summaries of their work are also available in Pierce and Toxqui, eds., Alcohol in Latin America: A Social and Cultural History.
(43.) Gonçalves de Lima, El Maguey y el Pulque; Durán, The History of the Indies; and Benavente de Motolinía, Historia de los Indios.
(44.) Clavijero, The History of Mexico; Humboldt Political Essay on the Kingdom; and Calderón de la Barca, Life in Mexico.