The Story of Pulque (or MAYAN MADNESS!)


Pulque, a fermented beverage derived from juice of the maguey (agave) was the historical predecessor of mescal and tequila which wielded a heavy sociological influence during both Pre-Hispanic and Colonial periods of Mexican history. Maguey was one of the most sacred and important plants in ancient Mexico and had a privileged place in mythology, religious rituals and the meso-american economy. Pulque first appeared in Indian stone carvings about 200-200 AD.

The pulque gods wore a half moon made of bone in their nose and their faces were painted black and red representing the light and dark side of the lunarscape and reflected their status as lunar beings. This kinship with a star (the moon) that died and was reborn daily explains why the pulque gods were representative of life and death in nature and the celebration of the harvest. It was thought that the Goddess Mayahuel entered the heart of the maguey and that her blood flowed out with the gathering of agua miel during the production of pulque. Indian beliefs held that pulque was discovered by the Tlacuache (opossum) who was the first borrachero (drunk) who with his manlike hands he dug into the maguey to get at the fermented agua miel. He was also thought to have tormented the fire god resulting in his hairless tail. The Tlacuache was thought to set the course of rivers, which were usually straight except when he was drunk and wandered from cantina to cantina, then the rivers followed his meandering path. Pulque was used by the royalty and priesthood to celebrate great victories and on special days of religious celebration and many references to the use of pulque in pre-Hispanic celebrations have been found in hieroglyphic references. (the Borbonicus Codex shows pulque being served during the feast of Mixcoatl). In the central highlands, pulque was served as a ritual intoxicant presumably to increase the priest’s enthusiasm over the imminent sacrifice and to ease the sacrifants impending demise.

The exact origin of pulque in unknown, but due to its prominent position in religion and society, many folk tales have sprung up to explain its mythic origins. According to Indian history, during the reign of Tecpancaltzin (990-1042 AD) a Toltec noble named Papantzin, discovered how to extract aguamiel from the maguey plant. In an attempt to interest the king in his daughter, Princess Xochitl, she was sent to the king with an offering of the wondrous aguamiel (honey water). The King must have liked both aguamiel and Xochitl because they later had a son named Meconetzin (maguey boy). . After the Spanish conquest, Fray Bernardino de Sahagun gathered a group of native elders, his purpose being to create a written history of Pre-Hispanic times. He named them «The Informants» and charged them to set down in writing all they could remember about life during those times. One of their essays was entitled «The Invention of Pulqueî. Although their description of the process was similar to that used today, it was dressed up and deified, the story going something like this, ì a women named Mayahuel learned the art of scooping out the heart of the maguey and collecting its juice, but it was Pantecatl who made and discovered fermentation of the juice. Whenever an abundance of pulque was prepared on the hill of Pozonalteptl (The Hill of Foam), a call was sent out to all the lords, high chiefs and elders summoning them to that place. There they paid homage to the gods and each drank 4 pots of pulque, however the Chief Cuextecatl drank five and became very drunk, removing his clothes and acting in a shameful manner. Because of his shame his was expelled and led his people off to a place near the sea which is now called Pantla. There they took the name of their Chief and were called Cuextecas (today Huastecos), but the people followed in the footsteps of their chief and never abandoned their drunken ways and continued to run around naked until the Christians came.

In actuality, it was probably the Otomies Indians who discovered the process of making pulque, as the Spanish described them as being a tribe of half naked barbarians who went about in an intoxicated state brought on by the drinking of a liquor made of maguey.

In order to control the consumption of pulque by the general populace, native rulers prohibited the use of pulque by anyone except the elderly, nursing mothers, and the ruling class during high religious festivals. People who disregarded this law paid a heavy penalty. Drunkenness amongst commoners was followed by the public humiliation of shaved their heads and a good beating, second offenses were less complicated with the offender being put to death. Because of their exalted station, more was expected of the upper classes and one overindulgent pulque episode triggered a swift execution, usually by strangulation or being beaten to death. The one exception was the «days of the dead» at the end of the calendar year which signaled a five day binge in which all participated. After the Spanish conquest, there were no laws controlling the use of pulque. This lack of centralized control is often cited as a significant factor in the rapid decline and demoralization of the indigenous society.

Spanish officials were hesitant to curtail this lucrative source of tax revenue, but in 1672 the health and moral state of the masses had sunk to such a low level that the Viceregal government passed series of regulations meant to control and reduce the consumption of pulque.

A maximum of 36 pulquerias were permitted for Mexico City, 24 for men and 12 for women (today women are banned from all pulquerias). Women dying for a glass of pulque could be served at dispensing bars, generally is a pass out window located in an alley alongside the pulqueria.

Pulquerias were to be located in open areas, without doors, and close at sundown.

Food, music and dancing were prohibited.

Men and women could not patronize the same establishment.

No credit was allowed or bartering with goods for pulque.

Drunks were to be exposed to public shame.

The addition of any substance to pulque was prohibited.

The church censored any vendor, customer, or official who contributed to violations of these laws.

Today, the typical pulqueria exudes an atmosphere of clubby fellowship similar to ethnic barrooms found all over the world. The casual visitor is studiously ignored and not until a person has made his «bones» by

Frequent visits or by establishing his manhood by a better than average consumption pulque, is acknowledgment grudgingly given.

Although most feminists react in a negative way to their exclusion from present day pulquerias, a first hand experience would probably cure forever any desire to use them as place for sensitive networking sessions. The modern pulqueria tends to present a rather unkempt and dirty appearance with sawdust on the floor and a vigorous fly population busily buzzing their way through the ever present odor of stale pulque. Restroom facilities are often limited to an open tile urinal at one end of the room.

Drinking vessels are given whimsical names that relate to the volume or the customers drinking ability and some of the terminology reflects their pre – Hispanic origins. In the past, the large clay pot from which the pulque was dispensed was called the Octecomatl, today this term refers to a single serving bowl, large jicaras are used as a communal drinking bowl which is passed around from person to person, much as the peace pipe is passed. Large two liter glasses are called «macetas» (flower pots), Cañones (cannons) hold 1 liter, Chivitos (little goats) ½ liter, Catrinas (dandy), and the tiny º liter TorÒillos (screws) which most men would be embarrassed to order. Traditionally, these glasses are made from a greenish, hand blown glass.

The jicara is made from ½ of a calabash tree gourd (crescentia alata or c. cujete) which is used to scoop up portions of pulque from the barrel to the glass of the customer. The bartender is referred to as the Jicarero and is often heard calling out «Cruzado», «bottoms up».

As you venture further into the rural areas you draw closer and closer to the source of this «home brew» and find better and pulque. A fresh supply of this insidious beverage is signaled by the display of a white flag over the door of the vending establishment. The white flag probably originated from the Aztec name for pulque ìiztac octliî or white wine. In spite of its former popularity, pulque represents only 10% of the alcohol beverages consumed in Mexico today. In the 19th century, pulquerias boasted mirrors and mahogany bars, were elegantly decorated with colorful paper decorations (pico papelles), and were distinguished by elaborate murals and rather evocative names («Mi Vide No Vale Nada» – My life is Nothing, The Last Stop, Memories of the Future, etc.)

The name maguey was brought from the Caribbean by the Spanish, who identified it with a similar looking plant found in Spain. Maguey remains in use today as the common name of the more technical Agave; the ancient Indian name was «metl». The Indians called pulque ìitzac octliî and the term pulque was probably mistakenly derived by the Spanish from the Indian ìoctli poliuhquiî which meant spoiled pulque.

The maguey thrive best in the cold, dry climates of the central highlands north and west of Mexico City, where the best pulque is produced. Agave, often called the century plant, has over 400 varieties, four of which are preferred for the production of pulque, (Agave pencas largas, A. Manso, A. Chalquero, A. Xamini A. Salmiani).

Around the base of the adult plant small shoots «mecuates» grow, when they are 18 – 20 inches high they are cut away and placed in a nursery where they are left to grow. When they are 3 years old they are transplanted to the fields where they continue to grow until harvesting at 7 -10 years of age Fields that are dedicated solely to Agave propagation usually are planted with 500-700 plants per hectare (2.5 acres).

At the age of 7-10 years the plant reaches maturity and the center, resembling a huge artichoke, begins to swell and elongate. This growth signals maturity as the plant gathers all of its energy and stored sugar to send up a single flower stalk. This stalk grows several inches per day and may reach a height of 18-20 feet. The plantís final act of creation is cut short by its «castration». In this process, the top of the heart (piÒa), located in the center of the plant, is cut off creating a cut surface 12-18 inches in diameter. This cut is left for 4-6 months while a scar forms on the cut surface. This scar punctured throughout its surface, the fibrous pulp scooped away which leaves a shallow cavity (cajete) into which the agua miel seeps, much as the sap of a maple syrup tree trickles into the collecting cup.

The juice is collected twice a day, the average plant yielding about 5-6 liters per day and as much as 8 liters per day. Because of the presence of naturally occurring yeasts on the Agave, the juices must be collected frequently to avoid fermentation beginning in the field. One of these agents is a biologic curiosity since it is a bacteria (termobacterium mobile) not a yeast. Collection of the agua miel is done with a steel spoon like tool, but in the old days it was collected by the field worker (the tlalchichero) using a «acocote», an elongated bottle gourd (Lagenaria seceraria) as a tube to suck the juice out. Between each visit by the tlalchichero, the collecting puddle of juice is protected from bugs and dust by bending the plants leaves over the opening and pinning them together with the spine on the end of a leave. After 4-6 months the plant will have yielded many hundreds of liters of agua miel, and robbed of its essence, finally dies.

The collected juice is placed into 50 liter barrels called «castaÒas» and carried from the field to the fermentation vats (tinas). Traditionally, these tinas were made of uncured cowhides stretched between wooden frames; today most tinas are made of oak or plastic and hold about 1000 liters.

After placing the juice in the fermentation vats, mature seed pulque (semilla or Xanaxtli) are added to the naturally occurring yeast to «jump start» the process.

The mayordomos in charge of the tincales guard their trade secrets jealously, passing them on from father to son. The fermentation process, which takes from 7-14 days, seems to be governed more by the sensory faculties of the mayordomo than by any overriding scientific principle. Clearly the ambient temperature and humidity, the time of year, the quality of the aguamiel and perhaps even the phase of the moon bear directly on this complex natural process.

Many myths surround the making of pulque and strangers are not welcome in the fermenting area. Because the fermentation is a delicate process, which can turn sour at any point, women are never allowed in the fermenting room. One ancient guardian of the process was heard to remark «As you know, women are not very clean». Even those accepted into the area occasionally fall afoul of these ancient rules by eating canned fish (which can cause a bad taste to the pulque) or of wearing a hat into the tinacale, this bad luck can only be removed by filling the hat with pulque and drinking it down.

Just before the peak of fermentation the pulque is quickly transported to market in large wooden or plastic barrels. The timing is critical so that fermentation does not proceeded too far before all the pulque has been consumed. The rocking motion of mule trains or wagons greatly accelerated fermentation, so the range of distribution was limited. The advent of rail transport greatly extended the range of shipment from tinacal to pulqueria.

Often pulque is «cured» by the addition of fruit juices, brown sugar, or nuts, however pulque purists consider this adulterated drink only fit for men who are less then men.

In a strange example of native prescience, the age old prescription of pulque for the elderly and nursing mothers is supported by modern biochemists who have found that pulque is rich in important body nutrients such as Vitamins C, B-Complex, D, and E, amino acids, minerals and energy giving alcohol and unfermented sugar. A favorite drink is «Sangre de Conejo» «Rabbits Blood» which is a mixture of pulque, aguardiente and red tunas (cactus apples).

In the past, pulque played a major role in the socioeconomic history of Mexico. During colonial times and in the early years of independence pulque was the fourth most important source of revenue for the government. In the early 1900ís a train arrive in Mexico City every morning bearing fresh pulque from Apan, Oltepec, Ometesco, Otimbus, and Apizaco. In Porfierian times pulque haciendas were very profitable. A typical hacienda, Rancho Zalapazgo in Puebla had 415,000 magueys, 1000 laborers, 500 mules, and 10,000 sheep. In 1953, the two largest pulque producing states, Hidalgo and Tlaxcala, obtained 30 and 50% respectively of their total revenues from pulque. Today, in some areas it remains the only source of income and solace to the native populace.

Today, the low alcohol content and complex fermentation of pulque limits its distribution and the quality and accessibility of Mexican beer has reduced the availability of this historic beverage even further. A recent development in the Region of Santa Maria Tejacate has old timers shaking their heads, pulque curado (pulque with fruit juice) has been pasteurized and canned!!