11 May – Punch
ario Gomez leaned past the razor-edged rosette of a towering agave and deep into its wide-open heart, where a pool of clear, sweet sap—called aguamiel, or “honey water”—had collected overnight. He dipped the tapered end of a long, dry gourd into the plant’s cavity and, sucking at a hole in the opposite end, drew several liters of aguamiel into its hollow center. With the gourd full, he led me a few paces across his narrow plot of land to a two-room cinderblock shed, cool and dim, as the lazy April sun started to rouse itself into the morning sky. Inside, he mixed the fresh aguamiel in an open vat along with the previous day’s batch—feed for the lactic fermentation that, in a day’s time, would transform the sweet agave nectar, its flavor somewhere between coconut water and sugarcane juice, into the pre-Hispanic brew called pulque.
I’d tasted the sour, opaque drink before at pulquerías in Mexico City, where fiberglass barrels hold gallons of pastel-colored curados (the term for flavored pulques) stained pink or yellow or green by sugary purées of fruits and vegetables. In Mexico’s capital, pulque is in the midst of a small-scale revival, riding the same wave of nostalgia that, less than a decade ago, transformed mezcal from tequila’s poor-country cousin to a metonym for Mexico’s culinary ascendency.
Unlike mezcal, pulque remains polarizing. Ask most people to describe the drink and you’ll likely hear words like “spit,” “snot” or, simply, “terrible.” Those who defend it will tell you that, because it ferments naturally, pulque gets exponentially better the closer you are to its source, which is why I’d come to Gomez’s farm in the plains of Apan, an agricultural valley northeast of Mexico City that, for centuries, was the center of all pulque production.
As we stood in the doorway of the shed, Gomez smiled expectantly, another deep crease in his small, wrinkled face, and poured a long, lustrous stream of pulque into the severed end of an agave leaf, which had been bent into the shape of a bowl. I tipped the leaf back and drank its contents in a single gulp: cool and effervescent, funky and sweet, just a shade more viscous than tawny port. I smiled, licked a glaze of pulque from my lips and held the leaf out for more, like a traveling mendicant. Pulque’s advocates, it turns out, are right: the pale elixir that Gomez served that morning bore no resemblance to the pulque I’d tasted in town.
For centuries (or perhaps longer), pulque was not just prized, it was sacred, its consumption restricted to the holy and the wise. The Aztecs knew it as the Drink of the Gods or centzontotochin—literally “400 rabbits,” so called for the 400 different people you could become under its influence—and associated it closely with Mayahuel, the goddess of fertility and embodiment of the agave plant, or maguey. Villages surrounding the imperial capital used it to pay tribute to their Aztec overlords, and when Moctezuma sent emissaries from the capital to the coast to greet Hernán Cortés, he sent jugs of pulque along with gold, jade and the sacred headdress of Quetzalcoatl. Under the Spanish, however, the sale of pulque was liberalized to subdue the indigenous masses and fund the fledgling colonial government. To paraphrase Fernando Benítez, a mid-century scholar of pre-Hispanic Mexico, the Drink of the Gods quickly became the Drink of the Vanquished.
Tlachiqueros, the pre-Hispanic word used for maguey tappers like Gomez, no longer worship the old gods (though the Virgin of Guadalupe has always been a thinly veiled stand-in for Mayahuel), but they still talk about their plants as though they were animate. “It’s only when the maguey asks that you can open it,” Gomez told me, a process that some tlachiqueros refer to as “castrating” the maguey. “You have to find its face because that’s the door to its heart.”
Once open, the maguey will secrete up to 40 liters of aguamiel per day over the course of three to four months. Throughout that time, tlachiqueros repeat the process I saw that morning—extracting aguamiel, adding it to the live pulque culture and scraping down the hollow hull of the plant to make way for the next batch—twice a day until the plant, finally spent, withers and dies.
When Gomez first started cutting maguey 70 years ago, the fields of Apan were still known as el mar verde de maguey, or “the green sea of agave,” dotted with grand haciendas complete with their own hospitals, schools and chapels, some of them home to 1,000 tlachiqueros. “When I was a child, you would see kids running around eating their tacos and frijol and with their cups of pulque,” Gomez said. “They were healthier then. They never got sick.”
Pulque, I was told, can cure diabetes and clear up stomach bugs and (naturally) make a man more virile. Roman Acosta, a third-generation tlachiquero in the nearby Mezquital Valley, is one of 43 children sired by his 93-year-old father who, he told me, “is the leader of pulque for the state—and still has a girlfriend.” Pulque’s reputation for increasing longevity even drew the attention of Hubert Schonger, a Nazi filmmaker who, in 1938, made a short documentary on the drink for the death-obsessed Führer.
And, of course, pulque gets you drunk. Though it clocks in at about 4 percent alcohol, it also continues to ferment in your stomach, producing a distinctive sneak-attack high that, at its best, borders on euphoria. As one tlachiquero told me, “Pulque is a different kind of drunk. Wine will make you vomit and give you a headache, but not pulque.” I can say with 100 percent certainty that this is 50 percent true: it’s a different kind of drunk, for sure, but it will absolutely give you a headache.
From the time of the Spanish onward, pulque was the drink of the masses, and Apan was its primary source. From Apan’s train station—inaugurated in 1877 as part of Mexico’s first train line, connecting the capital to the coast—the haciendas shipped an average of 215,000 liters to Mexico City each day. According to Raúl Guerrero, a journalist and historian in the nearby Hidalgo state capital of Pachuca, by the end of the century, taxes on pulque accounted for 28 percent of all federal tax revenue. Mexico City, then home to just 500,000 people, had more than 1,000 pulquerías, ranging from lowly country hovels to elegant cantinas that advertised their product as Pulque Fino de Apan, or “Fine Pulque from Apan.” Guerrero described this as “Mexico’s first denomination of origin, though, of course,” he said, “it wasn’t called that.”
These days, there are barely 100 pulquerías for Mexico City’s 25 million inhabitants, and Apan is a squat, dust-washed shadow of its former self. The train station is now a small city museum, administered by former journalist Miguel Ángel Orgáz, whose whole office shudders every time the cargo train trundles past. Large-scale pulque production has moved wholesale to the neighboring states of Tlaxcala and Mexico or to the hillsides of Singuilucan, in Hidalgo, to the north, but none of these places, Orgáz told me, produce at the scale or quality that Apan did at its peak. “If you offer us pulque from other places,” he said, “we’ll tell you it’s not really pulque.”
According to Orgáz, the Mexican Revolution (1910 to 1920) marked the beginning of the end, as cargo trains started carrying arms instead of pulque, and Apan’s pulque dons, all friends of the dictatorship, were driven into exile. Post-Revolution presidents campaigned against all things indigenous—including pulque—as a barrier to modernity, and radical land reform in the 1920s and ‘30s broke up the haciendas into smaller plots, making industrial production impossible.
And then there was beer. As breweries started to grow around the turn of the 20th century, they mounted their own smear campaign against pulque; if beer was clean and modern, then pulque was filthy and poor. Rumors spread about bags of human excrement used to speed up fermentation. Corona’s famous clear bottles were designed to show off the product’s contrasting purity. When the government, allied with the beer companies, froze pulque prices, pulquerías had to find ways to stretch their product. Quality, predictably, declined. The brewers dealt their final blow by convincing Apan’s new landowners that perennial barley would be a more lucrative crop than maguey, which takes a decade to mature. “Now,” Orgáz told me, “maguey in this region is almost completely extinct.”
By then, we’d left the museum and crossed town for a drink at Pulquería Don Andy, named for its proprietor Andrés “Andy” Ávila, a short, soft-spoken man built, it seems, entirely of curves. For 26 years, Don Andy has served the best curados in Apan (and maybe in all of Mexico) from this painted cubbyhole of a bar, which is barely more than two low plywood tables and a pair of bar stools built from rebar and old oven doors.
“Before, drinkers here were my age, people who’d been drinking pulque since they left their mothers’ breasts, but now it’s more and more younger people,” he said as he poured us each a glass of a pale green curado, flavored with fig and scented with fig leaf, one of 40 flavors that he rotates throughout the year. Orgáz downed his first glass in two big gulps and told me—a sly, youthful smile revealing silver-capped teeth under a lustrous handlebar mustache—that pulque is not meant for sipping.
“There used to be tons of rules in pulquerías,” Orgáz said. There would always be a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe where you would leave a small offering. There was the cruzada, where you would cross arms with another drinker, down your glass, shake hands, embrace and shout, ‘salud.’ Miss a toast, and you’d be sent to the corner to chug what remained in your glass. Every lapse, however small, was punishable with a fresh round. It’s no wonder, I thought, that pulquerías became notorious for turning their customers out blind drunk and puking.
As the afternoon wore on, Orgáz and I talked about Mexico City, where he’d lived for years after the ’85 earthquake, and how much it’s changed. He said that these days, young people drink pulque “not for tradition, but for nostalgia.” I said that’s better than not drinking it at all. I asked Andy if he ever went to any of the Mexico City pulquerías. “No,” he said matter-of-factly. “They visit me.”
We watched the customers come and go, some sitting for a drink, others filling plastic bottles to take home for later; some older, some barely old enough drink; all of them respectably sober. At one point, a young couple came in with their infant baby and ordered two tall liters of mango pulque, the same color gold as the late evening light that filtered through the narrow doorway. When the baby spat up, as babies do, we all laughed and raised our glasses and toasted in tipsy unison. Eventually, I said it was time for me to go, but Orgáz just waggled his finger and smiled. Andy nodded and poured two more glasses.