Pulque, or octli, is a milk-colored, somewhat viscous
Viscosity is a measure of the resistance of a fluid which is being deformed by either shear or tensile stress. In everyday terms , viscosity is "thickness" or "internal friction". Thus, water is "thin", having a lower viscosity, while honey is "thick", having a higher viscosity...

 alcoholic beverage
Alcoholic beverage
An alcoholic beverage is a drink containing ethanol, commonly known as alcohol. Alcoholic beverages are divided into three general classes: beers, wines, and spirits. They are legally consumed in most countries, and over 100 countries have laws regulating their production, sale, and consumption...

 made from the fermented
Fermentation (food)
Fermentation in food processing typically is the conversion of carbohydrates to alcohols and carbon dioxide or organic acids using yeasts, bacteria, or a combination thereof, under anaerobic conditions. Fermentation in simple terms is the chemical conversion of sugars into ethanol...

 sap of the maguey plant, and is a traditional native beverage of Mexico
The United Mexican States , commonly known as Mexico , is a federal constitutional republic in North America. It is bordered on the north by the United States; on the south and west by the Pacific Ocean; on the southeast by Guatemala, Belize, and the Caribbean Sea; and on the east by the Gulf of...

. The drink’s history extends far back into the Mesoamerica
Mesoamerica is a region and culture area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica, within which a number of pre-Columbian societies flourished before the Spanish colonization of the Americas in the 15th and...

n period, when it was considered sacred, and its use was limited to certain classes of people. After the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, the drink became secular and its consumption rose. The consumption of pulque reached its peak in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, the drink fell into decline, mostly because of competition from beer, which became more prevalent with the arrival of European immigrants. There are some efforts to revive the drink’s popularity through tourism.


Pulque is a milk-colored, somewhat viscous
Viscosity is a measure of the resistance of a fluid which is being deformed by either shear or tensile stress. In everyday terms , viscosity is "thickness" or "internal friction". Thus, water is "thin", having a lower viscosity, while honey is "thick", having a higher viscosity...

 liquid that produces a light foam. It is made by fermenting the sap of certain types of maguey (agave) plants. In contrast, mezcal
Mezcal, or mescal, is a distilled alcoholic beverage made from the maguey plant native to Mexico. The word mezcal comes from Nahuatl metl and ixcalli which mean 'oven cooked agave.'...

 is made from the cooked heart of certain agave plants, and tequila
Tequila is a spirit made from the blue agave plant, primarily in the area surrounding the city of Tequila, northwest of Guadalajara, and in the highlands of the western Mexican state of Jalisco....

, a variety of mescal, is made all or mostly from the blue agave. There are about six varieties of maguey that are best used for the production of pulque. The name “pulque” is derived from Nahuatl
Nahuatl is thought to mean "a good, clear sound" This language name has several spellings, among them náhuatl , Naoatl, Nauatl, Nahuatl, Nawatl. In a back formation from the name of the language, the ethnic group of Nahuatl speakers are called Nahua...

. The original name of the drink was “iztac octli” (white wine), the term pulque was probably mistakenly derived by the Spanish from the “octli poliuhqui” which meant "spoiled wine".

The maguey plant

The maguey plant, also called a “century plant” in English is native to Mexico. It grows best in the cold, dry climates of the rocky central highlands to the north and east of Mexico City
Mexico City
Mexico City is the Federal District , capital of Mexico and seat of the federal powers of the Mexican Union. It is a federal entity within Mexico which is not part of any one of the 31 Mexican states but belongs to the federation as a whole...

, especially in Hidalgo and Tlaxcala
Tlaxcala officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Tlaxcala is one of the 31 states which along with the Federal District comprise the 32 federative entities of Mexico. It is divided into 60 municipalities and its capital city is Tlaxcala....

 states. Maguey has been cultivated at least since 200 CE in Tula
Tula may refer to:In geography:*Tula, Hidalgo, a town in Mexico, once the capital and sacred city of the Toltec people.*Tula, Tamaulipas, a place in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico*Tula River in central Mexico...

, Tulancingo
Tulancingo is the second-largest city in the Mexican state of Hidalgo. It is located in the southeastern part of the state and also forms one of the 84 municipalities of Hidalgo, as well as the Archdiocese of Tulancingo...

 and Teotihuacan
Teotihuacan – also written Teotihuacán, with a Spanish orthographic accent on the last syllable – is an enormous archaeological site in the Basin of Mexico, just 30 miles northeast of Mexico City, containing some of the largest pyramidal structures built in the pre-Columbian Americas...

, and wild plants have been exploited for far longer. The plant historically has had a number of uses. Fibers can be extracted from the thick leaves to make rope or fabric, its thorns can be used as needles or punches and the membrane covering the leaves can be used as paper or for cooking. The name "maguey" was given by the Spanish, who picked it up from the Taíno
Taíno people
The Taínos were pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Bahamas, Greater Antilles, and the northern Lesser Antilles. It is thought that the seafaring Taínos are relatives of the Arawak people of South America...

. This is still its common name in Spanish, with "agave" being its technical name. The ancient Nahuatl
Nahuatl is thought to mean "a good, clear sound" This language name has several spellings, among them náhuatl , Naoatl, Nauatl, Nahuatl, Nawatl. In a back formation from the name of the language, the ethnic group of Nahuatl speakers are called Nahua...

 name was "metl".

When the plant reaches maturity, the center begins to swell and elongate. This is when the plant gathers stored sugar to send up a single flower stalk, which may reach up to 20 feet in height. However, plants destined for pulque production have this flower stalk cut off, leaving a depressed surface 12-18 inches in diameter. In this center, the maguey sap, known as aguamiel
Aguamiel is the sap of the Mexican maguey plant which is believed to have therapeutic qualities. The sap is found in abundance among the agave plants which grow among the ruins of the Teotihuacan civilization. Also called honeywater it has been used in Mexico as a medicine. In its fermented state...

, collects. It takes a maguey plant twelve years before it is mature enough to produce the sap for pulque.

Mythological origins

It is not known who invented pulque; its origins go back at least 1,000 years. Various stories and myths have developed as to its origins. Most involve Mayahuel
Mayahuel is the female divinity associated with the maguey plant among cultures of central Mexico in the Postclassic era of pre-Columbian Mesoamerican chronology, and in particular of the Aztec cultures...

, the goddess of the maguey. It was thought that the aguamiel collecting in the center of the plant was her blood. Other deities, such as the Centzon Totochtin
Centzon Totochtin
In Aztec mythology, the Centzon Totochtin are a group of deities who meet for frequent parties; they are divine rabbits, and the gods of drunkenness. Some of their named members include Tepoztecatl, Texcatzonatl, Colhuatzincatl Macuiltochtli and Ometotchtli...

 (400 rabbits) are associated with it, by representing the drink's effects, and are the children of Mayahuel. Another version involving Mayahuel has her as a mortal woman who discovered how to collect aguamiel but someone named Pantecalt discovered how to make pulque.

Another story states that pulque was discovered by the Tlacuache (opossum), who used his human-like hands to dig into the maguey and extract the naturally fermenting juice. He became the first drunk. Tlacuache was thought to set the course of rivers. The rivers he set were generally straight except when he was drunk. Then they follow Tlacuache's meandering path from cantina to cantina. Another story traces the discovery of aguamiel to the Toltec Empire, when a noble named Papantzin was trying to get the emperor to marry his daughter Xochitl. He sent her to the capital with an offering of aguamiel. The emperor and princess wed, and their son was named Meconetzin (maguey boy). In other versions of the story, Xochitl is credited with discovering pulque.

Pre-Hispanic period

The maguey was one of the most sacred and important plants in ancient Mexico, having a privileged place in mythology, religious rituals and the Mesoamerican economy. During this period, pulque appears in a number of graphic representations. Pulque first appears on stone carvings about 200 CE. The first major work involving pulque is a large mural called the "Pulque Drinkers" which was unearthed in 1968 during excavations at the pyramid of Cholula
Great Pyramid of Cholula
The Great Pyramid of Cholula, also known as ' , is a huge complex located in Cholula, Puebla, Mexico. It is the largest archaeological site of a pyramid in the New World. The pyramid stands above the surrounding plain, and in its final form it measured...

, Puebla
Puebla officially Estado Libre y Soberano de Puebla is one of the 31 states which, with the Federal District, comprise the 32 Federal Entities of Mexico. It is divided in 217 municipalities and its capital city is Puebla....

. The most likely means of the discovery of aguamiel and fermented pulque was from the observation of rodents who gnaw and scratch at the plant to drink the seeping sap. Fermentation of the aguamiel can take place within the plant itself.

For the Indians of the central highlands of Mexico, the imbibing of pulque was done only by certain people, under certain conditions. It was a ritual drink, consumed during certain festivals, such as that of the goddess Mayahuel, and the god Mixcoatl
Mixcoatl , or Camaxtli, was the god of the hunt and identified with the Milky Way, the stars, and the heavens in several Mesoamerican cultures. He was the patron deity of the Otomi, the Chichimecs, and several groups that claimed descent from the Chichimecs...

. It was drunk by priests and sacrificial victims, to increase the priests' enthusiasm and to ease the suffering of the victim. There are many references in Aztec
The Aztec people were certain ethnic groups of central Mexico, particularly those groups who spoke the Nahuatl language and who dominated large parts of Mesoamerica in the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries, a period referred to as the late post-classic period in Mesoamerican chronology.Aztec is the...

 codices, such as the Borbonicus Codex) of pulque's use by nobility and priesthood to celebrate victories. Among commoners, it was permitted only to the elderly and pregnant women.

Colonial period

After the Conquest, pulque lost its sacred character, and both indigenous and Spanish people began to drink it. Spanish initially made no laws regarding its use. It became a lucrative source of tax revenue, but by 1672, public drunkenness had become enough of a problem that the viceregal government created regulations to curtail its consumption. A maximum of 36 "pulquerias" were permitted for Mexico City, which had to be located in open areas, without doors and had to close at sundown. Food, music, dancing and the co-mingling of the sexes was prohibited. However, pulque continued to play a major role in the socioeconomic history of Mexico during colonial times and in the early years of Independence
Mexican War of Independence
The Mexican War of Independence was an armed conflict between the people of Mexico and the Spanish colonial authorities which started on 16 September 1810. The movement, which became known as the Mexican War of Independence, was led by Mexican-born Spaniards, Mestizos and Amerindians who sought...

. Through this period, it was the fourth largest source of tax revenue. At the end of the 17th century, the Jesuits began large-scale production of the drink to finance its educational institutions. In this way, the making of pulque passed from being a home-made brew to one commercially produced.

Post colonial period

Production of pulque exploded after Independence, when the regulation of pulque producers ended, and Mexican nationalism increased. From then until the 1860s, pulque hacienda
Hacienda is a Spanish word for an estate. Some haciendas were plantations, mines, or even business factories. Many haciendas combined these productive activities...

s multiplied, especially in Hidalgo and Tlaxcala states. In 1866, the first railway between Veracruz
Veracruz, Veracruz
Veracruz, officially known as Heroica Veracruz, is a major port city and municipality on the Gulf of Mexico in the Mexican state of Veracruz. The city is located in the central part of the state. It is located along Federal Highway 140 from the state capital Xalapa, and is the state's most...

 and Mexico City began operations, crossing through Hidalgo. This line was soon known as the "Pulque Train" because it brought supplies of the drink daily to the capital. This production and easy shipment of the drink made Hidalgo rich, and gave rise to a "pulque aristocracy" made up of some of the most powerful families of this time: Torres Adalid, Pimenta y Fagoaga, Macedo and others. At its peak, there were about 300 pulque haciendas. Some still remain in the plains of Apan and Zempoala
Zempoala, Hidalgo
Zempoala is a town and one of the 84 municipalities of Hidalgo, in central-eastern Mexico. The municipality covers an area of 305.8 km².As of 2005, the municipality had a total population of 27,333....

, in Hidalgo. Pulque hit its peak of popularity during the late 19th century, when it was enjoyed by rich and poor alike. As late as 1953, Hidalgo and Tlaxcala still obtained 30 and 50% respectively of their total revenues from pulque. This has diminished since then since irrigation, roads and other infrastructure has made possible other, more lucrative enterprises.

Pulque's decline

In spite of its former popularity, pulque represents only ten percent of the alcoholic beverages consumed in Mexico today. Pulque is still consumed in Mexico, mostly in the central highlands and predominantly in rural and poor areas. It has acquired a general connotation of being something for the lower class, while consumption of European-style beer flourished throughout the 20th century.

The complex and delicate fermentation process of pulque had always limited the product's distribution as it does not keep long and agitation during transport speeds degradation. Since pre-Hispanic times, its consumption has mostly been limited to the central highlands of Mexico.

The decline of pulque began in the first decade of the 20th century, when the Mexican Revolution
Mexican Revolution
The Mexican Revolution was a major armed struggle that started in 1910, with an uprising led by Francisco I. Madero against longtime autocrat Porfirio Díaz. The Revolution was characterized by several socialist, liberal, anarchist, populist, and agrarianist movements. Over time the Revolution...

 caused a decline in its production. In the 1930s, the government of Lázaro Cárdenas
Lázaro Cárdenas
Lázaro Cárdenas del Río was President of Mexico from 1934 to 1940.-Early life:Lázaro Cárdenas was born on May 21, 1895 in a lower-middle class family in the village of Jiquilpan, Michoacán. He supported his family from age 16 after the death of his father...

 campaigned against pulque, as part of an effort to reduce alcoholic consumption in general. But the most decisive factor to the decline of pulque has been the introduction of beer.

European immigrant beer brewers in the early 20th century had their own campaign against the native pulque, which emphasized a practice of using a "muñeca". This muñeca was a textile bag that contained human or animal feces, which was placed in the aguamiel in order to hasten the fermentation process. Some insist that the "muñeca" is completely a myth, but there are enough accounts of this to indicate that it had been done in the past, although only by a minority, and the practice had been stopped long before the 20th century. They promoted the idea that pulque still had this, generally by word of mouth and insinuation. This was done to inhibit pulque sales and to promote the consumption of beer, which they claimed was "rigorously hygienic and modern."

The strategy proved successful, with pulque now generally looked-down-upon and imbibed by relatively few people, with Mexican- brewed beer ubiquitous and extremely popular. Pulque's popularity is low and continues to fall. Twenty years ago, about twenty trucks would come every three days to Xochimilco
Xochimilco is one of the sixteen delegaciones or boroughs within Mexican Federal District. The borough is centered on the formerly independent city of Xochimilco, which was established on what was the southern shore of Lake Xochimilco in the pre-Hispanic period...

 (in southern Mexico City) to deliver pulque, but now the number is down to one or two. Only five pulquerias remain in this district, where there used to be eighteen. It is similar in most other parts of Mexico as well. Those pulquerias that are left are very small establishments, selling a product made by small producers.

In the state of Hidalgo, in which most maguey is grown, fields of this plant are disappearing, with barley taking its place. Most maguey plants here serve as boundary markers between properties. Many of these plants do not survive long, as they are often vandalized. It is estimated that 10,000 plants are mutilated each week by cutting off the lower leaves for barbacoa
Barbacoa is a form of cooking meat that originated in the Caribbean with the Taíno people, from which the term "barbecue" derives. In contemporary Mexico it generally refers to meats or a whole sheep slow-cooked over an open fire, or more traditionally, in a hole dug in the ground covered with...

 or destroying them completely to look for the edible white grubs or ant eggs that can inhabit them.

Production of pulque

The production process is long and delicate. The maguey plant needs twelve years of maturation before the sap, or aguamiel, can be extracted, but a good plant can produce for up to one year. This aguamiel can be drunk straight, but it is alcoholic only after a fermentation process that can start in the plant itself. This liquid is collected twice a day from the plant yielding about five or six liters per day. Today, this liquid is collected with a steel scoop, but in the past an elongated gourd was used as a tube to suck the juice out. Between gatherings, the plants leaves are bent over the center where the juice collects to keep out bugs and dirt. This center is regularly scraped out to keep the plant's production of sap active. Most maguey plants produce this aguamiel for about four to six months before they finally die.

The collected juice is placed into fifty-liter barrels and carried from the field to the fermentation vats. These vats, called "tinas", are located in a special building called a "tinacal". This word derives from Nahuatl, "tina" and "calli" and means house of vats. When pulque haciendas reached their peak in the late 19th century, hacienda life revolved around these tinacals. It typically was a rectangular shed of stone with a wood roof. The upper parts of the walls opened for air circulation and the facades were sometimes decorated with indigenous designs or other images associated with the making of pulque. One popular motif was the discovery of pulque by Xochitl. Other popular elements were the image of the hacienda's patron saint and the Virgin of Guadalupe. Inside were the vats, which were cowhide stretched over wooden frames lined up against the walls. In larger tinacals there were three or four rows of vats. Today, the tinas are made of oak, plastic or fiberglass
Glass fiber is a material consisting of numerous extremely fine fibers of glass.Glassmakers throughout history have experimented with glass fibers, but mass manufacture of glass fiber was only made possible with the invention of finer machine tooling...

 and hold about 1,000 liters each.

After placing the juice in the fermentation vats, mature seed pulque (semilla or Xanaxtli) is added to the naturally occurring yeast to "jump start" the process. Unlike beer, the fermenting agents present in the seed of pulque are bacteria of the species Zymomonas mobilis
Zymomonas mobilis
Zymomonas mobilis is a bacterium belonging to the genus Zymomonas. It is notable for its bioethanol-producing capabilities, which surpass yeast in some aspects. It was originally isolated from alcoholic beverages like the African palm wine, the Mexican pulque, and also as a contaminant of cider and...

 (syn. Thermobacterium mobile http://www.uniprot.org/taxonomy/542) rather than yeast. Those in charge of the fermentation process guard their trade secrets, passing them on from father to son. Fermentation takes from seven to fourteen days, and the process seems to be more art than science. A number of factors can affect fermenting pulque such as temperature, humidity and the quality of the aguamiel.

The process is complex and delicate, and can go sour at any point. For this reason, and perhaps due to its ancient "sacred" character, there are rituals and prohibitions. Religious songs and prayers may be offered, and women, children and strangers are not allowed inside the tinacal. Other superstitions include those against eating canned fish and wearing a hat inside the tinacal. The first is claimed to cause a bad taste in the pulque and the second is considered bad luck. To cleanse the bad luck, the offender must fill the hat with pulque and drink it down.

Just before the peak of fermentation, the pulque is quickly shipped to market in barrels. The fermentation process is continuous, so the pulque must be consumed within a certain time frame before it spoils.

Pulque consumption

Most pulque is consumed in bars called "pulquerías". At the beginning of the 20th century, there were more than 1,000 of these in Mexico City alone. By the early 20th century, pulquerías became socially accepted and some were places of great elegance. But whether for rich or poor, two features stood out among these establishments, odd or catchy names and murals decorating the walls. Names included (translated) "My Office," "Memories of the Future," "Drink and Go," I'm Waiting for You Here at the Corner" and, across the street from the National Chamber of Deputies, "The Recreation Center of Those Across the Street." Diego Rivera
Diego Rivera
Diego María de la Concepción Juan Nepomuceno Estanislao de la Rivera y Barrientos Acosta y Rodríguez was a prominent Mexican painter born in Guanajuato, Guanajuato, an active communist, and husband of Frida Kahlo . His large wall works in fresco helped establish the Mexican Mural Movement in...

 once said that one of the most important manifestations of Mexican painting was the murals that decorated the facades and interiors of pulquerías. One tradition maintained at all pulquerias at the beginning of the 20th century was to put sawdust on the floor. The tradition at that time was to begin a pulque-drinking session by spilling a little on the floor or ground as an offering to Mother Earth. Traditional pulquerías tend to be like clubs with closed membership, with casual visitors ignored or sometimes stared at. Frequent visits and large consumption of the drink tends to win acceptance. While some establishments may forbid women, it is much more common for the establishment to provide a separate seating area for them. Intermingling of the sexes is not permitted. In the more rural areas of Hidalgo and Tlaxcala, where most pulque is made, the pulque is fresher and better. A vendor usually displays a white flag over the door when a fresh shipment has arrived.

Traditionally, pulque is served from large barrels on ice. and served into glasses, using a "jicara", which is a half of a calabash tree gourd. The bartender is called a "jicarero". In a pulquería, the word "cruzado" means something like "bottoms up".

Drinking glasses have colorful names and can reflect a customer's ability to drink pulque. Large two-liter glasses are called "macetas" (flower pots), one-liter glasses are called Cañones (cannons), half–liters are called Chivitos (little goats), quarter-liter glasses are Catrinas (dandy), and eighth-liter glasses are Tornillos (screws). Traditionally, these glasses are made from a greenish, hand blown glass. Pulque can be drunk straight from the barrel or can have a number of additives such as fruit or nuts mixed in. Pulque prepared this way is called “curado” or cured.
One of the limitations to pulque's popularity has been the inability to store it for long periods or ship it far. Recently, pulque makers have found a way to preserve the beverage in cans. However, they admit that this does change the flavor. The hope is that with this innovation, pulque can regain its lost market in Mexico and even achieve success as an export item, like tequila. It is already being offered in the United States by Boulder Imports, selling the brand "Nectar del Razo". The original market was Mexican-American men, but the company reports that the product is having success as a health food, sought out by athletes and body builders.

Health benefits

There is a saying that pulque "sólo le falta un grado para ser carne" (is one grade shy of being meat). This refers to the nutritional value of the drink. This was recognized by the Mesoamericans who allowed pregnant woman and the elderly to imbibe what was normally reserved only for priests and nobility. Modern analysis of the liquid has found that it contains carbohydrates, vitamin C, B-complex, D, E, amino acids and minerals such as iron and phosphorus.

Pulque tourism

From the glory days of pulque, the state of Hidalgo has about 250 pulque haciendas, many of which have been abandoned or converted to other uses, such as ranching. Their tinacals have either disappeared or have been converted into storage or party rooms. There are still a few that continue to make pulque, but using more modern and sanitary facilities. In Tlaxcala, the federal Secretariat of Tourism
Secretary of Tourism (Mexico)
In Mexico the Secretary of Tourism is the head of the Secretariat of Tourism , the government department in charge of the nation's tourism promotion and development. The Secretary is appointed by the President of the Republic and is a member of the federal executive cabinet.The current Secretary...

 and the state government have organized a tour called the "Pulque Route", which includes the main haciendas that still make the beverage in this state. It is a two-day route which begins at the Church of La Barca de la Fe in Calpulalpan to the San Bartolo Hacienda, which is the principal exporter of canned pulque. This hacienda was the property of Ignacio Torres Adalid, who was called the "king of pulque". Today, it belongs to Ricardo del Razo. The tour also covers maguey fields like those around a town called Guillermo Ramirez.

These old haciendas varied widely. Some were ostentatious with great architectural harmony such as the Monteceillos Hacienda, of Spanish colonial style and originally built in the 17th century by the Jesuits or San Antonio Ometusco Hacienda built by architect Antonio Rivas Mercado. However, most haciendas were the result of a constructive process that started in the 16th century, with mixed architectural styles and methods of both Mexico and Europe. One characteristic feature is Neo-Gothic towers. The Santiago Tetlapayac Hacienda has murals related to charreada
The charreada or charrería is a competitive event similar to rodeo and was developed from animal husbandry practices used on the haciendas of Old Mexico. The sport has been described as "living history," or as an art form drawn the demands of working life...

 and attributed to the painter Icaza. The Zotoluca Hacienda has an octangonal floorplan in Neo-Moorish style and was restored in the 1950s. But the center of each of these pulque haciendas is the tinacal. They were planned and decorated befitting their importance. Almost all have interesting architectural details, such as a specially decorated main doorway, murals or sculpted windows. Some are considered works of art, such as the tinacal at the Montecillos Hacienda or the one at the San Antonio Ometusco Hacienda, which also has an elegant canopy covering the shipping dock with moulded iron columns and walls decorated with murals relating to the history of pulque.
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