On a recent trip to Oaxaca to study mezcal, the distilled cousin of tequila, I mentioned to my guide that I had always wanted to taste pulque. Pulque is a fermented beverage made from agave sap with roots dating back to the ancient peoples of Mexico. At one point, pulque was considered to be a sacred drink, and its consumption was restricted to certain classes in Mesoamerican society. After the Spanish arrived in Mexico, pulque became accessible to the masses and consumption of this beverage began to rise. Now in Mexico, pulque is essentially the drink of the poor with some pulquerias serving a glass of pulque in a cut-down Coca Cola bottle shared by all.
To find a pulqueria in Oaxaca, my guide took us to a small, outlying town. We spotted a sign that said “Vendemos Pulque” (pulque for sale) down a dirt road. We stopped, got out of our car, and knocked at the metal gate barring our entrance. After knocking several times and waiting for thirty minutes, the gate finally swung open, and a lady apologized for our wait, explaining that she had been in the agave fields collecting aguamiel (the fresh sap of the agave) when we had first arrived.
Upon entering the pulqueria, she offered us a sip of her pulque, a milky white and slightly sour although not unpleasant beverage. I’d only experienced pulque once before as a canned beverage, and it would be fair to say that canned pulque is one of the worst things I’ve ever put past my lips. Fresh pulque though was rather enjoyable. As we sipped our pulque, the proprietress explained how pulque is made. Twice each day, she travels out to the agave fields, where the heart of the agave, known as the pina, has been scooped out to create a small basin. Aguamiel, or agave sap, collects in the basin in each agave, and natural yeasts in the air land on the aguamiel. Within a few days, fermentation begins naturally as the yeast begins to turn the sugars in the aguamiel into alcohol. When fermentation is complete, the final product is pulque. This is a naturally-occurring product with no need for additional steps. In fact, some people purchase the sweet aguamiel sap to drink, then continue to drink the aguamiel as it ferments itself into pulque. Some people add fruit to pulque to cut the sourness (strawberry seemed to be the most common fruit used, although any number of fruits can be used to flavor pulque). In the end though, most people seemed to prefer straight pulque without any flavoring.
Our pulqueria sold pulque by the liter, and gas can-like plastic bottles lined the shelves. I purchased two liters to take back to my hotel room, far too much to ever consume over a few days in a hotel, but I wanted the experience of having a gas can of pulque under my arm. After we said our goodbyes at the pulqueria and drove back to our hotel, our hotel doorman greeted us with a smirk and the words, “Pulque, huh? Bueno.” While I didn’t drink any more pulque on that trip and had to leave it behind when packing to return home, I was happy to have tasted this legendary Mexican fermented beverage.