The Myth of the Pulque Fermentation with Excrement

Discover the biocultural importance of Pulque, the "drink of the gods," made from the versatile agave plant in Mexico. Learn about the domestication and cultivation of magueys and the process of fermentation from aguamiel to pulque.

The Myth of the Pulque Fermentation with Excrement
Pulque is more than an alcoholic beverage. Credit: UNAM

Pulque (from the Nahuatl poliuhqui, decomposed), the "drink of the gods", is a valuable biocultural resource, with a broad history where different characters, practices, and traditions that have survived for thousands of years, from pre-Hispanic times to the present day are related, hence the need to recognize its importance, said the educational mediator of the Botanical Garden of the Institute of Biology (IB) of the UNAM, Rodrigo Arredondo Fernandez.

Naturally, he added, magueys are 100 percent American, and had their diversification in Mexico; in our country, they learned to domesticate them to give them different uses.

In the commemorative activity "Fantastic Magueyes: the secrets of Pulque", IB researcher Mariana Vallejo Ramos said that there are approximately 200 species of this plant; of these, 160 are found in Mexico. "The richness is enormous.

About 40, such as Agave americana, are used to obtain mead and its fermentation to prepare pulque, which in Nahuatl is called octli; xé, in Ixcateco; tsi'ij, in Triqui; urape, in Purépecha; and Zapotec, zo.

In our country, the common name of the maguey is given to any species of agave (a word derived from the Greek meaning "admirable" or "noble"), from which one of the Mexican beverages par excellence is obtained, as well as fibers, fodder, and mixiote (a kind of paper extracted from the stalks to contain the dish of the same name).

Its flowers serve as food rich in nutrients; and its thorns, as needles or nails. "It gives a lot and asks for little, as it can grow in very poor soils, and although it may find it hard to adapt, it can thrive."

During a guided tour of the National Collection of Agavaceae and Nolinaceae, the master's intern explained: to distinguish magueys from the rest of the desert plants, you can see their leaves: lanceolate (pointed), with a thorn at the tip -called apical- and "teeth" on the margin.

There are species known as monocarpic, that is, they have only one reproductive episode before dying. That is, they develop a chyote or inflorescence that is pollinated by different organisms, such as bats. The flowers have sweet nectar.

Once pollinated, the flower transforms into a dry fruit called a capsule, which then explodes and the wind disperses the seeds. In some regions of Tlaxcala and Hidalgo the flowers, called gualumbos, are cooked with egg or chicken; they contain protein, fiber, amino acids, and other minerals.

Arredondo Fernández explained that the maguey cultivation system is called metepantle; the spaces between these rows of agaves are used to plant other species, such as fruit trees, cereals, or corn, according to the producer's needs.

The life span of agaves depends on the species and the conditions in which they grow: some last 12 to 16 years, others 20 or 24, and some up to 40, he said.

In addition to the dispersion of seeds, they have other forms of reproduction: the "hijuelos", when a "hijito" comes out using a subway stem, or when bulbils emerge in the axils of the "quiotes", which are cut and can be sown so that a new organism can grow. "In many cultivars or haciendas dedicated to the production of pulque and mezcals, the offspring are used, but asexual reproduction prevents genetic variation; they are clones of the mother plant and are exposed to pests or diseases."

Vallejo Ramos emphasized that domestication is a constant process; selection is made based on the tastes and knowledge of the people of each place; thus new varieties are generated. An example of this is that in the state of Hidalgo alone "we have registered 19 local varieties of Agave salmiana".

From aguamiel to pulque

Aguamiel is the sap of the agave. This amber-colored liquid contains minerals and, above all, sugars. To obtain it, maguey must be selected that is about to "jump", that is, before producing its quiote.

At that moment, Rodrigo Arredondo said, a cut is made in the column of the leaves, it is scraped, and the "wounded" maguey is left to concentrate the sugars, which can take six months. "The important thing is to remove the 'egg', that is, the meristem or group of cells that give rise to the flower. This process is called capar or castrating the maguey because it is not allowed to reproduce".

The mead is taken to an aseptic, clean, and preferably closed space, known as tinacal, where the fermentation vats are located.  There the so-called "seed" or "inoculum" is added, which is mead fermented for several days, which already has the characteristics determined by the producer (acidic, sweet, with more or less alcohol, with characteristic aromas, etc.).

The drink contains vitamins, minerals, and essential amino acids that help the development and maintenance of the nervous system; it also enables the absorption of iron and calcium and has compounds that promote milk production in women who are going to breastfeed.

The researcher clarified that the use of a piece of excrement or "doll" in the elaboration of pulque is false. "It was said that the bacteria that made possible the fermentation of the mead were there. It was a campaign to stop its consumption". In reality, it is a very clean process, even access to the tinacales is restricted only to the foreman in charge of production.

Rodrigo Arredondo recalled that in ancient Mexico pulque was such an important ritual drink that it was associated with Mayahuel, goddess of the maguey. Its consumption was reserved for the upper classes and the general population could drink it at special celebrations, drinking no more than five jícaras (a jícara was a unit of measurement that could be equivalent to 250 milliliters). "To get drunk with pulque was an offense to the gods".

With the arrival of the Spaniards, the drink lost its sacred character and became an economic resource of the Colony, so important that it competed with European wines. Numerous pulque haciendas were founded, which operated until the Revolution. At present, there is an upturn in its commercialization and even a Pulque and Pulquería Museum was created in Mexico City, he concluded.