Pulque, the Mexican drink par excellence

Pulque tells a story that is much older and more complex than that of its cousin liqueurs, which today is ignored and retains traces of social and cultural disrepute, the product of black legends that must be reversed in order to place it on the list of original national drinks.

In the cities, for some years now, the pulque has been recovering a share of its lost land and is claiming it through fairs, contemporary pulque shops, and samples of traditional beverages. Photo: leahwsprague via Flickr
In the cities, for some years now, the pulque has been recovering a share of its lost land and is claiming it through fairs, contemporary pulque shops, and samples of traditional beverages. Photo: leahwsprague via Flickr

Considerable work has been done to publicize and position distilled agave drinks, tequila, and mezcal, in the national and international markets, labeling them as the most representative of Mexico and introducing them into the context of heritage and regulations.

These days, the pulque tells another story that is far more complex and ancient than that of its alcoholic counterparts, which is largely unknown and bears traces of social and cultural ill repute, a legacy of misconceptions that must be reverted in order to earn its place on the list of original Mexican drinks.

In Mexico, there are at least 200 different species of agaves, of which, in addition to those that produce alcohol and fiber, there are only a few that can be used for their vegetable sap or mead. Among them the most representative is the Salmian agave, exploited since very ancient times; for its complete development, it requires human intervention -very similar to the plants modified for their reproduction by the human genus as it happened with corn.

The practice of exploiting the sap is centuries old and has both colonial and indigenous roots. It is known, according to archaeological explorations, that there are at least 10 000 years of integral use of the plant - as food, use of its fibers, and possible extraction of alcohol, as well as using its parts for construction.

The extraction of the sap or mead dates back to the 5th century BC, when obsidian scrapers were found that could be used to "scrape" the heart of the maguey (or meyolote) where the mead is collected. In this way, numerous civilizations, in 2,500 years, have taken advantage of the use and ritual consumption of this liquid that when fermented gives us the intoxicating drink that today we know as pulque.

Cultures like the Otomi, Teotihuacan, Toltec, Huasteca, Mixtec, and Nahua have taken advantage of the white liquor as an important part of their cosmovision and given the maguey an important meaning within their religious pantheon by considering it a divine plant.

With the arrival of the Spaniards and their domination for three centuries - in spite of the attacks that the evangelizing friars brought to this "demonic drink" - the ritual liquor became a prosperous business with the formation of the pulque haciendas in the center of the country, where a peculiar century-old agro-industry was formed that preserved the forms of maguey cultivation, exploitation, and production of pulque that arrived until the beginning of the 20th century.

The most important pulque production region was undoubtedly the famous Llanos de Apan, located in the convergence zone of the states of Tlaxcala, Mexico, and Hidalgo. There, during the 19th century, an industry was developed that survived until the Agrarian Reform in 1940.

During the first century of independent life, pulque acquired the title of "national drink" par excellence, since it was consumed by the different social sectors that made up the Mexican nation, because, in addition to its high consumption in millions of liters, it represented great income for the treasury. Descriptions of the high value and consumption in the center of the country can be found in numerous works.

In all of them, the astonishment for the production of this admirable plant (which means agave in Greek) and for the numerous productions that could be derived from its sap as well as from the plant is evident.

With the passing of time, scientific studies in the Porfirio era diversified: manuals on the cultivation of maguey, texts on the exploitation of the fiber, medical studies on the convenience of its consumption, studies on the "zimotecnia" (biochemistry) of pulque and the possibility of finding a way to be able to bottle it and send it to areas far from its production.

But with the Mexican Revolution, all the power acquired by the landowners and owners of pulquerías was disrupted; the power and wealth obtained by a few families, which was designated as the "pulquería aristocracy" (analogous to the "divine caste" of henequeneros in the Yucatán), was a source of resentment among the groups of revolutionaries who took power, and who later promulgated the Mexican Constitution and the first laws on the distribution of communal lands that marked the end of their heyday.

At the same time, anti-alcoholic campaigns were revived and pulque was branded as the promoter of a series of social vices, as it was the main alcoholic beverage in the country. At the same time, a series of modifications were attempted with respect to the production, transport, and form of sale of pulque in 1928, resuming all the technical innovations, as well as the use of physical or chemical methods for the conservation of pulque, and even the first attempts at pasteurization. However, this was done at a rather uncertain time for innovations due to the fall in the value of pulque on the market and the effect of the economic recession after the Revolution, as well as the clash with the perseverance of the producers' customs.

With the end of this first period of the industrialization of pulque by these companies, there was also the frustration of the future of various industrialized products, derived from mead, such as maguey honey syrup, agave gums, vinegar and industrialized alcohol - not only as a drinking distillate, but also as a fuel.

In spite of this, economic and biological studies of pulque continued during the 1930s and 1980s, with a genuine interest in trying to rescue the nutritional, economic and even cultural value of pulque, which had a low impact on maguey cultivation practices, and on the ways pulque was made and sold in large cities.

The cultivation of maguey plants and the use of mead produced in the Apan area was encouraged in order to can pulque by a series of parastatal companies, which also promoted the commercialization of new products such as soaps, shampoos, atoles and food drinks in the 1980s, but with the advent of the neoliberal system, the government ended up suppressing all this.

Thus, at the end of the 20th century, there was a stagnation in the productive processes that almost culminated in the oblivion of the elaboration of pulque and traditional knowledge, in addition to the denigration suffered by its consumption among the Mexican population that preferred the use of industrialized beverages such as beer and soft drinks that occupied the place left by pulque.

Nevertheless, pulque was able to survive with the efforts of private individuals who took up again the knowledge of producing pulque in cans, the consumption of maguey honey (healthier than the non-crystallizable honey of sugar cane) and the resurgence of the taste for drinks combined with extracts or essences, as is the case of "pulque cures", remaining among the consuming population.

In the last century, more pulque shops were opened, new forms of consumption were bet on, the idea of rescuing traditions, of consuming what is national was used, making room in the taste of the youngest.

The current problem of this drink goes in another direction: the supply of liquid necessary for the production of pulque requires continuous cultivation of plants, the care of their diversity and the possibility of continuing to take advantage of the customary knowledge that rural and indigenous communities have bequeathed and passed on today.

Unfortunately, there are no precise statistics on the existing population of mead agaves in the country, since the last statistics date from the 1980s, when funds for parastatal companies were suppressed and bills were presented for the preservation of maguey cultivation in the central states of the country, due to the depredation caused by the pronounced exploitation of mixiote (agave cuticle) and maguey worms (which live inside it).

The survival of this Mexican drink depends entirely on a number of factors, including the recognition of its benefits and the possibility of taking it to a new stage of production and consumption, without forgetting the deep roots that make it one of the main products that the natural wealth has given to Mexican life and even being recognized as a cultural heritage, not only in the country, but internationally.

Pulque will continue to thrive thanks to the dissemination of information and the opportunities offered by the 21st century, in all its aspects, as it is undoubtedly the oldest and most persistent of all Mexican drinks.

A love letter to the pulque

It doesn't matter if it's white or cured, produced in Hidalgo or Tlaxcala, pulque is, without a doubt, one of the most traditional drinks in Mexico; which, in less than a hundred years, went from a period of splendor to almost oblivion. What caused this radical change?

Mario Ramírez Rancaño, a researcher at the UNAM's Institute of Social Research, explains its importance: "Everyone drank pulque, at all levels from the lowest sectors to the middle and upper classes. By the beginning of the 20th century, of all the drinks consumed in Mexico, 94 percent corresponded to pulque, a staggering figure".

The maguey, where this drink comes from, can be used to make clothes, to cook barbecue with its leaves or to weave blankets; but it cannot be denied that, one of its most important uses is the elaboration of pulque.

From the plant, on average, about eight liters of honey water can be extracted, the liquid that is obtained from the heart of the maguey, per day. This drink is produced due to fermentation; this process causes the sugars in the honey water to be transformed into three main products: alcohol, lactic acid, and soluble polysaccharides.

The doctor who graduated from the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris tells how he became interested in this subject:

"One day I read a newspaper article that said it was a pity that this drink had been eradicated and attacked in an excessive way". In the end, "the food of the Mexican is not cheese or ham, but tortillas and beans, just as the traditional drink is pulque," Ramirez mentions.

The impact of pulque in the center of the country

In the past, pulque was transported in wineskins, containers to contain liquids, made with the skin of goats or pigs, which kept their extremities and "were filled to the brim" with alcohol, hence the famous phrase.

Its consumption dates back to pre-Hispanic times, mentions Ramírez Rancaño. To a large extent, the boom of this elixir at the end of the 19th century is explained by the construction of new railroad routes in Mexico, which connected the country's capital with Veracruz. Thanks to these new communication routes, it was possible to get this drink - an easily perishable product - to urban centers in a couple of hours, thus increasing its reach and generating a lot of wealth.

"Mexico City was upholstered with pulquerías, they had to regulate their location every 60 meters because there were too many of them," says the also UNAM professor. In the late 19th century, 17 percent of all homes sold this drink.

The decline of a tradition

In the last years of Porfirio Díaz's presidential term, he began an anti-alcoholic campaign that directly attacked the consumption of pulque. In addition, racism was very important, says the recent researcher emeritus of the National System of Researchers (SNI), "during those years, academic and intellectual groups wanted to whiten themselves and, in the process, began to disparage the Mexican diet".

Another factor in the decrease in consumption was the increase in the payment of taxes in all the processes of production, sale, and distribution of the drink, which affected the producers.

The revolutionary movement also caused the decline of the industry by promoting agricultural distribution, especially in central Mexico, where the main pulque haciendas were located. An example of this situation was Apan, Hidalgo, where the peasants gained control of the land, and production was drastically reduced. "It was a tragedy what happened with the Mexican's drink, the pulque," he concluded.

Recovering its consumption

This drink is slowly gaining ground. In 2017, 217.7 million liters were produced, of which Hidalgo contributed 69.6 percent, according to figures from the Agrifood and Fisheries Information Service.

Currently, several researchers agree that the new generations do not have a negative perception of pulque, its stigma disappears and, with it, an ancestral tradition is vindicated.


In the Mexican cinema and in chronicles of the city that date back to the beginning of the 20th century, you can see how the pulquerías, whose names were always picturesque, were an attractive meeting place, where people used to have fun talking about everyday life, playing guitar, playing Spanish cards or hopscotch.

Despite the popularity of pulque in recent years, it is estimated that in Mexico City there are only about 50 traditional pulquerías. This figure contrasts with the more than a thousand, of which there are records, that existed at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century in the capital of the country.

Like mezcal, pulque was rescued from marginalization and shadows to give it its fair value as a traditional Mexican drink, the only one that has preserved an extraction method intact for more than two thousand five hundred years.

Source: Conversus and Cyd Conacyt

Authors: Rodolfo Ramirez Rodriguez, Michelle Morelos