What is Pulque?

Pulque is a milky, slightly foamy and somewhat viscous beverage made by fermenting (not distilling) the fresh sap of certain types of Maguey. Any other beverage made from distilling the cooked Maguey is Mezcal, and if it is manufactured in the Tequila region from a numbered distillery, it is Tequila. All three drinks are made from different species of Maguey, often called the “Century plant” in English. The Maguey or agave are all members of the botanical family Agavaceae. Only one species of Maguey is allowed by law for tequila production, the agave Weber (the Blue Agave). There are many species that can be used for good mezcal, and six or so varieties will yield the basic juice for flavorful Pulque.

Pulque appears in pre-Hispanic “history” about 1000 A.D. A joyous mural called the “Pulque Drinkers” was unearthed in 1968 during excavations at the Great Pyramid in Cholula, Puebla, 70 miles east of Mexico City.

From many graphic indications, it is obvious that pulque was not a new thing when the mural was painted; the drink is at least 2,000 years old. It is the sap, called aguamiel or honey water, that becomes pulque through a natural fermentation process which can occur within the plant, but usually takes place at a “Tinacal” (place of production).

The beverage became such an important element socially, economically and, as a consequence, religiously, that myths, legends and cults proliferated around it and its source, the maguey.

In the great Indian civilizations of the central highlands, Pulque was served as a ritual intoxicant for priests-to increase their enthusiasm, for sacrificial victims-to ease their passing, and as a medicinal drink. Pulque was also served as a liquor reserved to celebrate the feats of the brave and the wise, and was even considered to be an acceptable substitute for blood in some propitiatory ceremonies.

Today the giant pulque maguey (the most common being the San Francisco Tlaculapan) are first processed after 12 years of growth. Often an outstanding plant will have an initiation attended by the local governor in honor of a potentially long production cycle. A good plant can produce for up to 1 year. The center of the maguey is regularly scraped out activating the plants production of aguamiel. A local custom for a man without sons is to process 6 plants, make and drink a special pulque, and then make sons. The drink is often considered a mythic aphrodisiac. The name Tlyaol is given to a good strain that makes one particularly virile. Pulque is frequently the potion of choice used by women during menstruation and lactation.

There are various pulque maguey types. The Blanco (female) is common and produces pups (baby magueys growing at its base) after three years. The pups are replanted away from the adult and begin to mature themselves. Other types are: 1) Manzon (more fine); 2) Prieto (compact); 3) Colorado (no pups); and 4) Macuetlas (flexible thorns).

Todays growers and makers of pulque believe that the plants receive cosmic energy and genrously give it back every day. They consider it different than wine since it is said to bring strength to the body yet not displace one’s clarity. Drinking pulque gives one a big appetite.

The goddess Mayahuel discovered pulque. The pulque gods generally were related to the beneficent deities of water, of rain and thus of agriculture. There was a picturesque group of gods called the Centzon Totochtin or 400 (a synonym for innumerable) rabbits. According to a now generally accepted interpretation, these deities represent the infinite number of forms intoxication takes in individuals of different temperaments and customs.

Ometotchtli, or Two Rabbit, was generally regarded as the supreme god of pulque – no mention is ever made of one rabbit. Another notable of the 400 was Tepoztecatl, a regional deity who gave his name to Tepoztlan, near Cuernavaca. Ruins of this temple still stand; devotees are said to make the trek at full moon.

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