Flashback Friday: A Pulque Way of Knowledge

The booze of the brujos.
Flashback Friday: A Pulque Way of Knowledge
Rich Grote

First published in the August, 1976 edition of High Times, Craig Pyes’ story investigates the mysteries of pulque, a Mexican alcoholic drink made by fermenting sap from the agave plant, maguey.

“The Mediterranean has the dark grape, old Europe has malted beer, and China has opium from the white poppy. But out of the Mexican soil a bunch of black-tarnished swords bursts up, and a great unfolded bud of the once-flowering monster begins to thrust at the sky. They cut the great phallic bud and crush out the sperm-like juice for the pulque. Agua miel! Pulque!”
—D. H. Lawrence

The small notice on the door of La Riza pulqueria says “No Permisso” to minors, street sellers, military men in uniform—and women! Women are strictly prohibited, even though the pulque swilled inside was discovered by a woman: the Nahuatl Indian goddess Mayahuel.

Another sign tacked to the door of La Riza announces that it is not open at night. The same is true for pulquerias all over the Federal District of Mexico. Only a mock pulqueria, like La Caida de Luzbel, on the outskirts of the fashionable Zona Rosa (pink zone) will remain open, while the genuine pulquerias close. And La Caida de Luzbel is considered more of a theater, anyway.

While the pulquerias are pubs, they exist only for the poorest of the poor. Against dire warnings, I had set out to sample some of Mexico City’s best. I was driven by a quote attributed to Mexico’s famous muralist Diego Rivera. “One of the most important manifestations of Mexican painting,’’ he said, “is the decoration of the facades and interiors of pulquerias….”

So I went to La Riza, a pulqueria with a fine reputation. Inside, the yellow walls were faded, the glasses dirty, the pulque in the oak barrels stinking behind the counter and the smell of urine from the open pissoir on the side wall pervasive. A sign in Spanish across from it translated, “Don’t drink water. Prefer the Refinement of the Ranch.” I studied the curious, dazed borrachos and asked, “What ranch?” Somebody yelled out, “Rancho I’ll Pick Your Asshole is the best.” When I asked how did they know that to be sure, they replied in unison, “Because we are the cowboys of Mexico City.” We all toasted that, “Salud!”

I was then drawn solicitously into one corner by an hombre with intense, drunken eyes that reminded me of liquid tombstones. He let me in on a little secret and lifted his shirt to reveal a pistola. “Poom-poom!” he blurted out. Roughly translated into English, I knew that meant “Boom! Boom!” Deciding to keep my life for art to imitate, I left the real thing, went over to La Caida de Luzbel, the chic stage set of “La Pulqueria,” and acted like I was drinking pulque.

Pulque, the fermented sap of the maguey cactus, is the oldest continuously drunk alcoholic beverage in the New World. Records indicate that it has been imbibed for 2,000 years, perhaps longer. Which means that by the time it became celebrated as the Aztecs’ “wine of the gods,” it was already very old. Today the pulque culture is on the decline, though its consumption still accounts for one quarter of all the alcohol drunk in Mexico.

To most people, pulque is an unsavory concoction; the liquid contains sediment, and it has the consistency of semen. But pulque is still heartily enjoyed by millions of Mexicans in the five pulque-producing states. On Sunday, pulque is served at family-style restaurants with ranch-style cuisine. A favorite sauce is a “drunken sauce,” or salsa borracha, which is made from ground chile pasilla blended with pulque and sprinkled with onions and cheese.

While these outings are of a purely country flavor, an urbane, obscure bureaucrat, secreted in a lost cubicle of Mexico City’s Department of Tourism, confided to me that even though he doesn’t like pulque, he sometimes goes to the country to drink it. “Yes! Pulque is the jewish (juice) of the agave. I dreenk the jewish like eet’s a Roman Circus, because eet’s the weekend and everybody’s drunk.’’ He then threw his head back and held his two hands in front of his face as though he were grasping a container and “jewish” was dripping down his beard. “I dreenk the pulque right out of the gourd and get all greazy like Charleston Heston.” His coworkers looked on with amusement.

While drunken fiestas with pulque are common, no one—from the producers to the government—considers it an “alcoholic problem.’’ In fact, they don’t even consider it alcohol. The man in the Department of Tourism announced flatly, “Tequila is a liquor, but pulque is a beverage!” And Dr. Javier Leva from the Mexican Department of Health and Assistance, usually bureaucratically circumspect, declared, “Pulque is not to blame if you get drunk. If there are drunks in the pulqueria, it is because they’ve taken tequila elsewhere. Nobody gets drunk from pulque.”

Leva is the General Director of the Pulque Office. All pulque and pulquerias in Mexico are under his control; he inspects the physical, chemical and microbiological elements of the beverage and sees that it is not contaminated—no easy task, for pulque is alive with microorganisms. Dr. Leva’s domain extends throughout the whole Zona Magueyera, the only area in which pulque-producing magueys will grow. It’s a land of high altitude and sparse vegetation in the high region of the Central Valley, which includes the states of Hildago, Tlaxcala, Mexico, Puebla, San Luis Potosi and Guanajuato.

Pulque production is primarily a cottage industry: poorly organized, miserably financed and chemically defiant of modern marketing techniques. For example. the natural yeast action of the bacteria in pulque prohibits commercial packaging. When producers once tried to export it, bottles and cans exploded all over the world. Pulque can only be regulated in short-distance hauls, into Mexico City and to the registered pulquerias where it is sold.

“Unfortunately,” Dr. Leva confessed, “there are perhaps 800 more pulquerias which are unregistered and operate clandestinely. These are a real problem. If an inspector finds one that doesn’t meet requirements, it’s immediately closed down. But just as soon as we close them down, they move to other places. Where? Beside a tree. Under a shadow.”

The impetus for regulation is twofold: economic, so the government can collect tax revenues on the beverage: and hygienic, to protect consumers from adulterated or contaminated brews. Pulque is billed alternatingly as “the most nutritious drink in the world,” and as a primordial soup of deadly contaminants, depending on whom you ask. This Jekyll/Hyde reputation is mostly due to the bacteria Termobacterium mobile, which act like the strongest yeast, turning the sap of the maguey, the agua miel (honey water) first into the desired fermented drink, pulque, and then into sour ooze. The activity of these bacteria is so aggressive that the agua miel can begin to ferment without a starter agent and turn to pulque right in the plant.

This natural fermentation of the agua miel takes 7 to 14 days. But even after it has fermented to the desired alcoholic content and taste, the process continues; it can’t be stopped. By the time the pulque leaves the ranch in the countryside and is delivered to the pulqueria in the city, it could already have soured. This is the reason why “pulquerofiles” warn people never to drink pulque in any large city and why the air in the vicinity of a pulqueria often smells rancid.

It was through this pungent odor that pulque got its name. The Aztecs called it iztac octli, or “white wine.” When the white wine soured and decomposed, which it quickly did, they called it octli poliuhqui. The Spanish thought they heard pulque, a name they gave without distinction to fresh and sour alike.

While its smell does not win pulque many new adherents, what about its flavor? Part of the problem in acquiring a liking for pulque is the way it tastes. No matter how fresh, it always curdles the tongue with a characteristic sourness. Francis Calderon de la Barca, in her Life in Mexico, the famous Mexican travel book of the 1840s, wrote about her first encounter with it while traveling through the Central Plateau: “Here also I first tasted pulque…. The taste and smell combined took me so completely by surprise, that I am afraid my look of horror must have given mortal offense to the worthy alcalde who considers it the most delicious beverage in the world: and in fact it is said, that when one gets over the first shock, it is very agreeable The difficulty consists in getting over it.”

In addition, its consistency is viscous, its color milky and its demeanor sudsy if fresh, sticky if not. If taken straight, it is called pulque blanco; when flavored with fruit or nuts, pulque curado. The presence of more than a few “pulqueholics” shows that it is possible to acquire not only a taste for the drink, but an appetite as well. It’s not a bad inebriate for a beverage whose alcoholic content runs only between 4 and 14 percent, though the first time I tried it, I felt so much residual fermentation churning in my stomach, I thought if I ate a matzo it would rise into a loaf of bread.

The importance of the discovery of pulque and its relationship in Mesoamerican civilization cannot be underplayed. It was one of a triad of substances, along with corn and hallucinogenic mushrooms, that helped form the economic and spiritual base of the great cultures of the Central Plateau, principally the Toltec and Aztec cultures. To the Aztecs, the world was a flat disc surrounded by a great ring of divine water that rested on a monster and merged with the heavens at the horizons. This they called Cem-Anáhuatl, the complete circle. The Valley of Mexico, the semiarid high plateau fused with volcanic glass and ruptured by huge, twisted magueys whose thorns seemed to tear the sky, they called Anáhuac: the world in microcosm.

A nub of that world, an ancient Aztec temple, is presently being exhumed by archeologists on Rancho San Luis Aculco, a maguey plantation belonging to Ingenero Gabriel Delgado. Ing. Delgado is the chief engineer in charge of agriculture and husbandry for the Patranto del Maguey. The Patranto is the organization most responsible for scientific research on the maguey pulquero, a species of cactus that evolved in volcanic wastes and is botanically classified somewhere between the lily and the asparagus.

When the seven Nahuatl tribes migrated from their home at Atzlan in the north to Anáhuac, they discovered the maguey as a plant that gave them more than any other plant had before. The cactus was a source of food, drink, clothing, medicine, paper and more, stretching its economic tentacles—or thorns—into every aspect of Indian life with the impact of a vegetable General Motors. Like the Copper and Iron Civilizations, named after their most important elements, anthropologists were later to refer to Nahuatl cultures as the “Maguey” or “Pulque” Civilizations. Even today, the maguey cactus is the source of mescal and tequila, as well as pulque. And worms that inhabit it are a delicacy served French-fried.

Much of this development wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the goddess Mayahuel. who discovered the way to tap the agua miel from the plant. According to Ing. Delgado, Mayahuel was a real person who became part of the mythology because of the great importance her discovery had for her tribe. “She watched what we call a metoro, a black mouse,” Ing. Delgado explained to me as we toured his plantation. “The metoro used to make a hole in the maguey, then come back the next day and drink up the agua miel. So Mayahuel got the brilliant idea of how to tap the maguey—and someone else, how to smash the roots into the agua miel to begin the fermentation. The amazing thing about pulque is that it is still produced the same as it was a thousand years ago.”

It takes a minimum of 10 to 12 years before the maguey is ready to produce agua miel. At that time, the plant’s center section, from which new leaves have continuously emerged, is ready to flower. If left unmolested, the maguey will thrust a stalk as high as 20 feet into the air on which will bloom a riot of orange-yellow flowers. But to collect the agua miel, the plant has to be “castrated,” to prevent the erection of the stalk. It is then left standing from two to five months, during which it is repeatedly punctured, until the pulp forms a cavity into which the agua miel will drain.

Twice a day for the next four to six months, a man called a tlachiquero (from an Indian word “to scrape”) visits each plant in the morning and afternoon and sucks out anywhere from two to eight liters of collected sap through a long gourd. The contents of the gourd, the pale yellow agua miel plus assorted fruit flies, are emptied into the containers carried by his burro for delivery to the tinacal, where the fermentation vats are located. The tlachiquero then scrapes the cavity of the maguey, breaking the vessels to allow the agua miel to separate from the pulp for the next collection.

Of all the specialized proletarians, the tlachiqueros are probably the most unique. Their employment seems to reside in being the world’s greatest aspirators. While the pay is not great, it’s not exactly a sucker’s job. A tlachiquero can easily vacuum seven liters in three or four breaths, emptying a stump like a kid finishing a coke through a straw. Fascinated by this display of pulmonary macho, I asked a tlachiquero what it was like to draw up the agua miel.“Well,” he replied, “it feels like a big effort for a few seconds, then there is a great release.” He added presently, “Sometimes I get a big pressure in my head for just a moment.”

A tlachiquero will usually collect about 380 liters of agua miel a day, but his day only consists of two 45-minute shifts. This brief relationship, however, has rewarded pulque with the nicknames of “tlachicoton,” “lung” and “Saliva Dry” by Mexico’s middle classes. But when the tlachiquero reaches the tinacal with his load, he enters a province where the modern technological classes with all of their mechanical arrogance are helpless. Here “Saliva Dry” is still “the wine of the gods”!

Here, where the clear, yellowish agua miel begins to ferment, one senses more is happening than just the increasing acidity of its taste or the gathering milkiness of its color. When the new load comes in and a new tank is started, the workers of the tinacal begin singing and praying; they remove their hats and sing a hymn to Divina Providencia. On the wall, a beeswax, saffron-colored candle burns in front of the red, green and white colors of the Virgin of Guadalupe, while a Christ suffers crucified on a maguey, the thorns driven through his hands.

Though the plantation is owned by Ing. Delgado, the tinacal is run by the foreman who guards the seed pulque, the semilla. “The semilla is a treasure,” Ing. Delgado explained. “It is the base for the whole tinacal; only the foreman would touch it. No one else would dare—not even to pass it to another container!” Traditionally the foreman guards the recipes of fine pulque. These secrets are transmitted orally so that no records exist. Here in San Luis Aculco, only one person is responsible for each degree of pulque. “If two or more handle it,” a workman adds, “how would we know who has spoiled it?”

The caution and respect shown the pulque is no less than if those vats contained nitroglycerine. Sometimes strangers are not allowed to enter the tinacals because their mere presence might turn the pulque. In some places, if a man enters with his hat on, he must drink a hatful to dispel the curse. Even Ing. Delgado, whose background is scientific, is adamant that no one put their hand or head over a fermenting vat. “The grease from one hand will spoil it; and if a man has just eaten a can of sardines, why, the pulque could suddenly turn to water or begin to stink!”

According to Indian custom, to drink five liters of pulque has been taboo for at least 2,000 years. Says a text called The Invention of Pulque, dictated by the Informants of Sahagún, a group of native wisemen who lived during the period immediately preceding the arrival of the Spaniards, “A call went out to all the lords, the chiefs, the elders, the experienced… to attend a banquet in honor of the discovery of pulque. There they all drank four pots as a toast to the gods, except Chief Cuextecatl, who “not only drank four, but when he had drunk four, asked for yet another. And so he drank five. He became very intoxicated, very drunk… and there, in front of the people, he removed and cast aside his loin cloth, and they saw he was completely naked.” Cuextecatl and his tribe were banished for his bawdiness.

Though Cuextecatl was a chief, he was still a mere mortal, and it’s understandable how he could get soused. Especially since pulque had just been invented, and Cuextecatl hadn’t had time to build up a tolerance. But according to the Annals of Cuauhtitlan, Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent, who was “wise, good and chaste,” ruler of the city of the gods during the Fifth Sun, also met his downfall on the fifth drink. His fall was consummated when, after looking into a mirror and seeing his worldly image, he was induced to drink pulque. At first he refused, but curiosity getting the better of him, he dipped his finger in and tasted it. He took a drink. He took four drinks, then five, and in addition to being wise, good and chaste, Quetzalcoatl became horny. He immediately called for his sister, Xochiquetzal, the goddess of love, and got her to taste the pulque. She too took a drink, four drinks, then five. And soon after the invention of pulque came the invention of incest.

Quetzalcoatl redeemed himself after his fall from purity, but Cuextecatl’s people stayed where they were banished; today they are known as the Huastecos, a tribe living on the Gulf Coast north of Veracruz. But for the Aztec masses, the punishment for excessive inebriation was severe. A first offense, it is true, only brought a shaved head or a burned home and public humiliation, but a second offense brought the death penalty. Pulque was intended to be mainly a ritual drink for the priests, who would imbibe before committing a sacrifice, and for the victims, who would imbibe even more liberally as they waited for their hearts to be cut out and fed to the sun.

While drunkenness was frowned upon, it wasn’t totally suppressed, as the Centzon Totochin, or Four Hundred Rabbits, attest. The Four Hundred Rabbits were the gods of intoxication, believed to represent the myriad forms insobriety takes in individuals of different temperaments. Ometochtli, or Two Rabbit, was generally regarded as the supreme god of pulque. Mayahuel herself, variously described as the goddess of pulque, of the maguey and of strong drink, appears in a number of codices in more than 20 forms. In one form, in the Codex Laud, we find her naked but bejeweled, wearing a nose ring, armlets and a fine collar with little golden bells. She is carrying a bone awl and a maguey thorn for a blood offering. Also pictured with her is some propaganda against the evils of Demon Pulque: there is a serpent in a tortoise shell symbolizing the homeless; a spear, lancet and dart-thrower to represent the drunkers’ quarrel, while her foot is “wavering like smoke” to drive home the image of the instability of drink.

But these warnings aside, pulque was also regarded as something of a miracle potion. Sixteen medicinal compounds listed in the Cruz-Badiano Codex, the first American pharmacopoeia, contain pulque as an ingredient. Ing. Delgado proclaims, “There is no better drink in the world. It has 14 amino acids, vitamin B complex and B12. If you look at the people who drink pulque, they have good color even if they’re badly nourished. It produces red corpuscles for the blood. The old books say that it cures cancer, diabetes and syphilis and that agua miel cures inflammations of the urethra and kidneys.” Other studies indicate that pulque has the nutritional equivalent of meat and milk, that it has large quantities of vitamin C and that it may also contain vitamins D and E. Some sources say that it may combat rickets and sterility. Ing. Delgado swears that drinking a glass every morning cured him of ulcers.

Also, much opinion holds that pulque is an aphrodisiac, which is why sexual innuendo suitably permeates the whole of pulque lore. Doing my own quick, nonscientific survey, I found that nearly everyone agrees that pulque is good for sex, except that sometimes it makes you oversexed and sometimes it makes you impotent.

After the Spanish conquest, all restrictions were lifted from pulque, and its widespread use was cited as one of the factors in the decay of Indian civilization. Pulquerias spread without restrictions, and by 1672, the viceregal government was forced to promulgate some laws to prevent the rapid moral deterioration of “New Spain.” Two of those laws were that women were prohibited from entering pulquerias and that the establishments must close at night.

And so these two rules are a vigorously enforced anachronism in an industry that the Mexican government admits may disappear in the next hundred years. The pulqueria has sunk from the Holy Communion of the prehistoric ritual to nightclubs for the Conquistadors to meeting places for the parched peon. Well, everyone’s entitled to a good time, aren’t they?

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