What You Need to Know About Pulque, Tequila's Delicious Cousin
There’s an alcoholic beverage made from agave that has had massive cultural significance in Mexico for hundreds of years; we’re not talking about tequila, or mezcal, but pulque, the lesser-known, fermented cousin of the famed agave spirits. Possibly invented by the Aztecs and produced for at least 1,000 years, pulque looms just as large in Mexican cultural identity as tequila and mezcal despite never having made it big (i.e. global.) The sour drink reached the height of its popularity in Mexico around the late 19th century, before mass-produced beers and tequilas flooded the market. Made from the fermented sap of agave plants, the fizzy, sort-of-milky beverage is viscous in a way you wouldn’t necessarily crave. It’s not smooth, nor does it lend itself well to mixology (though it’s often served with the pulp of fresh fruit, curados style.) Yet the beverage, which many Mexican children grow up drinking for its nutritional and digestive properties, may be on the verge of a renaissance, as young people find renewed interest in the sour, undeniably yeasty drink of their ancestors and their grandparents, who drank pulque for good health.
Before I took my first sip of pulque at a restaurant in Oaxaca de Juárez, its flavor was described to me as a “sort of fermented oatmeal,” which proved accurate, if oatmeal were effervescent and disconcertingly creamy. After hundreds of years of waning popularity in Mexico, catalyzed by aggressive marketing of beer companies from the early- to mid-20th century, pulque is reappearing in bars and restaurants across Mexico; no longer is it relegated to the refrigerator at your grandmother’s house or road stands in rural areas (though you’ll still find pulque at both of those hotspots.) Over the past few years, the drink has piqued the interest of millennials, too, ushering in pulquerias and small pulque sections on drink menus in some of Mexico’s bigger cities.
“For the younger generation, pulque isn’t just a drink,” said Patricia Angela Cardoso, who works for La Paloma Azul, to Food & Wine in March. “It’s part of their cultural identity. When they drink pulque, they’re drinking Mexico.”
Domingo Rafaelo, a man from the coast of Oaxaca, recalls his Michoacán grandmother making pulque when he was growing up—just for the family, never selling it. His mother drank pulque as a child because of its nutritional properties, and so did Rafaelo. He has trouble believing pulque will ever be “cool,” or gain even a fraction of the momentum as, say, mezcal, or even an imported spirit like whiskey, which he says “all the Mexican hipsters drink.” The last time he wanted to drink pulque, he had to drive thirty minutes with his mother to find someone selling it, while when he was a child, he could just go next door and ask his neighbors.
“It’s really nice by itself, but it looks kind of weird,” he says. “You don’t see pulque in so many bars. We are losing that tradition. Nobody wants to drink pulque if you have mezcal. Mezcal is for hipsters, and pulque is for the people from the town.”
Rafaelo acknowledges that new pulquerias are popping up in some of Mexico’s more cosmopolitan destinations, like Mexico City, but he’s wary of the quality of pulque that’s not made in someone’s home.
“In the cities, they are producing pulque for a week, and it’s disgusting because they aren’t fermenting it in the natural way,” he says. “You must drink pulque on the same day it’s made. You must always ask, ‘Is this from today?’”
Despite its gradual resurgence in Mexico, few people believe that pulque can take off internationally. T.J. Steele, the chef and partner at Claro, a new Oaxacan-inspired restaurant in Brooklyn, almost never sees the in the States. “I haven't had any luck finding good ones in America yet,” he says. “I did try one in a can in the states that gives enough of an idea of what pulque is about.” (Some of that canned pulque is, well, questionable.) Steele does say, however, that ten years ago he only encountered pulque at friends’ houses in Mexico, and now you can find it at bars.
Rafaelo thinks pulque needs a few more years before becoming a veritable trend. He still considers the humble drink—once known as the beverage of the gods, only sipped by priests and emperors in Aztec times—as a guilty pleasure.
“In the future, it might be a fashion,” he says. “It’s really good for your stomach. It has everything. I want a pulque right now.”