Mexico City Is Rediscovering Pulque, the Preferred Beverage of Aztec Priests
Inside the city’s newly thriving pulquerías.
It’s a Saturday afternoon in the Portales Norte neighborhood of Mexico City and Pulquería La Paloma Azul is packed, patrons at long blue tables cracking peanuts and making little piles of the shells. Dozens of pulquerías (bars that specialize in pulque, a fermented drink made from maguey sap) like La Paloma Azul, with its Aztec gods painted on the walls and a jukebox that looks plucked from a vintage store, have been around since the middle of the twentieth century, and most have regulars to match—older, male, working-class. (“We all do construction,” one patron tells me, pointing out a few of his friends.)
But lately, that crowd is mingling with another—the tattooed-and-cuffed-jeans twenty- and thirty-somethings. “For the younger generation,” says Patricia Angela Cardoso, who works for La Paloma Azul, “pulque isn’t just a drink. It’s part of their cultural identity. When they drink pulque, they’re drinking Mexico.”
Back in Aztec times, only priests and emperors habitually consumed pulque, known then as the “gods’ beverage,” though for its alleged healing properties, pregnant women and sick people drank it on occasion, and to please the gods, condemned men drank it before execution. When the Spanish arrived and destroyed Aztec traditions, they turned pulque into a drink for the masses—it was no longer sacred; it was just another way to get drunk. In the early 1800s, after Mexican Independence, pulque enjoyed its most successful century ever as Mexico worked to reclaim its heritage. But in the early-to-mid-1900s, beer companies, with the help of a Mexican government that dreamt of modernizing the country, launched an aggressive advertising campaign, painting pulque as low-class, spreading a rumor that it was fermented with feces, and effectively destroying its popularity for the first time in Mexican history. Only in the last five years or so is Mexico City’s pulque culture finally enjoying a revival.
“Part of it is that pulque became so unpopular during our parents’ generation that my generation hadn’t even heard of it,” says 29-year-old Pablo Saavedra, owner of Pulquería La Santa Solita. “We never heard the rumor about it being fermented with shit. We never heard anything. Pulque was just gone. When I was in college, I tasted pulque for the first time and I loved it.”
Young pulqueros like Saavedra, who wrote his college thesis about pulque, are bringing new energy to a very old scene: He and his partners also brew artisanal beer, so La Santa Solita offers pulque, beer, and wine, as well as food cooked from local, seasonal ingredients. Another newer “pulkata,” modern slang for “pulqueria,” Pakaly Bar, a tiny room with low ceilings, is covered in 33-year-old local artist Alex Yopra’s psychedelic murals.
Most pulquerías offer pure pulque, a cloudy, colorless liquid, as well as “curados,” or pulques infused with flavors it wouldn’t occur to you to want—peanut, celery, oatmeal, beet. (Don’t be deterred. They’re delicious.) A glass of pulque has an alcohol content of about 6 percent, so it gets you roughly as buzzed as a beer would. In the pulquerías, you might see a waiter pouring a pitcher of one curado into a pitcher of another and then back again, creating fusion flavors.
Like many alcoholic beverages in Mexico, pulque is surrounded by mythology about purported health benefits. I’ve heard people claim that it doesn’t give you a hangover, but I don’t know about that. A day of pulquería-hopping left me muy cruda (“hungover as hell” sounds more elegant in Spanish). Other enthusiasts tell me that pulque treats chronic illness, gives you energy, soothes the stomach (it is true that it contains probiotics), and produces breast milk for pregnant women. Says Fernando Sanchez, owner of the 112-year-old Pulquería La Gloria, “Pulque has many benefits. It helps to regenerate the intestinal flora, it gives us protein, and it regulates sugar levels in the body.” But pulque’s greatest contribution, which the younger generation appreciates, is its preservation of pre-Hispanic Mexican culture.
Unfortunately, there are complicating factors: Though the state government, recognizing that maguey is a major tourist attraction, finances several pulque fairs each year in Mexico City, it doesn’t support the old-school pulquerías. There are no pulquería licenses anymore, only restaurant or bar permits, which are much more expensive and whose requirements are difficult to meet. Therefore, many pulquería owners know they’re on borrowed time: If they get caught, they could get shut down. Another problem is that maguey farmers live in poverty. Those who sell their product to pulquerias are forced to do so at extremely low prices—so low, they might not survive.
But Saavedra is optimistic about the future of pulque in Mexico City. “We need more education,” he says. “We need awareness. We need people to have a wider view of how the world works. Luckily, environmentalism is becoming trendier. Sustainability is becoming trendier. Pulqueros like my business partners and me need to join forces with the farmers and create more viable business models that benefit everyone.”