What is the ultimate rebel drink? A Cuba Libre? A slug of Prohibition-era bathtub gin? A dram of illicit whisky distilled far from the prying eyes of the excise man? They’re all candidates, but there is another, arguably better contender. It keeps a low profile, but its history is sacred and tells the story of a nation.
Pulque, a milky drink crafted from the sap of the maguey plant, has almost 2,000 years of history behind it, and a significant stretch has been marked by resistance. As a symbol of the working classes, it has been stigmatised, censured and targeted by Mexico’s social elites since the 17th century, while in recent decades it has been hit hard by the ubiquitous reign of beer and the rise of its compatriots, tequila and mezcal. Add the fact that it becomes slimy and undrinkable within days of fermentation and you have a drink that, by rights, ought to be long extinct. Yet it has been defying the odds, and occasionally the authorities, for centuries. Because pulque is more than just a drink – it is a symbol of a people, part of the Mexican soul and psyche.
“The history of pulque is the history of Mexico,” says Dr Deborah Toner, Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Leicester, who, together with Rocio Carvajal, has written a chapter on pulque in the book Authentic Recipes from Around the World. “And what makes it remarkable is that its status and place within Mexican society has changed so much. So it’s a really good way, actually, to see changes in Mexican history and the social structure and cultural values.”
Archaeologists believe that pulque’s origins go back to around AD 200 and that it was first brewed up by the Teotihuacan people – who predate the Aztecs and built Mexico’s largest pyramids – for use in religious rites. Mythical tales of its provenance abound in popular culture. These include the story of how the goddess Mayahuel, who took the form of a woman with 400 breasts, was transformed into a maguey plant, thus transferring the nourishing powers of her milk to pulque; and the belief that its invention led to the creation of the Centzon Totochtin, a band of 400 debauched, party-loving rabbit gods.
However, after the social, cultural and political earthquake of the Spanish conquest in the 1500s, pulque lost its spiritual status and became instead the popular drink of farmers and the working people. Pulquerías, the establishments where pulque was licensed to be served, sprang up in the countryside and in Mexico City, and became social hubs for the lower classes. In the 19th century, with the expansion of cities and the growth of a vibrant, urban working class, these ‘pulque pubs’ came into their own, spawning a distinct culture, which included the development of their own aesthetic, with brightly coloured decor and unique glassware.
At the same time that pulquerías were booming, however, they were despised by the upper and middle classes, who saw them as a corrupting influence on the poor and as an instigator of social disorder. “Even at the height of its popularity when hundreds of thousands of people were drinking [pulque] on a daily basis, it was still controversial,” Toner says. “For the more elite social sectors running the government and trying to impose social reforms, pulque was really a target. They hated it. They wanted to get rid of it.” Pulquerías were outlawed for a time in 1692, and in later centuries seats, benches, food, music and games were all periodically banned, in an attempt to bore away the customers and strangle the life from pulque-drinking culture.
The suspicion and scorn directed towards pulque mirrored the prejudice expressed towards the masses, and particularly towards the indigenous people of non-European origin: it was ‘unsophisticated’, it was ‘crude’, it was ‘backwards’. The fact that the alcohol content of pulque is similar to that of beer, which was positively viewed as a modern drink, and that it is actually very nutritious, lends weight to Toner’s claims that the anti-pulque crusades were more about a power struggle between the classes than genuine concerns about the well-being of the poor. “Rather than really understanding the inequalities within Mexican society [the upper classes] blamed pulque and a few other things for, in their eyes, the backwards condition of the Mexican lower classes. So it’s built into really quite hostile class politics that have shaped Mexican society.”
Pulque weathered the storm, but some of the negative connotations have stuck and, since the mid-20th century, modern consumer trends have also contributed to its demise. Although pulque still survives and retains an iconic status in Mexican culture, its consumption has been on the decline as beer, wines and spirits have moved in to partially take its place.
That trend is far from unique. There are many regional speciality drinks threatened by the tsunami of globalised commerce, which in the 21st century can sweep across even the most geographically isolated markets. Products which can be made quickly and cheaply, and transported easily, will always have a decisive economic advantage over local products made more slowly and on a smaller scale. But often the same pressures that threaten these drinks can also come to their rescue. As the global drinks market experiences a backlash against products perceived as generic, many producers have been able to market their own, region-specific drinks as an ‘authentic’ or more interesting alternative and, in doing so, expand their customer base.
Pulque cannot make such a pact with the devil, even if it wanted to. One of the drink’s peculiarities is that it can only keep for a matter of days, before it begins to become first thick and then slimy and, ultimately, undrinkable. Its traditional reach, the absolute furthest it can be transported, is around 100km into Mexico City. And while attempts have been made to produce tinned, pasteurised pulque for the ex-pat Mexican community, they have been met with disdain by many – Toner says she is yet to meet someone who believes it to be anything close to the fresh original.
And it’s here, perhaps, that pulque’s true rebel spirit comes out: it is a drink that refuses to march to the beat of globalised commerce. It can’t be marketed, packaged or exported – if you want it, you have to go and get it, at the point of production, where it is crafted by hand, in small batches. And it has to be enjoyed there, in the moment, with no stockpiling or taking bottles away as souvenirs. It is the antithesis of modern consumption, proudly and almost absurdly anachronistic. “In contrast to things like craft cider and craft ale, where you could make those products into well commercialised ones that can still be distributed over a large geographical area, with pulque you really can’t,” says Toner. “Pulque can’t adapt to those kinds of changes, so it almost has to resist.”
There are parallels in pulque’s plight to that of medieval ale. Locally made in small batches and highly perishable, that drink didn’t survive the arrival of hops and the birth of the commercial drinks industry. Yet pulque is older and has held out for longer. Can it defy the odds and stretch out into a third millennium?
Perhaps surprisingly, Deborah Toner says there is “cautious optimism”. One reason, she says, is the growing appreciation of Mexican cuisine, and, within that, a recognition, “for the first time”, of the indigenous contribution to food and drink. There is an increasing interest and pride in indigenous heritage, manifested in regional food festivals, in which pulque plays an important role.
The importance of the maguey plant to sustainable agriculture is another factor in pulque’s favour. Not only can the plant grow in poor-quality soil unsuitable for other commercial crops, but in doing so it helps to prevent soil erosion. This makes it worthwhile for farmers to continue to grow maguey – and make pulque – even if on a smaller scale than in the past, and even if only for consumption within local co-operatives. There are also signs that a new generation of Mexicans are beginning to take an interest in this quirky sweet-and-sour drink that has played such an important part in their national history, and which is becoming once again a source of regional pride.
But above all, there is a sense that pulque is just too deeply a part of the soul of Mexico for it to die now. “It’s been a part of Mexican culture, albeit in different ways, for the best part of 2,000 years,” Toner says. “So regardless of the market forces that have led to the decline in pulque, it’s difficult for it to disappear entirely because it’s so embedded.”