Por qué pulque: Why Pulque Is the Quintessential Slow Food of Mexico
By Griffin Klement
Unlike the dead and flavorless lagers most commonly associated with Mexico today, pulque is a living, complex brew that, despite a nearly 2,000-year history of production in Mexico, has resisted all attempts at bottling and large-scale commercialization. It was pulque’s unique fermentation process, and the simple fact that it tastes better fresh, which led to its decline in popularity over the last half of the 20th century. Due to smear campaigns launched by beer and spirit companies unable to commoditize the beverage, pulque was forced out to the campo and until recently was viewed as an inferior beverage by a majority of Mexicans.
Today, however, pulque is experiencing a gradual comeback, due in large part to the growing slow food and natural health movements in Mexico, which have resulted in increased interest in the benefits of indigenous and locally produced food and drink. The reason pulque is the quintessential slow food of Mexico lies in its unique and delicate fermentation process in which a vivacious team of indigenous bacteria transform the sweet freshly harvested aguamiel (agave nectar) into a complex, frothy drink that goes down smooth and has a range of nutritional benefits (along with a pleasant buzz).
Although scientists and fermented food aficionados are just now taking the time to identify the nutritional benefits of pulque, it has long been considered a health supplement in the campo, especially for the elderly and those suffering from kidney ailments. What they have found is that the same complex and biodiverse fermentation process that gives pulque its unique flavor is also an important step in unlocking vital enzymes and vitamins, which many attribute to pulque’s centuries-old use as a nutritional and health supplement. Nutritional analysis indicates that fermentation increases the vitamin content of pulque from 5 to 29mg for thiamine, 54 to 515mg for niacin and 18 to 33mg for riboflavin.
What is fascinating is that, unlike beer and wine in which sugars are transformed by Saccharomyces yeast, pulque uses another organism altogether. Pulque is fermented with the help of a species of bacteria that is found only on the leaves of the agave. These bacteria, known as Zmomonas mobilis, produce alcohol using a completely different mechanism than yeast and aid in unlocking the vitamin content of the aguamiel. The Zmomonas are not the lone workers in this biodiverse brew, however; there are also bacteria from the genus Leuconostoc, which produce dextrans giving pulque its unique frothy texture, and finally a variety of Lactobacilli, the bacteria typically associated with probiotics, fermentation, and gastrointestinal health.
The true artistry and magic of this ancient brew lies in the hands of the pulqueros who masterfully take into account temperature, humidity, and the sugar content of the aguamiel to craft a pulque that would make their forefathers proud. In order to better understand this process, I went out on horseback to visit Vía Organica’s favorite pulquera Doña Beatriz, who has been providing the Jalpa Valley’s finest pulque for over 25 years, and is a staple of the Vía Organica Eco-Tours.
Doña Beatriz and her son Iván explained that the pulque fermentation process starts with aguamiel which they harvest twice daily from a mature maguey (Agave Americana), a variety of agave cactus. When the maguey reaches 8 to 12 years of age, Iván opens a cavity in the heart of the agave, where the aguamiel then pools at a rate of about six liters per day for up to 10 months. They add this aguamiel to an ongoing ferment or seed it with “mother of pulque.” It generally takes between 4 and 13 days for the alcohol content to increase to anywhere between three and eight percent. At this point the pulque is ready to enjoy, as the sweetness of the aguamiel is balanced by the tartness produced through fermentation, and the beverage has taken on its characteristic frothy texture.
If you would like to experience pulque for yourself and learn more about the process, you can book a trip to visit one of the Jalpa Valley’s last remaining pulquerías on horseback though Vía Organica. More information at viaorganica.org/tours.
Griffin is the North American Project Director for the OCA, sister organization of Vía Orgánica A.C.