by Russ Motley, Akumal Investments (April 2012)
Tequila 101 covered the different types of tequila and their related characteristics. Tequila 102 went into some of the background and history of tequila, and then moved into the production side of the liquor. Tequila 103 is taking a sidetrack to look into pulque, the fermented sap from the agave plant.
Remember, by the time the Spanish arrived, the Aztecs were harvesting the maguey (agave) plant and crushing its root into a pulp, producing the sap of the plant. The sap was fermented and called pulque. No drink is more Mexican than pulque, not even tequila or mezcal. Mexicans have consumed pulque since Aztec times, and no fewer than four Aztec deities are devoted to the beverage. Though it is made from the same plant as tequila (the magical maguey), pulque is not distilled.
Olmec legend credits the discovery of aguamiel to a woman, Mayahuetl, and fermentation of the sap to her husband, Petecatl. Aztec legend says fermented maguey sap was revealed to them by the gods who split a ripe plant with a lightning bolt. To the Nahuatl, the maguey was divine, represented by the goddess Mayahuel, who had 400 breasts, which oozed pulque.
A similar legend says Mayahuel, a farmer's wife, was chasing rabbits from her agave fields, when she found a rabbit that staggered in circles instead of running. She found it had been drinking aguamiel from the heart of an agave. So she and her husband collected the nectar in a jar, and drank it after work. It made them happy, fearless, then sleepy. Afterwards, Mayahuel was made goddess of the agave, and was sometimes pictured by the Aztecs sitting in the middle of an agave, with a rabbit nearby.
The Maguey Plant
The maguey plant, also called a "century plant" in English, is native to Mexico. It grows best in the cold, dry climates of the rocky central highlands to the north and east of Mexico City, especially in Hidalgo and Tlaxcala states. The plant historically has had a number of uses. Fibers can be extracted from the thick leaves to make rope or fabric, its thorns can be used as needles or punches, and the membrane covering the leaves can be used as paper or for cooking. The name "maguey" was given by the Spanish, who picked it up from the Taíno. This is still its common name in Spanish, with "agave" being its technical name.
When the plant reaches maturity, the center begins to swell and elongate. This is when the plant gathers stored sugar to send up a single flower stalk, which may reach up to 20 feet in height. However, plants destined for pulque production have this flower stalk cut off, leaving a depressed surface 12–18 inches in diameter. In this center, the maguey sap, known as aguamiel, collects. It takes a maguey plant 12 years before it is mature enough to produce the sap for pulque.
To harvest the agave sap, the tlachiquero cuts a cavity into a ripe (10–12-year-old) maguey piña. The sap (aguamiel) flows into this hollow and is siphoned off by hand, using a long-necked gourd (acocote), or a hollow stick of bamboo, and carried in a pitcher (apilote). An agave may produce five to eight liters of sap a day, but it has to be collected frequently, because natural fermentation from airborne yeasts and bacteria will start.
A good maguey can last up to a year, or some sources even say as long as three years, and will continue to produce many liters of aguamiel during that period. However, most agaves last four–six months.
The sap is collected in a wooden barrel and fermented overnight in a place called a tinacal (a place where the tinas, or fermentation tubs, are stored). Sometimes it is fermented with cultivated yeast, but more often from naturally occurring yeasts from the air or the leaves of the maguey.
Unlike tequila or mezcal, the agave sap is not cooked prior to fermentation for pulque.
Pulque is fermented from the uncooked agave syrup or nectar that collects in the hollowed head of the plant. Fermentation using natural yeast can take up to 10 days, and a small amount of the final product is saved as a starter for the next batch. The aguamiel has about 10 percent natural sugars.
Pulque is fermented but not distilled, resulting in a sweet, milky and fruity drink, rich in vitamins but prone to going sour from continued fermentation by airborne yeasts. Its content is 100 percent natural, providing thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and pantothenic acid, as well as helpful microbes to aid digestion.
Pulque makers sometimes use various fruit to accelerate fermentation. Reportedly, a muñeca ("doll"—a rag or sock filled with human feces) is used, being dipped in to start the fermentation process.
Most pulque is consumed in bars called "pulquerías". Pulquerías thrived during the colonial period (1520–1810), because many were integral to the large haciendas and became a source of significant revenue. The Iturbe family near Apan produced about 110 barrels (27,500 liters) of pulque daily on their farm at Hacienda San Nicolas de Grande—the largest producer of its day.
By the early 20th century, pulquerías became socially accepted and some were places of great elegance. But, whether for rich or poor, two features stood out among these establishments—odd or catchy names, and murals decorating the walls. Names included (translated) "My Office," "Memories of the Future," "Drink and Go," "I'm Waiting for You Here at the Corner" and, across the street from the National Chamber of Deputies, "The Recreation Center of Those Across the Street."
One tradition maintained at all pulquerías was to put sawdust on the floor. The tradition at that time was to begin a pulque-drinking session by spilling a little on the floor or ground as an offering to Mother Earth. Traditional pulquerías tend to be like clubs with closed membership, with casual visitors ignored or sometimes stared at. While some establishments may forbid women, it is much more common for the establishment to provide a separate seating area for them.
Traditionally, pulque is served from large barrels on ice and served into glasses, using a "jicara," which is a half of a calabash tree gourd. The bartender is called a "jicarero." In a pulquería, the word "cruzado" means something like "bottoms up".
Pulque comes two ways: plain or flavored. Known as curados, flavored pulques may use strawberry, mango, guava, celery, beet or even oatmeal. Though many aficionados imbibe only the pure stuff, beginners may find curados more palatable.
Moving from Pulque to Mezcal and Tequila
The Spanish, longing for a stronger drink than pulque, used their knowledge of the distillation process to create mezcal from the pulque. A second distillation process was added, and the final product was tequila, as we know it today.
If you are still wondering about the differences between pulque, mezcal and tequila, and need further clarification and/or additional information, Russ Motley at Akumal Investments can readily point out the differences in the processes and Akumal properties for sale.
Watch for Tequila 104.