A Guide to Pulque, Mexico’s Kombucha on Steroids
Forget Tequila and Mezcal—Try Pulque
If you’re in Mexico City want to experience a true taste of Mexico—one that encapsulates the country’s storied history and one you cannot try anywhere else—forget tequila and mezcal. Try pulque instead.
Pulque is a three-to-eight percent alcoholic drink made from fermented maguey sap. It’s a mixture of slimy, sweet, seductive, and sensational that’s naturally cloudy like yogurt mixed with water. It’s delicious (well that depends), nutritious (surprisingly so), and truly one-of-a-kind.
You better be thirsty because we’ve got a curiosity-quenching guide to everything Pulque coming right up.
A Brief and Entertaining History of Pulque
“The Drink of the Gods”
The Aztecs called pulque “the drink of the gods.” It was only allowed to be consumed during special ceremonies or by people in need of its magical nutritional properties: women with babies, sick people, and the elderly.
Anyone caught drinking pulque otherwise had their hair cut off. Second time offenders were put to death.
Centuries passed and pulque persevered and prospered. Restrictions on consumption vanished with the Aztecs and by the early 1900s it was the most popular alcoholic drink in Mexico. There were over 1,000 pulquerias (pulque bars) in Mexico City at the time.
Crappy Marketing (Literally)
When beer showed up with its sidekicks, liquor and wine, pulque was in trouble.
These newcomers had something pulque didn’t: A long shelf life. This meant they could be manufactured and distributed on an industrial scale and sold more profitably than pulque ever could. Pulque was in big trouble.
To make pulque drinkers puke, brewers spread rumors that pulque makers sped up fermentation by throwing “dolls” made of cow and human poo wrapped in cheesecloth into their vats. This was a complete lie. The truth is pulque production is impeccably clean; pulque would spoil immediately if any doll was thrown in, let alone one made of poo.
The truth about these “poo dolls” is that they were used, but to ferment tequila and mezcal, not pulque. Don’t worry, though; It was a short-lived experiment.
For poor pulque, the shit hit the fan and spread. Soon, only people who were beyond industrial brewers’ reach—mostly poor farmers—continued drinking pulque. Pulque earned a reputation for being a poor person’s drink. The “drink of the gods” became seen as “the drink of the dogs.”
Tough to Swallow
By the late 1900s, pulque producers were counting on tourism to keep them afloat.
This was tough going because pulque was all too frequently compared to semen, due to its color and consistency. For many tourists (except maybe a very particular niche), this made the idea of trying pulque tough to swallow.
If pulque promoters had instead compared it to sake or a watery-pancake-batter-ish alcoholic yogurt instead, maybe it would’ve become more of an attraction.
Kombucha with Attitude
In this century, microbrewing and slow food are becoming all the rage in Mexico. And you know what’s always been brewed artisanally in small quantities and is farm-to-(bar)table by necessity?
At last, locals and tourists alike have begun to realize what the Aztecs already knew thousands of years ago: Pulque is a nutritious, delicious (ok, acquired taste) drink of the gods.
Pulque is enjoying a renaissance. And the next time you find yourself in Mexico City or its surrounding, you should enjoy some pulque too.
How Pulque Is Made
Pulque comes from the agave plant like tequila and mezcal but from a different species. (Actually one of seven different species.) Here’s how it’s made.
- Grow a big ol’ agave plant: Agave plants need seven to twelve years to mature and be ready for pulque production. At this point, producers cut open the plant’s “heart” before it flowers, as this is what contains the “aguamiel,” or sap that is fermented to make pulque. A single agave plant can yield 4-6 liters aguamiel a day for close four to six months—or 1,000 liters of pulque total.
- Suck out the sap: Twice a day, pulque producers scrape the sap from the cavity of the plant, which stimulates the plant to produce more, then remove it, traditionally sucking through a long dried gourd.
- Say “Hi” to your madre: The sap is collected in large vats of up to 1,000 liters, into which a “madre pulque,” or a mature pulque is added to speed up the fermentation. Knowing when pulque is ready is an art. Fermentation can take anywhere from 4 to 13 days, so pulque producers keep a close watch.
- Hurry up and drink it: Just before it reaches its optimal foaminess and balance of sweetness from the original sap and sourness from fermentation, it is packed up and shipped to be consumed. Pulque is a living drink that continues fermenting right until it is consumed, so it is a race to get it to the pulquerias and into thirsty patrons’ cups as fast as possible.
Pulque’s Nutritional Value
The Good News
“If pulque had a fancy degree, it’d be meat.”
This quote is a translation of the common saying about pulque, “Sólo le falta un grado para ser carne.” Some say it because they argue pulque and meat have similar nutritional values.
That’s pushing it, but pulque certainly has more going for it than beer. Roughly, here are the nutritional values of 1 liter of pulque*:
- 200 calories
- 11 g. of carbs
- 4 g protein
- 2 mg Vitamin B1
- 2 mg Vitamin B2
- 57 mg Vitamin C
- 100 mg Calcium
- 80 mg Phosphorus
- 7 mg Iron
*This is for plain pulque. The nutritional value of curado will differ based on the types and amounts of fruit, nut, grain, or honey it is blended with.
Pulque’s Other Possible Health Benefits
- It can repair gut mucus
- Treats kidney issues
- Rich in probiotic bacteria which is good for your gut and entire digestive system
- Can be used to treat lack of appetite
- Has enzymes that activate the metabolism
- Contains melatonin, which can be used to treat people suffering from insomnia
- Believed to increase the quantity and quality of breastfeeding mothers’ milk
- Some call pulque, “the Mexican Viagra” (which makes one wonder again about the repeated comparisons to semen).
The Not-So-Great News
Pulque curado is saturated with not-as-healthy sweet honey and fruit of dubious provenance.
Oh, and too much alcohol is bad for your health.
More Fun Facts and Tips About Pulque
- Always ask for samples first! Ask for a sample of the different curado flavors before getting a mug. Some places don’t advertise it, but every one we went to gave sample sizes of each when requested (except for La Nuclear, which charged a money-hungry 10 pesos per sample).
- Make sure it’s not rotten. Pulque only lasts about three days (five max if refrigerated) before going bad. In addition to sampling the curados, ask for a sample of the natural pulque to make sure it hasn’t gone bad.
- A different animal. Pulque is not fermented with yeast like wine or beer. Its fermentation process and the organism that does it is completely different.
- The goddess of pulque is Mayahuel, who has 400 breasts from which frothy pulque comes out.
- The world “pulque” is a misinterpretation by the Spanish of the term “octli poliuhqui” a Nahuatl term for over-fermented pulque. Octli is the correct term in Nahuatl.
- Canned pulque? Some companies, like Pulque Hacienda 1881, have developed methods to pasteurize pulque so it can be canned and exported, but even they admit the flavor is not the same as the fresh, living stuff.
Pulque for First-Timers: Pulque Curado
If you’ve never tried pulque before, we don’t recommend you start by drinking pure pulque. That’d be the equivalent of someone who’s never had a cup of coffee in their life chugging a full mug of espresso.
You’re better off starting with what’s called “pulque curado.”
Pulque curado is natural pulque mixed with agave honey and blended with fruit or nuts. It’s like having a pumpkin spiced latte.
TIP: If you have a real sweet tooth, by all means get a curado. Otherwise, ask for a “campechano.” A campechano is half curado, half natural. It’s a less-overwhelming balance between sweet and sour.
Mexico City Pulquerias
You can only get real pulque near the high plains of Central Mexico where it is produced, so make sure you check one (or many) pulquerias out when you visit.
Here are some of our favorite Mexico City pulquerias, plus a map of every one in the city that’s maintained by a national pulque society.
The Pulque Palace: Pulqueria Insurgentes
A multi-story pulque palace right on the border of La Condesa and Roma Norte, Pulquería Insurgentes is a convenient and tourist-friendly place to try pulque for the first time (or the millionth time). If it’s warm out, go up the stairs to the awesome rooftop part of the bar. The downstairs is darker and louder (with music) and a fun place to go at night. Pulque is two-for-one on Sundays and Mondays.
Old-School Awesomeness: Pulquería la Pirata
Without a doubt, Pulqueria la Pirata was the most old-school pulqueria we visited. It’s located in the neighborhood directly south of La Condesa and is definitely worth making a detour to if you’re looking for a local Mexico City pulque experience. The walls are decorated with classy Playboy-esque photos of a naked lady taken there sixty years ago, the back room is invariably populated with a group of pulque-infused regulars, and the bar is manned by a stoic mustachioed pulque professional. It’s Chris’ favorite pulqueria in Mexico City.
Pulque Propaganda-Land: La Hija de los Apaches
Everything about La Hija de los Apaches is delightful. The interior is plastered with over-the-top ridiculous propaganda promoting pulque and its owner, ex-boxer Epifanio “El Pife” Leyva Ortega. The service was the most friendly of any Mexico City pulqueria we went to—the manager even offered to take a photo of us. The other clientele were friendly too—one invited us to his table and offered to buy the next round. And the pulque, well it tastes like pulque.
Ol’ Faithful: Pulqueria las Duelistas
When you Google “pulquerias in Mexico City,” Las Duelistas is invariably the one you’ll see in every list. Located in the Centro Historico, it’s an institution for locals and tourists alike. Even when we went at 2:22 p.m. on a Monday the place was almost completely full. We shared a table with a couple of ladies who looked to be secretaries out on a “coffee break.” You too can count on sitting beside people from all walks of life here.
Hippy, Hipster: Spiritu Santo
A couple blocks west of Bellas Artes, Spiritu Santo is a smaller pulqueria whose decor is reminiscent of a microbrewery and whose vibe is a mix between hippy and hipster. Service was friendly but lackadaisical and a mix of reggae and rap was blaring. When we went the curado options were pineapple, peach, and apple (25 pesos for 0.5 liters) or natural (15 pesos). For those who are taking a break from pulque, they also serve cheap beer and mezcal.
The Least Favorite: La Nuclear
The ceramic mugs, saloon-style doors, and murals like the one of Mayahuel squirting pulque out of her breast into an Aztec man’s cup at La Nuclear are cool. Other than that, we hated the place. The service was horribly unfriendly. They took over ten minutes to even address us as we stood at the bar waiting to order then acted almost offended when we asked to get a campechano of half chocolate (the only flavor they had ready) and half regular. Worse still, they charge for samples and their pulque is overpriced (40 pesos for half a liter, 70 pesos for a whole liter).
Pulque Ice Cream!: Helado Obscuro
Instead of drinking pulque go to either of Helado Obscuro‘s locations and lick it! Helado Obsucro makes boozy, three percent alcohol ice creams. In addition to flavors like sangria-grapefruit-mezcal and pineapple-coconut-rum, they make one (or more) that contain pulque.
Mexico City Pulqueria Map
Here’s a comprehensive map of all the pulque-selling establishments in and around Mexico City made by Pulque Nuestro. The locations labeled with red circles with squiggles inside are closed down; As for what all the other symbols mean, your guess is as good as ours.
In any case, you can download this map to Google Maps on your phone by following these simple instructions.
The following resources are the sources of all of the above information about Pulque.
- El pulque: propiedades medicinales y nutricionales de esta bebida, by MasDeMX.com lists a few medicinal properties, and has a photo with some funny non-medicinal benefits as well
- Porqué el Pulque Es la Comida Lenta por Excelencia en México, by ViaOrganica.com is a well-referenced (better than this) post full of facts about pulque, its history, nutritional properties, and future
- 7 cosas quee deberías saber acerca del pulque, by AnimalGourmet.com has a good quick list of seven facts of pulque
- Componentes del Pulque, nutrición y salud, by Ocioltura.com shares the nutritional breakdown of pulque according to pulque distributor Pulmex
- Pulque post on Wikipedia (in Spanish) has the most comprehensive history of pulque online
- Pulque: era mucho más que una bebida alcohólica, era la bebida de los dioses prehispánicos, by Xataka.com has a readable overview of the history, myths, legends, and business of pulque
- 5 efectos positivos del pulque en tu cuerpo, by Salud180.com lists 5 benefits of pulque, all backed with references
- Can Pulque Fight Capitalism?, by Hypocrite Reader is an essay about pulque’s inherent anti-capitalist strenghts and more importantly shares the fun fact about punishments for Aztec pulque-drinkers
- Pulque, a Traditional Mexican Alcoholic Fermented Beverage: Historical, Microbiological, and Technical Aspects, is a published research paper on pulque that is as dry to read as its title implies, but is jam-packed with information and, surprisingly, has the cartoon diagram on pulque production included above
Source: the unconventional route
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