Illustration of hands holding pulque with agave plant in background
Spirits & Liqueurs Tequila & Mezcal

What Is Pulque? A Guide to Mexico’s Ancestral Beverage

The refreshing and viscous drink is an ancestor of mezcal.

It’s perhaps only natural that the boom in agave-based spirits would lead to an increased public interest in one of Mexico’s ancestral beverages: pulque. Throughout Mexico City and in surrounding cities and states, one can find pulquerías, tabernas, and other establishments in which to consume this refreshing and viscous drink, made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. 

Pulque’s production is fueled in equal parts by a pride in national identity and by the microorganisms found within the drink that work alongside raspadores or tlachiqueros, the people behind its harvest, fermentation, and culture.

Agave illustration
Many agave varieties can be used in pulque production. / Laura Sant

On a microscopic scale, pulque is fermented using wild yeasts and not through cultured yeasts in a lab. But before diving into its production techniques, one must understand the significance of pulque’s history and how it factors into Mexican drinking culture today. Though pulque is often historically revered as the beverage of Aztec ritual and deities, the drink predates even the Aztec civilization by millennia.

When Did Pulque Originate?

There is no exact recorded date for when pulque was first consumed, but archaeological evidence suggests the drink may date to at least 2000 B.C. with the Hñähñú (nyaa-nyuu) peoples of central Mexico, also known as the Otomí. Ancient Mayan glyphs featured a fermented agave beverage that was not only imbibed but also represented as being used for enemas. Pulque, along with other fermented beverages of Mexico, is recorded to have been also consumed by other peoples and civilizations in Mexico.

Its name is thought to be derived from the Nahuatl “poliuhqui,” meaning “decomposed.” However, it was also known as “octili” or “wine” to to the Nahuatl- speaking Aztec, “xè” in Ixcateco, “zo” in Zapoteco, and “chih” to the Mayas. This linguistic variance goes to show how vital pulque was, and remains, throughout many communities. 

Pulque tinacal illustration
To produce pulque, the sap of mature agave plants ferments naturally in a tinacal. / Laura Sant

During the Spanish colonization of Mexico and the downfall of the Aztec empire, the religious and spiritual associations of pulque consumption were dismantled. Pulque became an everyday drink for Mexicans of the time, though in 1692 the crown would attempt to enforce a short-lived prohibition on the production and consumption of pulque in the capital.

Carrying on as the drink of the masses, pulque outlived the colonization of the Spanish. Some of the haciendas where pulque was being made persisted up until the Mexican Revolution in the early 1900s. Around this time, beer and its mass production were introduced  to Mexico, and an effective smear campaign painted pulque as an unhygienic and unsanitary beverage that was “fermented with cow droppings.” Beer, meanwhile, was portrayed as clean, sanitary, and European. The idea, from beer producers, was to make their product synonymous with refinement and modernity. 

In Mexico City, the amount of pulquerías and tabernas soon dwindled, replaced by cantinas and bar rooms where beer and eventually distillates such as tequila would become the drinks of the masses. Although pulque may not be as popular as it once was, remnants of its legacy live on in the few pulquerías that continue to exist in Mexico City, and some communities still practice the extraction of pulque for commercial sale and consumption in the rural areas that surround the city. 

How is Pulque Made?

Unlike other agave-based beverages like tequila and mezcal that are distilled from cooked and fermented agave, pulque is uncooked and fermented, but not distilled. While there are certain regional variances in its production techniques, most pulque follows a similar process.

Once an agave is mature (which takes, on average, about 10 years), it is permitted to begin its reproduction cycle where a shoot, or quiote, is allowed to sprout. The quiote is then cut off, and the agave rests for a minimum of a month before it is harvested so the sugars in the agave can concentrate inside the plant.

Agave plant quiote
The flowering quiote, or shoot, is cut off before the agave plant is harvested. / Laura Sant

After an agave plant is deemed ready for harvest by the raspador or tlachiquero, parts of its blades are cut off to allow access to the center of the agave bulb, or piña. The spiky blades surrounding the opening to the bulb are shaved off to avoid any scratches or torn clothing for the harvesters, and the top of the now-exposed bulb is carved until it begins to release a sap. This carving and scraping can be performed with a specialty piece of metal used specifically for agave processing, or with a flat stone. 

This initial sap, known as aguamiel, or honey water, is sweet and refreshing. The aguamiel is collected by an acocote, an oblong, hollow, and dried gourd with an opening at both ends. The tlachiquero places one end of the acocote into an agave bulb, then sucks aguamiel out of the plant until the acocote is filled. After removing the acocote from the now-empty bulb, the tlachiquero covers the hole in the lower end of the acocote with their finger to preserve the aguamiel, which they then empty into a separate receptacle. 

Though acocote created from dried gourds are an ancient tool that can still be found in some pulque-producing communities, modern tlachiqueros often recreate the device with recycled plastic two-liter soda bottles and a touch of Mexican ingenuity.

The agave can release anywhere from one to 18 liters of sap, depending on the exact species of plant and its sugar content. It is usually scraped twice a day, once in the early morning before the day’s heat and once in the early evening. After it’s harvested for pulque, the agave requires constant attention. It can continue to produce aguamiel for up to three to six months, again depending on the type of agave and its sugar content. If left unsupervised, the agave can begin to rot from its cavity and will die.

The agave’s cavity is then covered to avoid contamination or pesky animals that will try to drink the leaking sap. The collected aguamiel is taken to a tinacal, a large and open-air wooden container used to ferment the aguamiel, or a similar type of receptacle that allows the aguamiel to ferment using ambient wild yeast.

Tlachiquero harvesting pina of agave plant for pulque
Tlachiqueros harvest aguamiel by carving out part of the agave piña, or heart. / Laura Sant

Like mezcal, there are several types of agave species that can make pulque, which are referred to as agave pulqueros, or pulque-producing agave. Some of the most notable agave species are Agave americana, A. atrovirens, A. hookeri, A. salmiana, and A. marmorata, just to name a few. Though these are the scientific names of some of the agaves used, there are many regionally-specific names for these agaves, which could be an entire discussion topic on its own. 

What Does Pulque Taste Like?

After finishing fermentation, pulque usually reaches an ABV of 2–7%, once again depending on the type of agave and sugar content, but also depending on how long it was left to ferment. 

Much like mezcal, pulque cannot be neatly categorized under a single flavor profile, and its flavors can vary depending on regional preferences or the type of agave from which it originates. Pulque can range from light and effervescent like a frizzante wine to thick and viscous like the texture of nopales or okra. There is sweet pulque and there is brighter, more acidic pulque. 

In Mexico City you’ll find many curados, or cured or flavored pulque (though these are less common outside of the city). Some are made with the juice or pulp of fruits and vegetables like tomato or celery, while others are mixed with dairy elements to create creamy flavors such as cookies and cream or chocolate. Curados are an attempt to make pulque a more palatable experience for those who are not used to its unique flavors, though there is some backlash that the technique can also be used to cover up poor-quality pulque and mask rancid, vinegary off-flavors. They also sometimes include hidden additives, such as artificial sugars or nopales, which are used to make the drink more viscous. 

Agave plant illustration / Laura Sant

Where Can Pulque Be Made?

There is no existing denomination of origin for pulque, though there are movements and attempts in Hidalgo to create one for its regional variation. Certain pulque regulations date to 1976, but these are quite outdated and list taxonomic agave names that are no longer in use in contemporary agave studies. And though much of the pulque that is produced is brought to Mexico City for sale, some nearby states continue to cultivate their own pulque scenes, such as Estado de Mexico, Hidalgo, Tlaxcala, and Puebla. 

There have been recent attempts to industrialize pulque in bottles and cans. These mass-produced pulques are often laden with additives meant to delay or seize fermentation but can also significantly alter the flavor of what authentic pulque should taste like. As a conscientious consumer, you can always ask where the pulque is from or when it was harvested. Or, if you’re visiting Mexico, you can hire one of the many tour guides available who will support local pulque producers directly. After all, the best pulque is consumed with a clean conscience, from its natural source.