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Rebirth for an Ancient Elixir - Pulque

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Mexico's pulque, once the drink of Aztec kings, is suddenly hip.

MEXICO CITY - Time has not been kind to pulque, a thick, milky alcoholic drink enjoyed by Aztec kings long before the Spanish arrived but largely reviled and ridiculed by the modern age.

While Mexico City boasted some 1,500 pulque bars, or pulquerías, before the Mexican Revolution, nearly a century later that number has dwindled to just a few dozen, leading many to forecast pulque's extinction. It was an ignominious decline for the mysterious elixir, which was once far more popular here than beer.

But then something unexpected happened. Pulque became cool.

Thanks to renewed interest from hip, young Mexicans and technological advances, pulque (pronounced pool-kay) may be headed for a rebirth on both sides of the border.

After 2,000 years, enterprising entrepreneurs have finally figured out a way to tame the frothy pulque, pasteurizing it, putting it in bottles and cans, and exporting it to the United States. Previously it was impossible to ship pulque long distances because it kept fermenting, becoming undrinkable.

At least three companies have begun exporting pulque to Texas and other states in the past two years, hoping to appeal to homesick Mexican immigrants and daring Americans.

Simultaneously, hordes of Mexican youngsters are discovering the alcoholic beverage and, in the process, transforming the traditional pulquería from rough-and-tumble places that used to be the exclusive haunt of old men.

Emilio Ramírez, a 75-year-old seller of bootleg compact discs, has watched with wonder as his local pulquería, the Blue Bird in southern Mexico City, evolved in recent years.

"Before, it was just us old guys who drank pulque," marveled Ramírez, struggling to be heard over the rock 'n' roll that has replaced the traditional ranchera songs on the jukebox. "But now you see all these young people."

"This is the coolest," said 25-year-old Cristóbal López, a university student sharing a bucket of green, pistachio-flavored pulque with two friends. "Pulque is something different. You can find beer anywhere, but pulque isn't so easy to get."

People have been drinking pulque in Central Mexico for millennia, tapping the juice of the maguey, a cactus that is also the foundation of mezcal and tequila. The maguey juice is then fermented, resulting in a milky drink with about 5 percent alcohol and a distinctive, thick texture. Pulque also can be sweetened with a dizzying array of flavors, from pineapple and strawberry to pine nuts and celery.

The Aztecs used pulque in religious ceremonies and restricted its use to nobles.

After the Spanish Conquest, pulque became the drink of Mexico's lower classes, reaching its zenith at the beginning of the 20th century when swaggering revolutionary fighters favored it.

But the last century saw a sharp decline in pulque's popularity, directly related to the rise of beer and smear campaigns against the beverage by fledgling breweries.

Beer makers sought to link pulque with images of uncleanliness, especially compared to crisp, bottled beer.

Just as pulque has acquired a retro coolness in Mexico, pulque exporters are hoping pulque in bottles and cans can give the drink new life in the United States.

"It's the most Mexican drink we have. Even tequila came after the arrival of the Spanish," said Rodolfo Del Razo, who exports pulque. "Pulque was abandoned for so long, but now we're seeing young people in the United States get into it, mixing it with their cocktails."

Boulder Imports, with offices in Colorado and San Antonio, began importing its Lucha brand of pulque last year. The company sells its pulque throughout Central Texas, with more than two dozen liquor and convenience stores stocking the drink in Austin.

The company hopes pulque follows in the footsteps of tequila, which also struggled for acceptance until breaking through in a big way in recent decades.

"I definitely think pulque will become much more well known and accepted in the United States," said Harry Leeper, an executive with Boulder Imports. "The idea of something authentic and real takes root without much effort. It will transcend borders."

By Jeremy Schwartz

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