If you can look past its hot-spit texture, it's slightly off-seeming flavor, and its strong resemblance to certain bodily fluids, pulque isn't just good, old-fashioned way to get tanked—it's also an excellent vehicle for your daily dose of nutrients.
The ancient people of Mesoamerica knew this. Just a short drive northeast from modern-day Mexico City sits the ancient highland city of Teotihuacan. Founded around 150 BC, it was the largest city in pre-Hispanic Mesoamerica at the time. Archaeologists estimate that it was home to a population of 100,000 to 250,000 people at its height.
This was not Mexico's Fertile Crescent, though. A combination of high altitude, low rainfall, and a lack of groundwater made agriculture a significant challenge at times, especially for a who people subsisted largely on maize. A drought could spell starvation.
But there was, perhaps, another option during food crises. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims to have isolated the earliest direct chemical evidence of pulque production in Teotihuacan, utilizing a new approach for detecting traces of pulque's signature bacterium by analyzing potsherds from amphorae and ollas that stored the stuff. Significantly, the study's authors suggest that Mesoamericans might have turned to this milky, sour, boozy beverage to meet their nutritional needs in tough times.
A primeval cousin to mezcal, pulque is made from the maguey plant and falls in the same general family as beer, perry, and cider. As the maguey grows, pulque-makers cut out a section of its core, which becomes a reservoir for a thick, sticky, sugary sap called aguamiel. After the sap has been collected and placed into fermentation vessels, both naturally occurring yeasts and a bacterium called Zymomona mobilis begin the alcohol-production process, which is rapid: Pulque can be ready to drink in as little as four hours, though many modern producers allow the fermentation to continue for as long as two weeks. Its shelf life is exquisitely short, too—older pulque tends to be a little bit rank and can take on the flavor and appearance of semen.
But pulque isn't simply a way to get drunk. (Most pulque has a relatively mild alcohol content anyway, at around 4 to 6 percent.) It's also a highly nutritious food that the researchers say could have been used as a dietary supplement when food stocks ran low. And because maguey is typically hardier than corn, it could withstand dry spells and frost.
An 1895 article from the Reading Eagle called pulque "a fire water that makes the hot blood of the Mexicans seethe and boil" and notes that, after it is collected in sheepskin bags, "it has then contracted the odor of putrid animal matter…and is so disagreeable that a stranger turns from it in disgust."
For starters, pulque's viscous texture makes it more filling than a typical beer. It's also chock-full of lactic acid bacteria and other probiotics, as well as vitamin C, which can help with the absorption of necessary minerals. Even more important is the presence of phytase, which some research suggests can bind to corn and increase the bioavailabilty of iron and zinc. (That's especially important if your diet relies heavily on tortillas and beans.) Even today, some pregnant women and new mothers in Mexico drink pulque with the belief that it promotes lactation.
Perhaps because of this, pulque was long considered a sacred beverage in Mesoamerica. After the arrival the Spanish, production and consumption of pulque grew considerably as it became an important source of tax revenue. After the country gained independence, pulque haciendas cropped up all over, and pulque was widely considered Mexico's national drink.
Outsiders, however, didn't quite understand the appeal. An 1895 article from the Reading Eagle called pulque "a fire water that makes the hot blood of the Mexicans seethe and boil" and notes that, after it is collected in sheepskin bags, "it has then contracted the odor of putrid animal matter…and is so disagreeable that a stranger turns from it in disgust."
At the turn of the 20th century, beer quickly eclipsed pulque, which came to be seen as inferior, as though it were some kind of backwoods moonshine only imbibed by the lowest of the social stratosphere out of sheer desperation. Today, there are still a handful of pulquerias dispensing foamy cups of the stuff across Mexico City and elsewhere, and it's even seen something of a resurgence among Mexico's hipster crowd.
Still, it's nowhere near the heights it once enjoyed. Blame its acrid flavor, blame its slimy texture, but you can't can't accuse pulque of being nothing but empty calories.