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Food by VICE

The Enigma of Pulque

Pulque is one of Mexico's oldest, iconic alcoholic beverages made from fermented agave. It looks like semen and has the texture of boogers, but it tastes like pure magic.

by Daniel Hernandez
Nov 28 2013, 5:53pm

Pulqueria La Pirata.

I've written quite a bit about pulque in passing. But in all the years that I've known about the ancient Mexican "drink of the gods," I've never been as stumped by it (as a subject) as the time not too long ago when a reader asked me to describe its taste. I couldn’t help but think, 'Well, pulque tastes like pulque, right?'

But what does that taste like? How does it feel? How does it look IRL? What does it smell like?

First and foremost, one of the most significant attributes of pulque is that many, many, people passionately dislike it. Yes, it's directly related to its sexier sibling, mezcal, but something about pulque immediately turns some people off. Some even say they will not dare to drink it. While the last five or six years have witnessed the rebirth of pulque in some sense, especially with the younger crowd in Mexico City, the reality is that its recent popularity amongst the cool kids is an anomaly. Truth is, most Mexicans don’t care much for what I consider to be one of human civilization's most wonderful creations, an alcoholic beverage that only exists in Mexico, and has been produced in the same way for literally thousands and thousands of years.

A cup of white pulque, from Pulques de Mi Abuelo in Tepoztlan, Morelos.

Why are people not into it?

It has to do with its taste, yes, but more likely with the fact that the texture of pulque is .... very strange. The fist sip of the drink will give you the sensation that you're swallowing saliva, or perhaps a cup of wet boogers, or—depending on the way you swing—cum or vaginal juices.

I am not saying its texture is a bad characteristic. On the contrary, for the loyal pulque consumer, the thick texture of the fermented sweet nectar of the maguey is a positive attribute. Its thickness is straight-up crazy, but at the same time, it can feel like the most natural and organic thing of the world. It’s grossly slimy, as if the drink was challenging your alcoholic expectations by saying,“This has been around for thousands of years, watch out, buddy!”

But what does it taste like?

“You have two options”, said a friend recently, “it can taste like semen or pussy.”

Pulques.

Rough but understandable terms, I suppose. Over the past few weeks, I started to taste pulques in Mexico City's Historic Center, Texcoco, just outside the capital, and in Tepoztlan, a touristy town in Morelos state where a pulquería—the name given to bars where pulques are sold—stands as the primary reason I like visiting the “pueblo mágico” (the so-called "magical towns" that are basically Mexico's government-approved tourist traps). In any case, this pulquería is located on the street leading up to the famous Tepozteco pyramid. It’s known as pulquería “De Mi Abuelo” (my grandfather) or “Con Don Alex” (with Don Alex). The exterior of the place has a hand-written sign stating that they only sell pulque there, while another hand-written sign says the drink is “substantial, nutritious, energetic, delicious.” That’s why it is “¡pura vida!” (pure life!)

I drank many white pulques and natural root beer there, which is the secret specialty of this place. To me, pulque still tasted like pulque.

Maybe the answer to its taste is found in what pulque is not, and what it’s not supposed to taste like. Javier Marín, probably the foremost self-proclaimed expert in pulques (he's collected thousands of objects related to the drink, including hundreds of vintage clay pulque pitchers), explained to me via phone from his home in the city of Puebla that pulque is not suppose to be smelly or gooey.

Interestingly, the strong rotten-ish smell that sometimes emerges from the surface of pulque actually means that it is old, as in, past its expiration date of a few precious days. Too much of a slimey, or "baba," texture, to pulque usually means that an extra nopal (cactus) was added, Marin told me, indicating that pulqueros who distribute pulque in the city add an extra nopalillo to their pulques because “the youngsters” these days seem to think that pulque must be gooey to be good, which is apparently not the case.

More pulque.

“Pulque should not be slimey, it should be brilliant white, not a cream color, nor completely transparent, because then it would be aguamiel [the pre-fermented state of the maguey's nectar]. There will always be a layer of bubbles on top because it is in a constant state of  fermentation.”

So what should it smell like?

“The scent you’ll get from pulque should be like cactus, what many call nopal”, he said. “The second scent should be a fruity note, coming from the ingredients added during the process of fermentation, and third, it should smell slightly acidic, which is the natural smell of fermentation.”

It was comforting to hear Marín say “every pulque is different” because “every maguey is different”. A very obvious fact, yet a marvelous thing to keep in mind. No two pulques will ever be the same.

The day after I spoke with Marín, a couple of co-workers from the VICE Mexico office and I went to a classic pulquería in DF, La Pirata, in the Escandon neighborhood. This place has been serving pulques for more than 60 years, and on the day that we visited, they had oatmeal, tangerine, coconut and guayaba-flavored pulques on tap. The place was full of men and women mostly over 50 years old in age who were having their early afternoon pulques.

“What does pulque taste like?” I asked the pulquero, the bartender, Guillermo Gamboa. He briefly explained it should either taste,“strong, soft, or skinny.”

OK.

Pulqueria La Pirata.

We ordered a pitcher of white, natural pulque, with no curado flavoring. And then a pitcher of the coconut. Then the oatmeal. Then the tangerine. We began smiling. We began laughing. We started standing a little crooked. And before long, everything was incredible. And then we were drunk.

“What does pulque taste like?” I asked a young kid standing next to me at the bar. 

He stared at me for a few moments in complete silence.

He kept looking at me, and then we both took a long, concentrated look at the wooden barrels of white pulque beautifully standing guard in front of us. The barrels were topped with 200 liters each of the sweet, sweet, avage concoction. The dude wouldn’t answer. I wrote in my notebook: long pause.

“To me, it’s always tasted like a smoothie, a guayaba smoothie”, said Chrisitan Quiroz, a 22-year-old who grew up near La Pirata and has always known its pulques. “It is bittersweet," he finally said. “It purges you and intoxicates you."

Good enough for me, my friend. Bottoms up.

@longdrivesouth

Read more about Mexico's food scene in Daniel's Column, Mal de Puerco, via VICE Mexico.

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