Maybe you’ve never heard of the gentle, not-quite-hallucinogenic Mexican beverage pulque before. Fermenting and expanding and spoiling after just 24 hours, even when chilled, it won’t keep for transport out of Mexico. (Okay, there is a pulque-derivative soda found in stateside Mexican grocery stores that might give you a tiny scale model of the real buzz if you down a six-pack of it, but it bears the same relation to the real thing as ketchup does to a fresh beefsteak tomato). A beverage with a long, even ancient tradition, it was served until after World War II in hundreds of small, blue-tiled neighborhood establishments all over the Mexican capitol, and, in the old days, exclusively to men. It fell out of favor, replaced by beer, but in recent years, pulque has undergone a revival here, even spreading by courier, I presume, to New York City, where in Pulqueria in SoHo sells it for $55 per liter, ten times the price you’ll find at even the most upscale new pulquerias in Mexico.
This nutritious slurry, the fermented sap of the maguey cactus (known in the US as a century plant, cousin of the better-known agave) is my habit. I’ve lived in Mexico City for going on three years, where I run the capitol’s only English language used bookstore, Under the Volcano Books. But I’ve been nuts for pulque since my buddy Pepe turned me onto it when I first visited in 2005. He dragged me to a tiny, tile-walled joint called La Hija de los Apaches on the still-rough side of Colonia Roma, around the corner from where Buñuel shot his slum classic Los Olvidados sixty years ago.
The little bar, more like a hallway then—they’ve moved and expanded twice since—was packed with students, punks, workers and pensioners gleefully shouting and occasionally singing in unison to a guacapunk standard from the jukebox. Around half the customers were swigging big caguamas of beer, but the rest nursed glass jars of pink and brown—and white, el natural—milkshake-thick pulque.
The beverage’s detractors—I’ll go ahead and paint them all as homophobic teenagers or social climbers ashamed of their low-class origins—parrot rumors spun by the beer companies who supplanted pulque’s status as the national beverage in the 1940s. (The libelous claim: pulque contains a tincture of human feces. It does not.) The haters also liken the consistency to semen, or, in polite company, to snot. This comparison, it must be said, can be apt, but only if a homely, cut-rate joint has been blending out some pulque that has sat out for a couple days.
Even fresh pulque is not for everyone, but it’s less cumlike and more as if you were to drink pure, natural aloe vera: a whole glass of it. Then imagine liking it. The white natural—pure and straight from the plant, the cheapest form—is an acquired taste. They say you should taste the cactus, but the cactus can be bitter. This pure form is actually my favorite form of pulque, but I still like to blend in just a little of the pricier curado, which is mixed with sugar and an endless variety of additives. My favorites are on the bitter, nutty end, like peanut, coffee or oatmeal, but popular curados include mango, strawberry, banana, blackberry, breadfruit, tomato, celery, beets… and the list goes on: you can put just about anything you’d like in pulque.
The freshest, strongest and best-tasting pulque I’ve found is served in the Roma Norte neighborhood, at Pulqueria Los Insurgentes. It was the first of the ‘new’ pulquerias that started cropping up just two years ago, on its namesake street of Insurgentes, the longest in the world. When my friend Alan decided to renovate a three-story Porfiriato mansion on this busy thoroughfare long known as the place businesses go to die, and put a pulqueria in it, people thought he was crazy. Now you can’t get in on the weekends (well, I can, because I’m a freak for the stuff and they have mercy enough not to deny me my cup).
The inscriptions and wall art of Los Insurgentes is dedicated to the heritage of pulque, a heavy burden. Listen: it was the Aztecs’ sacred beverage, reserved only for their volunteer sacrifices to connect them to the gods they were about to join. Before the beer companies came, there were thousands of pulquerias in DF, neighborhood anchors opening midmorning and closing early evening. Los Insurgentes is a pulque bar, and keeps bar hours: and still, in the midst of the pulque revolution, half their customers choose to drink something else.
How best to get the effects of the beverage? First, come hungry, because pulque is food, thick and nutritious. It’s served by the liter and you’ll need two, and if the batch is very strong—which it can be in times of heavy rain—you won’t finish your second. I’ve had up to five liters in places much inferior to Los Insurgentes, but I was no longer of this world. The effects of pulque are very different from those of other fermented beverages consumed further from their source. The closest description of the feeling I can assay is that sense of expectation of the first half-hour of psilocybin mushrooms before they really kick in, combined with the chatty-making boost of a triple cappuccino: and there the ride stops, hanging you midair in a calm thrill of continuous anticipation.
There are no visual or auditory hallucinations, but the air itself—which you may enjoy idly sculpting with your hand—seems infected with a distinctly un-delirious sense of possibility and power. You won’t challenge anyone to fight. This isn’t the egocentric lift provided by mezcal (and Los Insurgentes makes excellent mezcal: sidecar it with pulque to take the swagger off that shot and let it simply amp the pulque buzz). You will say anything at all about yourself to anybody: the facts of life are laid out in a chain seen from the distance of the stars.
But the high, on the other hand, is half-willed, so gentle that if there is an emergency or sudden work to be done, you won’t even feel it: it requires focus. It makes music better: a favorite song coming on suddenly will evict you from whatever conversation you’re having, take you hostage, and make you sing. You’ll find yourself valuing musical genres you never had the patience for, remembering it all, next day, to the most precise detail.
By the way: If you spill it on your clothes, get to a faucet immediately. Nothing smells worse than dried pulque on your pants.
Sleep after pulque is sweet and soft—though if you run hot, you may wake up during the night covered in sweat. The pulque hangover is gentle as well, as if you had a tiny, not unpleasant cold: a little extra mucus in your sinuses, watery eyes, the residue of that heavenly calm. If you’ve had a prophylactic pulque before a night’s alcoholic fun, you may also find yourself insulated from the aftereffects of the booze.
Pulque is nicknamed ‘the Mexican Viagra’ (Los Insurgentes’ company shirts illustrate this with a tall flower of the maguey running up the spine to the collar) and while that may qualify as hyperbole, you certainly won’t suffer whiskey dick. I had a young friend five years ago who liked to drink up to seven liters (one liter away from the 40-year record at La Flor Hortensia on Plaza Garibaldi, at which point the drinker was pinching policemen’s asses) and catch the last subway to Pino Suarez, the red light district.
If I may, like the immigrant I am, employ the grandest generalizations, pulque has a character that is in many ways not unlike Mexico’s itself: friendly, optimistic and serendipitous. It’s about tragic acceptance (low on the tragedy, high on the acceptance) which does not chase ghosts or try to perfect the world. It warms the body and the soul. Nobody has ever sat alone in a pulqueria, crying into their curado. It is very, very old, and it suggests mystery. It makes you want to shout, but not at anyone. It is very hard to develop a hardcore addiction to the substance, because like food—and mushrooms—pulque fills you, both physically and psychologically.
I’ve had retired men at ancient, blue-tile pulquerias gargle at me before noon, eyes mere slits, “Gustas pulque, gringo?” looking like they’d never left their chair, but I’ve never met anyone with the fortitude to take the drink two days in a row.
I’ve seen it help with minor, stress-related ailments, in my own case alleviating chronic muscle pain, and serve as a kind of methadone for drunks.
In a country where corporations had their way with NAFTA, young leftists tout it as the ultimate anti-free trade beverage: you can’t put it in a can or bottle (to-go cups have a hole in the lid to allow the gas produced by fermentation to escape), it won’t freeze or refrigerate or survive time in a train compartment or truck (SoHo’s tony, exorbitant Pulqueria notwithstanding, who surely get theirs by courier).
Pulque won’t be co-opted by the Man: it must be drunk close to the source, virtually fresh from the plant. I assumed on learning this years ago that this meant the ritual would forever be only Mexico’s, but it turns out maguey will grow virtually anywhere without permafrost. It takes ten to fifteen years to grow a mature, pulque-producing cactus. Plant your maguey, America, I’ve found exactly what you need.
Top photo: Extracting from the maguey, from An American Girl in Mexico, 1904