Mexicans have been brewing pulque from the juice of cactus-like maguey plants for centuries, but the viscous, beer-like beverage fell out of favor starting in the 1970s as pulque got a bad reputation as a peasant’s drink. The number of producers, consumers and bars known as “pulquerias” dwindled.
But now, the nutrient-rich drink is making a comeback among a new generation of Mexicans.
The Aztecs of Mexico’s central highlands revered pulque [pronounced POOL-kay] reserving it for the highest social classes and the most august occasions.
Today, pulque is available in numerous flavors and strengths and you are as likely to see a tattooed millennial couple sipping a liter container of strawberry-flavored pulque outside a hipster bar as the farmers in cowboy hats who make and drink it in the countryside.
But don’t expect it to appear on the shelves of the local liquor store.
For decades, attempts have failed to can or bottle the milky white liquid that continues to ferment quickly after being produced.
Pulque long had a reputation as the drink of poor farmers, and many assumed it was produced under unsanitary conditions — something its fans say is not true.
Antonio Gomez, a pulque producer in the community of Santiago Cuautlalpan in Tepotzotlan municipality just north of Mexico City, is among those who make the drink the old fashioned way, by hollowing out the pulpy heart of the region’s maguey plant and using a sort of suction pipe to pull out the sugary liquid that collects in the hollow section. The liquid at that stage, known as “aguamiel,” is barely alcoholic, if at all.
The liquid goes into plastic tanks to ferment, often for as little as 12 hours. With the addition of fruit juices, it comes in flavors such as guava, mango, coconut, strawberry and pineapple. At 6 percent alcohol content after fermentation, it’s about as strong as the average beer.
Gomez said pulque was once served in some parts of Mexico in the morning, as well as for health reasons.
“The old people, they say that before, they didn’t drink coffee; they had some pulque, tortillas and beans and that was their breakfast,” he said.
“A lot of doctors are prescribing it as medicine,” Gomez said. “A diabetic person, for example, should drink strong pulque.”
Gomez said he worries about the old maguey fields that once sustained entire haciendas as they are torn up to make way for subdivisions and shopping malls.
“More than anything else, we have to continue planting magueys … and take care of the fields, because other people, unfortunately, are coming out here to develop and build houses,” he said.
In areas around Tepotzotlan, pulque fanatics including farmers, growers and urban residents for the last three years have organized a sort of pulque caravan complete with food, horseback riding, music, pulque-drinking competitions and burros laden with wooden barrels of the beverage.
Carlos Eladio Contreras, a festival organizer, said “it’s about rescuing traditions, right?”
“Before, drinking pulque was looked down on, people would say, “Oh, no, drinking pulque is really low class,” he said. “Now, fortunately, the young people are taking this up, rescuing something, its essence, and rescue the identity of their people and the land where pulque is born, which is the maguey fields.”
Ricardo Gallardo Leon is a bearded 20-something Mexico City resident who drinks at the “Las Duelistas” pulqueria downtown.
“I like this because it is something we inherited from our ancestors and because my family also drinks it,” said Gallardo Leon. “It’s something we shouldn’t lose.”
The mainly small, artisanal producers complain that tax codes, health codes and commercial requirements have conspired to keep their pulque businesses small.
Jesus Hernandez, another organizer of the pulque caravan, said the government requirements are almost impossible to comply with, so he sells the beverage out of tanks in the back of his truck.
When seeing the cost required to become a registered producer, Hernandez whistles and says, “Man, if I had that much money, I’d be doing something else for a living, right?”
UN says dairy a potential ally in Asian nutrition challenges
Even as Asia makes clear strides in taming hunger and famine, the rapidly modernizing continent needs to focus more on diversifying its diet or risk failing to quell malnutrition, with milk having the potential to help, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization said in a report yesterday.
“We still have nearly half a billion hungry people in this region,” said Kundhavi Kadiresan, FAO’s assistant director general. “This report is an eye-opener.”
With greater political stability and modern farming techniques, undernourishment rates halved in Asia from 24.3 percent to 12.3 percent in the past 25 years, satisfying one of the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goals, the report said.
As people move from the countryside to big cities by the millions, diets are changing from ones dominated by rice to more Westernized versions incorporating more fruits, vegetables and meats. Calories from starches declined by 50 per person a day while ones from fruits, vegetables, and meat increased by over 300 per person a day, the report said.
But despite this improvement, the changing diets aren’t all good news. Like citizens in the West, people in Asia are exercising less and chowing down heavily processed foods filled with sugar and fat instead of traditional ones like chickpeas. This means many still aren’t getting enough nutrients like zinc, iron, or vitamin A. Obesity levels are skyrocketing, rising more than 4 percent a year, the report said.
So as dire hunger becomes less common, balanced and diverse diets are becoming a more pressing issue. Agriculture experts acknowledge they have been obsessed with rice, wheat and maize in the fight against hunger, at the cost of overlooking whether expanding diets are also nutritious.
“It has filled the belly, but it is creating a lot of problems,” said Kadambot Siddique, a professor at the University of Western Australia.
“We must make this distinction between hunger and malnutrition,” said Biraj Patnaik, a food policy adviser to India’s government. He said India is in the process of eliminating hunger, but has only reduced undernutrition by 1 percent in the past decade.
With persistent hunger in South Asia, only two out of 19 developing Asian countries are on track to reach the U.N.’s Sustainable Development goal of zero hunger by 2030, and seven by 2040, the study said.
However, changing tastes in food means Asians are drinking more milk, a cheap and nutritious way of diversifying diets. Dairy products are traditionally largely absent in Asian diets but now fly off the shelves from Bangkok to Beijing, with production almost tripling from about 110 million tons in 1990 to nearly 300 million tons in 2013. Some countries are providing cartons in classrooms, like Thailand’s National Milk Program.
But experts say governments should avoid repeating the mistake of taking “shortcuts” that emphasize investment in big agribusiness over small farmers. Small producers produce nearly 80 percent of the milk in Asia, so booming milk sales benefit everyone, not just the rich, in contrast to farmland, where major landowners often win big on crop subsidies.
As a result, the report says, the dairy industry is a potential “engine of poverty-alleviating growth”— so long as things remain egalitarian.
“Policy-makers need to ensure that the region’s small-holder dairy farmers — the largest segment of dairy producers — can have fair access to, and compete in, the marketplace,” Kadiresan said.