Swill: A Primer on Pulque

pulque

Swill is our bi-monthly column dedicated to liquor, wine, beer, and every other delicious dram that falls under the broader umbrella of booze. But it’s more than just tasting notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin — Swill is about getting outside of your comfort zone, trying new things, and exploring the big, wide world of libations. One week you might catch us halfway through a bottle of single-malt scotch, and the week after that we might be buzzing on some Ugandan moonshine made from bananas. This column is just one big boozy adventure, so grab yourself a glass and join us for another round.

So since we covered the finer points of mezcal in the last installment of Swill, we’re figured it’d only be right to give you a primer on its fermented cousin, pulque. Just like mezcal, pulque is derived from the maguey plant — a giant, heat-loving succulent that’s more commonly known as agave. However, unlike mezcal, which is distilled from cooked, carmelized agave hearts, pulque is made from a quick fermentation of the plant’s sugary sap. It’s a drink that has a rich history in Mexican and Aztec culture, and despite experiencing a bit of a decline in popularity over the past few centuries, it’s rapidly making a comeback not only in Mexico, but also in southern border cities like San Diego and El Paso.

To make pulque, agave farmers begin by cutting the flowering stalk of the plant just as it begins to form. This is typically when the plant is around eight to ten years old, after it has stockpiled sugars its entire life in anticipation of the emergence of this single appendage. When the stalk is cut, it forces the base of the plant to swell, at which point it is covered and and allowed to rest for a few months while sap builds. After this waiting period, it is punctured again, which causes the heart to rot. This rotten interior is then scooped out and the inside cavity of the plant is scraped, which irritates it so much that sap begins to flow profusely — often producing more than a gallon per day.

pulque gatherer

Once collected, the sap takes less than 24 hours to ferment and reach about 4-6 ABV, thanks largely to a naturally-occurring bacteria called Zymomonas moblis and a few other microorganisms. These aggressive little buggers bring about a quick and frothy fermentation, giving the resulting pulque a funky, sour flavor similar to what you’d get from overripe pears or bananas, yet with a distinctly cactus-flavored base note.

The flavor is, admittedly, a bit of an acquired taste, but it’s definitely something you should try if you’re ever given the opportunity. That being said, unfortunately good traditional pulque is hard to find outside of Mexico, since it’s traditionally prepared without preservatives and goes bad shortly after it’s made. Canned, pasteurized versions of the drink do exist, and can be found at many hispanic grocery stores, but it’s worth putting in the extra effort to track down the real deal.

After a healthly bit of Googling, we actually found a place that makes traditional pulque right here in Portland, Oregon — so there’s a good chance that if you look hard enough, you’ll be able to track some down in your city.