Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Pulque, Pulque, Pulque

Going to the tianguis or outdoor market every week becomes a regular routine for me while living in San Miguel. I can get the best selection and least expensive produce there, not to mention be entertainment by the plethora of interesting, varied and sometimes bizarre articles for sale, like a boat load of springs for instance, (go here to read more about that). But that's not all, as I discovered last week. Towards the far end of the market just beyond the last of the colorful tarps that stretch across the endless booths,  I ran across a group of three pulqueros selling their home made pulque out of large plastic jugs along with miel de agave, the juice of the maguey.

Pulqueros line up to dispense
Naturally, since I have a proclivity for all fermented beverages I had to sample what was on tap so to speak. I was a bit reluctant considering the possibility of ingesting a swath of unfamiliar bacteria that would possibly give my own flora a run for their money, but I felt like taking the risk to satisfy my curiosity and besides, there are no pulquerias that I've found in the city of San Miguel, this could be my only chance. (Pssst, if you know of any pulquerias let me know in the comment section below).

I carefully looked over the three vendors or 'pulqueros' trying to judge which would have the best tasting brew, it was a crap shoot and I finally settled on a man who appeared the most professional, at least he was dressed nice. I tried to make conversation in my best broken Spanish while discretely recording the exchange on my video camera, which you can watch here. I asked about the process for making pulque and he gave me the basics saying that the mature maguey produces a lot of sweet sap or juice when it starts to go to seed. The center begins to swell and elongate, (yeah, I know what you're thinking). This is when the plant gathers stored sugar to send up a single flower stalk which towers above the base. However, the brewers cut this flower stalk off, leaving a depressed surface 12-18 inches in diameter. In this center, the maguey juice, known as aguamiel collects. The juice is harvested from a scooped out section at the center of the plant and collected to be spontaneously fermented. Unlike most beer that is fermented with yeast, the fermenting agent for pulque is mostly a wild bacteria called zymomonas mobilis. The juice is left in the open air to be inoculated. After a time, a portion is removed and replaced with fresh juice. This process is repeated several times over a period of days until a 'seed' or starter of wild yeast and bacteria has been developed. This 'seed' is then used as a basis for fermenting future batches of pulque.
Interestingly, some of the advantages of this bacteria over the typical beer yeast S. cerevisiae are that it has higher sugar uptake and ethanol yield, higher ethanol tolerance and it does not require additional oxygen for fermentation.

Pulque in large plasitc jugs
According to Wikepedia: Pulque is a milk-colored, somewhat viscous liquid that produces a light foam. It is made by fermenting the sap of certain types of maguey (agave) plants. In contrast, mezcal is made from the cooked heart of certain agave plants, and tequila, a variety of mescal, is made all or mostly from the blue agave. There are about six varieties of maguey that are best used for the production of pulque. The name “pulque” is derived from Nahuatl. The original name of the drink was “iztac octli” (white wine), the term pulque was probably mistakenly derived by the Spanish from the “octli poliuhqui” which meant "spoiled wine".

I was generously given a sample of the pulque which the pulquero referred to as 'acidic', and then a sample of the unfermented juice or aguamiel which was very sweet and thick. The pulque I didn't find to be that viscous but it is white in color, kind of like 2% milk except with a frothy texture caused by the still active fermentation. The taste is lightly tart and sour (like that produced by lactobacillus acidophilus with a slight sweetness and just a hint of vomit(acetobacter?). Although the fermentation does produce alcohol, the amount in this case must be very low as I didn't perceive any in the taste. It wasn't an unpleasant drink but I knew I wouldn't be able to drink a full 22oz. Styrofoam cups worth like the locals were passing around. I asked for media (half) and was given a smaller plastic cup of which I consumed a small portion before dumping the rest on the ground behind a parked car. I didn't want to offend the brewer by discarding something I'm sure he was very proud of and tried to be discrete. After drinking just a few sips of my 10 pesos worth, I could sense the mutiny forming within the ranks of my loyal gut flora. This new bacteria was not a welcomed visitor and later I would feel some minor decent so to speak. It wasn't that it was bad, just unfamiliar.
Frothy, bacteria laden, liquid goodness

It was fascinating and inspiring to witness the revived tradition of selling pulque at the market, a tradition that is slowly making a comeback from the beating it has taken by the beer industry. Before beer was introduced, pulque was the national drink here and at this point in time is slowly making a resurgence, encouraged by the Mexican tourist industry. By the way, you can read my previous post about my discovery of pulque in a can, here.

If you ever get the chance to try pulque, I would recommend giving it a try for the experience. If I were to stay here longer, I suspect that I would get into the habit of drinking small amounts of it until I grew accustomed in terms of the tolerance to this foreign bacteria. In that way, I would be able to quaff the large cup worth and determine the alcoholic strength. Or, I could just take a sample of both the pulque and the aguamiel to get a refractometer reading for a precise record of the alcohol. Ohhh, I see a project coming on. Do you have a pulqueria in your city? let me know.


Jan said...

lover it! just curious.. did you have any luck in the past boiling the pulque with centennial hops and pitching some lambic yeast?? sounds like a project?

Beer Diary... said...

Hi Jan,
I haven't tried it yet but it's got to be an improvement over what I've tasted so far. My plan is to take my refractometer down there next week and do some testing in the field regarding gravities. I'll post the results here soon. I hope you're brewingn through the cold weather. Cheers!

Angel Benitez said...

Great job, i live in Mexico but i haven't drink Pulque (not yet)i live in the border to Brownsville and it doesn´t a region of that beverage but in my next vacation i'll try to get “iztac octli” and let my coments.
Love your blog!

Beer Diary... said...

Thanks for reading Beer Diary...
I recommend everyone try Pulque at least once. I will be following up on this post with a trip out to the country to see how it's made. I'll keep you posted. Cheers!

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