A Pulque Revolution Brews in Mexico City

Once revered as the Aztec "drink of the gods," pulque is amidst an unlikely revival. Sarah Baird travels to Mexico City to uncover the sticky, pungent drink's turbulent political history—from the government's 20th-century smear campaign to the current resurgence of pulquerias new and old.

I am known in my circle of friends as the queen of slimy dishes. The more unctuous and oddly textured the drink, the more likely I am to knock it back like a frat boy would a can of Natty Ice. A cocktail with a float of Vietnamese fish sauce resembling a natural disaster? Send it my way. A small pitcher of Herbsaint shot through a bone marrow luge? Yes, please.

I was grossly invincible to palate-challenging, deviant drinks—until I tried pulque.

Sitting on a wooden barstool splattered with red, chipped paint in the middle of Mexico City, I was foiled by the drink that once fueled Aztec ritual beheading and, somewhat surprisingly, is making a highly political comeback across the city.

If you’re lucky, pulque will have the consistency of room temperature spit. If you’re not so lucky, it’ll resemble a thick, pungent mucus. (Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying.) After all, it is a live culture, more in line with probiotic-filled yogurt than its bad behavior-inducing tequila cousin.

This foamy, sticky drink of the ages is made by fermenting—not distilling—the sap of the agave plant. While fermentation of pulque can begin in the plant itself, the sap is usually collected from mature plants and sent to fermentation houses. Once there, the delicate beverage’s natural bacterial tango is touch-and-go over the next weeks.

Any imbalances in temperature, elevation or ritual threaten to sour the mix. (According to legend, wearing a hat around a fermenting batch will bestow a curse upon it, which can only be reversed by drinking from the batch out of said hat.) At peak fermentation, the pulque is shipped in old-school wooden barrels from its Central Mexico homeland to bars across the region, including a resurgent number of pulquerias in Mexico City.

Not well suited for canning, bottling or exporting past a couple of hundred miles, pulque’s temperamental nature has made it “the anti-globalism beverage,” says Grant Cogswell, a bookstore owner and pulque enthusiast based in Mexico City.

Los Insurgentes worked to reimagine pulque as an edible, underhanded way to push back against Mexico City’s class system and the stripping of pulqueria culture. They see it as the embodiment of raw, unscripted, working class Mexican heritage. In the lofty, pulsing darkness of Los Insurgentes’ four-story fortress, drinking pulque in its modern context feels downright subversive.

Tequila and mezcal may have been trotted out to the larger world wearing tiny sombreros, but it’s pulque that remains deeply native. Known as “the drink of the gods,”  in Aztec society pulque was used in ritual ceremony, and as a symbol of social status. Ancient artwork depicting pulque consumption has been discovered throughout archaeological digs, including a massive, 180-foot mural found in the pyramid of Cholula in Puebla. A complicated deity system even grew up around it—headed up by the god Ometotchtli or “Two Rabbit”—sparking a number of religious sub-groups.

Even now, traditionalists will advise drinkers to spill two sips of pulque before consuming a glass as a means to sate the thirsty god. (In essence, pour one out for your heavenly homie.)

For generations, pulque—and pulquerias—thrived through the arrival of the Spanish and into the early part of the 20th century. Hundreds of pulquerias sprawled across Mexico City and the farming regions of Hidalgo. These bars were frequently adorned with elaborate, sprawling murals depicting dancing skeletons and swirling, sword-wielding Aztec gods. Pulquerias were not just barebones dives or hole-in-the-wall joints behind swinging saloon-style doors, but places for men to gather—spit, swear, cause a ruckus—without fear of judgment. They were safe havens for being wholly politically incorrect.

But in the 1900s, politics began to catch up with them.

A decades-long nationwide smear campaign sullied pulque’s name, as beer companies (and the government) tried to depict it as a crass, poor man’s drink. While never explicitly stated, the message was clear: Pulque was not a white person’s drink, and mimicking white culture was the ultimate high-society goal.

The relentless pulsing of negative ads proved successful, and pulque’s stigma as a lesser-than beverage persisted well into the 1990s. By the arrival of the 21st century, the number of pulquerias in and around Mexico City—once estimated at 1,100—had dwindled to around a meager 80. It wasn’t until 2010 that a subset of tattooed and ombre-haired 20-somethings trumpeted its return.

The epicenter of this resurgence is the neo-pulqueria Expendio de Pulques Finos Los Insurgentes, located in a former gay dance club in the gritty Roma neighborhood and founded by Alan Urena and Gustavo Ruiz, who is best known as a figure in Mexico City’s punk and goth circles.

Walking into the pulqueria, the Cranberries blast over a loudspeaker system and a wistful waitress with fire-engine red hair and a bejeweled “third eye” piercing smiles to reveal a glittering mouthful of braces.

“[Up until the mid-2000s], this stretch of road was the place where restaurant concepts went to die, much less a pulque place,” says Cogswell, a couple of pulque mugs deep. “They got a long lease on the space, and people thought they were crazy.”

If people think you’re bonkers for even opening a pulqueria, what’s the most punk rock, anti-establishment thing to do? Start a pulque revolution.

Los Insurgentes worked to reimagine pulque as an edible, underhanded way to push back against Mexico City’s class system and the stripping of pulqueria culture. They see it as the embodiment of raw, unscripted, working-class Mexican heritage. And in the lofty, pulsing darkness of Los Insurgentes’ four-story fortress, drinking pulque in its modern context feels downright subversive.

The trend has spread into many of the city’s older pulquerias as well, including the 100-year-old Las Duelistas. Located just south of the city’s Historic District, between a shop hocking Dutch ovens and a public bathroom, Las Duelistas has made a seamless transition between classic and modern pulque culture. The drink is still scooped out of wooden barrels with giant ladles the size of calf heads, with older men in faded work jackets and packs of those roving 20-somethings guzzling the drink side-by-side. La Duelistas, like most other pulquerias, serves a number of flavored variations called curados, using fruit, nuts and the occasional oddball flavor (like cheese) to make it slightly more palatable.

Squeezed between two seasoned veterans anchored at the bar on a Tuesday afternoon, I watched as the leathery-skinned man on my right mixed up and chugged down pitcher after pitcher, as if in a drinking contest with himself. On my left, a portly man—the general size and shape of a fire hydrant—tapped his cane along with the music, not flinching when it transitioned from a traditional Mexican tune to Audioslave. Eventually, his head thumped over into my lap, where he took an impromptu siesta.

From its anarchist resurgence roots, pulque has become a slurpable fad on par with the antiquated practices of twirling up a handlebar moustache and sipping whiskey from a mason jar. La Bonita, a swanky bluebird-colored cantina in the Condesa neighborhood, is a hotbed for well-heeled pulque dilettantes, arriving in neckties and Louboutins to try a pulque “flight” served in tiny speckled tin camping cups. Lucky for them, pulque is virtually hangover-proof. With its remarkably low alcohol content—between 2 and 5 percent—and thick, milkshake consistency, most pulque drinkers fill up before they get sloshed. In an odd twist of fate, pulque has come full circle to reemerge as a trendy, novel source of upper-middle-class experimentation.

While there’s nothing run-of-the-mill about pulque, the most surprising revelation of all might be that it’s remarkably healthy. Chock-full of probiotics, melatonin, iron and minerals, it’s been used to treat everything from gastrointestinal troubles to sleep disorders. (Many an old timer will also claim that it works as a kind of natural Viagra.) And the pistachio-flavored version—nutty, earthy and mint-colored—is said to help ward off diabetes. The nutritional benefits are almost equivalent to those of a square meal and Sólo le falta un grado para ser carne (“It’s only a bit shy of being meat”) is frequently heard as a maxim for explaining—or excusing—excessive pulque consumption.

If it ever made it to United States en masse, it’s not difficult to imagine pulque quickly lining Whole Foods’ shelves beside kombucha and the latest GOOP-approved green juice. It could be easily marketed as healthy, boozy ambrosia for yoga moms, or an alternative to Muscle Milk for gym rats.

Fortunately though, its natural limitations (questionable texture, restricted transportation) have safeguarded pulque from corporate bastardization. It remains instead the underground, long-flowing life blood of Mexican culture.