Pulque is a Mexican drink made from the fermented sap of the agave plant. It’s a mildly alcoholic beverage that’s been consumed in Mexico for thousands of years. The drink has fallen out of fashion in modern Mexico, but as reporter Shannon Young tell us, some scientific research is backing up the traditional believe that pulque is good for you. She reports from Mexico City.
At the dawn of the 20th century, pulque bars known as “pulquerías” were everywhere in Mexico City. Now, only a few dozen remain. Pulque has a fresh, slightly acidic flavor and a thick consistency. It’s either served plain or blended with fruits or vegetables – like a smoothie.
Pulque fell out of favor due to a combination of the rise in beer consumption, unfounded rumors about bad production hygiene, and its stigmatization as a drink for the poor.
Seventy-five year old Leopoldo López Garcia is the owner of “La Antigua Roma” – a pulquería which has been in business for over a century. López witnessed pulque’s heyday in his childhood and then its slow and steady decline.
LEOPOLDO LOPEZ GARCIA (voiceover): “It’s a real shame – and not because I have a stake in the matter – that an authentic
national product like this is disappearing. And the saddest part is how they’ve disparaged it. It’s sad and it’s what hurts us most. Meanwhile – wine, beer and other types of drinks are flying sky high. There are very few pulquerías nowadays – even though I believe it’s a product that’s really less harmful than the others.”
The effect of pulque on human health is a topic of interest to Luis Raul Tovar, a nutrition researcher at Mexico’s National Polytechnic Institute.
LUIS RAUL TOVAR: “We are trying to revive – based on scientific facts – a drink that seems to be pretty good.”
Tovar and his fellow researchers found that pulque contains a digestive enzyme, called phytase, which helps to unlock nutrients found in several foods, among them – corn.
LUIS RAUL TOVAR: “And one of the main staples of this country is corn. What drinking pulque does is that – having this phytase activity – and having your tortillas and chili and beans and so forth, you make much more available iron, zinc, calcium, and magnesium.”
Like wine – another alcoholic beverage with health benefits – pulque works best when consumed in moderation. I asked Tovar if people could survive on a diet of corn, beans, chili peppers… basically the Mexican subsistence diet…if it’s combined with pulque.
LUIS RAUL TOVAR: “I’m not sure about that to tell you the truth. It’d be nice if you can eat other things too, ya know…but, if there is a crisis, it’d be good to have pulque again in the country”.
[sound from La Antigua Roma pulquería]
Back in La Antigua Roma, pulque fan Felipe Ramirez, tells how the drink helped his family through a crisis in the late 1920s.
FELIPE RAMIREZ (voiceover): “My grandfather talks about how he clearly remembers a severe drought in his early childhood. During the shortage of food and water, their diet was based on pulque, maguey worms, and small wild fruits. My grandfather credits pulque with his survival.”
While it is possible to get drunk with pulque, it requires relatively large amounts of the filling beverage. Ramirez runs a blog about the remaining pulquerías in greater Mexico City. It’s some of the only publicity pulque has received in a long time.
FELIPE RAMIREZ (voiceover): “I feel that this drink is worth saving so that it can nourish not only our generation and the ones that come after – but so that it’s valued as an ancestral drink and as a handcrafted drink – as something that’s worth knowing how it’s made and why it’s still made. It’s worth saving so that other people can enjoy what we are enjoying right now.”
The publicity seems to be having an impact says owner Leopoldo López Garcia, who has run La Antigua Roma for 45 years.
LEOPOLDO LOPEZ GARCIA (voiceover): “It’s changed in relation to the clientèle. Young people never used to come before, now they’re the main customers; twenty to twenty-five year olds.”
But something tells me these 20-somethings may not be drinking pulque precisely for its health benefits.