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A Plea for Pulque, Mexico's Lost Beverage

Pulqueria in Mexico City
Pulqueria in Mexico City
Flickr/ Mauguve

Lately the thought of pulque, a fermented beverage of Mexico made from sap of the maguey cactus, has been haunting my dreams.

It wasn't too long ago that a friend introduced me to a vendor selling jugs filled with pulque for a few dollars a pop at one of those Eastside street fairs that crop up on weekends. The fizzy milky beverage isn't something you find every day -- I didn't even realize that anything except the nasty bottled versions existed in L.A. -- but apparently a few enterprising farmers found a patch of agave plants to tap in the high desert mountains of Victorville.

A good pulque gets fermented for a couple of days until it's a few ticks more potent than malt liquor. History suggests it was invented by the Aztecs (as explained by this awesome Herzog-esque documentary clip) and through parts of Mexico it was drunk like water until the 19th century, when the tide of mass-distilled tequila and beer washed away pulque's popularity among the common people.

A fresh glass is unbelievably invigorating on a blistering summer day -- a sharp, vinegar-spiked, overripe pear soda whose acerbic bite clings to the tongue for hours afterward. If you've ever sampled its Korean cousin, the fermented rice beverage makgeolli, you might notice some striking similarities. But pulque is a bit thinner, a bit frothier, and a whole lot funkier. Anthony Bourdain once famously referred to it as "Ryan Seacrest's love juice." Yet selling and making pulque is an act perpetrated in clandestine secrecy (like raw milk and cheese, the government deems it too dangerous for citizens to harness the full power of Lactobacillus), so the lack of artisan pulque makers at your local farmers market isn't exactly surprising.

If that were the end of the story, I probably could sleep content; after all, Los Angeles is home to plenty of intriguing and illicit foreign specialties that never reach the public's view. But it seems fresh-made pulque has been experiencing a revival among hip, young Mexico City kids these days, who spend their time loitering inside pulqueria dive bars, prompting several travel pieces in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times and Washington Post.

Then late last year the first (legitimate) U.S. pulqueria opened in a Chinatown basement in Manhattan named, creatively enough, Pulqueria. You could snack on a few botanas, say bone marrow tacos with lime or a thick spread made from ground spiced pumpkin seeds, then order a liter of curado, a simplified cocktail of pulque and puréed nectar. But that liter alone will cost you $54 -- isn't this supposed to be the drink of the impoverished masses?

Los Angeles is in need of a real pulqueria, badly -- if for no other reason than to set overpriced Manhattan mixologists straight and give the drink a proper American introduction.

Eric Alperin? Bricia Lopez? Are you reading this? You might be the only hope left -- because the batch I started in my cupboard from reconstituted agave syrup isn't smelling quite right.


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