Drinking homemade pulque — and visiting a real pulque farm — in Tlaxcala

Pistachio and guava pulque at La Pirata, Col. Escandón, Mexico City.

Pistachio and guava pulque at La Pirata, Col. Escandón, Mexico City.

My first pulque experience happened at La Pirata, a pulquería in the Escandón neighborhood where locals go to drink and play dominoes. My friend Jesica had warned me that pulque was an acquired taste, but I didn’t realize how much.

The drink was thick and viscous, like baba de nopal. When we took sips, little slimy strings stretched from our lips to the glass. It tasted slightly sour. Kinda funky. (Kinda like… rotting food?) The guava flavor was better. And the celery, even better: like a fresh, bright jugo, accented with heat from the chile-encrusted rim.

From then on, my love affair with pulque didn’t grow, but pulque culture fascinated me. This drink, made from fermented maguey sap, contained thousands of years of history — priests drank it in pre-hispanic times for ceremonial purposes, and it rode a boom of popularity through Mexico’s viceregal years. Pulque was currently booming now with young chilangos. I wanted to know: how was pulque really made? Where did pulque come from before it arrived at the bar?

Finally, in early July, with the help of my friend Mojdeh (she runs a wonderful Mexico City-based tourism company called Journeys Beyond The Surface), my Eat Mexico guides and I were able to take a trip out to Tlaxcala. Mojdeh arranged for us to visit Nanacamilpa, a town in eastern Tlaxcala state whose agave farms supply at least one pulque bar (Las Duelistas) in Mexico City. It’s also home to a large operation that exports to the United States, although we didn’t end up visiting them.

We left Mexico City, bleary-eyed, at 6:30 a.m. A few hours later — after some windy highway roads, a dirt road through a forest, and a short, steep, rocky incline — we arrived at a small farm. The place was beautiful. Fields of corn stretched into the hillside, and neat rows of agave splayed their wild medusa hair in all directions.

The men here made pulque for local consumption only. They also planted quelites, apples, potatoes and fava beans.

A field of maguey in Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala.

A field of maguey in Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala.

A corn field in Tlaxcala, Mexico.

The Nanacamilpa farm corn field.

Maguey plants

A field trimmed with agave in Tlaxcala, Mexico.

A field trimmed with agave in Nanacamilpa, Mexico.

Maguey plant

One of the workers there, Don Miguel, graciously attended us. He was a rough-hewn man in a leather jacket and rubber boots. (A bunch of wild herbs peeked out of one of his pockets, which we later found out were for his favorite type of tea.)

He showed us around, explaining which agaves were ripe for harvesting, and how he’d eventually cut out a small piece of their core and scrape the inside, so the plant would start to secrete its own juices.

This juice would be transferred to a large fiberglass bin, where it would mix with a bit of the pulque starter, and then left to ferment. The liquid turned into pulque after about four hours, Don Miguel said. It would generally last up to eight days. There were no other chemicals or additives involved.

Natural sap, or aguamiel, from the core of the maguey plant.

Natural sap, or aguamiel, from the core of the maguey plant.

A vat of fresh pulque in Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala.

A vat of fresh pulque in Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala.

The vat of "starter" pulque, which is used to jump-start the fermentation of the other tubs.

The vat of “starter” pulque, which is used to jump-start the fermentation of the other tubs.

We wandered among the apple trees, the fruit dappled with dew in the chilly morning air. We met a few of the pigs. (From afar.) Don Miguel offered us a taste of lenguas, a type of quelite that grows like a weed on the farm. They reminded me a little of chivitos.

Quelites de lengua, which are delicious raw.

Quelites de lengua, which are delicious raw.

I took way too many pictures of these apples -- couldn't help myself.

I took way too many pictures of these apples — couldn’t help myself.

Paco loving on the land.

Paco loving on the land.

At the end of a few hours, he gave us some more small souvenirs: a gorgeous wild mushroom, known locally as “yema de huevo,” and a fresh mixiote, or the papery skin of the maguey leaf. The latter is used to steam meat or vegetables in Mexican cooking, and is usually wrapped around some sort of guisado.

To peel the mixiote, Don Miguel first climbed inside a maguey plant — literally; they’re that big — and then searched for the proper penca. He saw one and then gently tugged on its papery outer layer.

Don Miguel peels back the outer skin of the maguey leaf, known as the mixiote.

Don Miguel peels back the outer skin of the maguey leaf, known as the mixiote.

Peeling off the mixiote, or outer skin of the maguey leaf.

Another view of the mixiote, as it’s freed from the leaf.

This papery skin is almost pulled off entirely  now.

Almost done…

Handing over the fresh mixiote leaf to Lulu, who's going to take it home and make fresh mixiotes, or steamed packets filled with veggies or meat.

Handing over the fresh mixiote leaf to Lulu, Paco’s wife.

Awestruck at the size of the mixiote!

Awestruck at the size of the mixiote!

Lulu, Paco's wife, poses with Don Miguel.

Lulu and Don Miguel.

A wild "yema de huevo" mushroom in Tlaxcala, Mexico.

A wild “yema de huevo” mushroom in Tlaxcala, Mexico.

Another view of the yema de huevo mushroom.

Another view of the yema de huevo mushroom.

Of course, we couldn’t leave without trying the pulque. I’d hoped it would be the best pulque I’d ever tried, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t bad, either — just the same thick, viscous, sort of tart drink I’d had before. This one, however, didn’t smell bad. It smelled like plants and yeast. I drank about half a water bottle’s worth (there were no cups there), and Don Miguel promptly filled up my bottle again for a second helping. I’m not sure if it was the cold air or the fact that I hadn’t slept, but finishing up the pulque, I was, as they say in Mexico City, “happy.”

We ended our visit to Nanacamilpa with lunch at a local fonda, which had been arranged by Mojdeh’s friend Gloria. There was only one table, so we crammed together in a spot not too far from the comal (which is actually the best seat in the house). Two women made us plates overflowing with tlacoyos, filled with alberjón as is typical in that area of Mexico, and various guisado-filled quesadillas.

Quesadillas filled with various guisados -- tinga, mushrooms and picadillo -- at a small fonda in Nanacamilpa.

Quesadillas filled with various guisados — tinga, mushrooms and picadillo — at a small fonda in Nanacamilpa.

Tlacoyos filled with alberjón in Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala.

Tlacoyos filled with alberjón in Nanacamilpa, Tlaxcala.

I’m already thinking about going back. We spent half the day there and we didn’t see the market, or visit the larger pulque manufacturer who exports to the U.S. Next time! And next time I’m going to Hidalgo, too — there’s another pulque world that I haven’t explored.

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15 Responses to “Drinking homemade pulque — and visiting a real pulque farm — in Tlaxcala”
  1. Alexandra mcStay

    My grandfather had a mescal farm when he and my Grandmother first for married. I always though it would be cool to find it and try mescal from the source. I am happy to read your Pulque post. Makes me want to go out and try some guava flavored pulque. Thanks for great adventures.

    • Lesley

      Hi Alexandra: Thanks for your comment. I’ve been to a few palenques (fábricas donde se hace el mezcal) in Oaxaca and the State of Mexico and they’re wonderful — it’s really neat to see the process from piña to distilled liquid. I hope you get to see it someday!

  2. Alla

    The drink sounds…interesting :) But those quesadillas and tlacoyos look really good!!!

    • Lesley

      Thank you! Yes, pulque is definitely… interesting. A lot of people love it, but I haven’t quite figured out the attraction on the taste yet. The history is really what attracts me more. :-)

  3. Xavier

    Love the blog. I am excited to be moving to Mexico City Sept 1…pulque culture being just one of the many things that made me fall in love with the city. I would love to have my stateside friends try pulque before I depart. Do you happen to know the name of the exporter so I can ask them if they distribute in California?

    • Lesley

      Hi Xavier: I think I have their card — let me see if I can hunt it down. Will let you know.

  4. Susan York

    Loved this post. I will have to go to Pulque farm to check it out. Great photos. So very real Mexico. Thanks!

    • Lesley

      You’re welcome, Susan!

  5. Billie Fisher

    Hi Leslie,

    Your tour guide, Ben, took me as the last place on our Market Tour to a pulque cantina in DF, and we had a tasting of several. Celery was the only one I found “tasty” at the time but with a few more tasting experiences I could probably develop a “taste” for it! Great pictures, gracias!

    • Lesley

      Thanks Billie! Celery is my current fave, too. Hope you’re well!

  6. Jorge Luis Hernández

    Pulque is a really different experience for tourists, his flavor “al natural” and his viscosity could be intimidating, better for beginners are the “curados”, pulque mixed with fruit, oat, pistachio or even soda. Lesley, there are some differences between the process of fermentation in pulquerias in DF and homemade or local process, that’s why the smell.
    I really glad to read your blog and want to thank you for posting about Tlaxcala.

    • Lesley

      Thank you for the clarification, Jorge. I love Tlaxcala and would love to write more about it — really enjoyed the short visit I had there a few years ago. Saludos.

  7. Turismo Tlaxcala

    ¡Que agradable que hayas disfrutado nuestro estado¡Del maguey, nombrado por el fraile Motolinia “árbol de las maravillas”, se aprovechan sus fibras para tejer vestimentas, las espinas para coser, y, desde el punto de vista alimenticio, de las pencas y raíces se extraen los chinicuiles y gusanos de maguey, ambos de un sabor único.

    Pero aquí no acaba la cosa, de las pencas se hornean mixiotes y, de su dulce sabia se extrae la ancestral bebida que en el México prehispánico se daba a los tlatoanis, sacerdotes, guerreros, ancianos y a mujeres que amamantaban. “El pulque”

    Se combina con infinidad de frutas y verduras como el apio; se preparan cocteles; curados de mango, piña y guanábana, y de frutas secas, como el piñón. Así como el ya famoso “clamato” es decir se prepara con jitomate y es delicioso.

  8. Jesica

    Oh! My heart hurts. That is exactly what I miss from Mexico. People, land, traditions. Thanks for the trip :) Cuánto me hubiera encantado estar ahí

    Oh! And I remember finding one of those mushrooms in Valle de Bravo once, do you eat them? did you eat it? Besitos

  9. Bob Cox

    The owner of La Pirata, Don Guillermo Ramirez Flores, has n Agave Plantation and Hacienda near Tlaxco, Tlaxcala. Not only does he have excellent Pulque ( And it’s delicious when it’s fresh from the brewing Vat), but he also sells Maguey Syrup which I’m told is even healthy for diabetics. They also serve delicious meals at his Hacienda (minimum of 15 people previously reserved).
    The Pulque drink contains vitamins C, D, E , B Complex, riboflavin,amino acids, calcium, phosphorous,iron, caroteneascorbic acid, folic acid, trace minerals and unfermented sugars.

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