Production of Pulque in Matatlán, Oaxaca: A Family Tradition
Alvin Starkman M.A., LL.B.
It’s still dark when Abraham Cortés García is in his field on the outskirts of Matatlán, harvesting aguamiel, the “honey water” used to produce pulque (POOL – kay), the naturally fermented drink. He usually awakens at 5 a.m., and either walks to el campo on his own, or en route stops by son Lorenzo’s homestead to ask him to come along; or he picks up a neighborhood mozo, a young helper. At 77, Abraham shows no sign of slowing down, a stunning revelation since later in the day he must do other chores, and then just before dusk collect aguamiel for a second time.
Santiago Matatlán is about an hour’s drive from Oaxaca. It’s one of the oldest colonial settlements in Mexico, founded in 1525. But its true notoriety is derived from its reputation as the world capital of mezcal. In 1980, the town boasted 360 small mezcal factories (the number has greatly diminished since then). However pulque, not mezcal, reveals a more colorful history, dating to pre-Hispanic times.
Evidence suggests that the Spanish learned distillation from the Moors, and then imported rudimentary methods to the New World; thus the genesis of mezcal production. Mezcal is the byproduct of the heart, or piña, of certain varieties of agave (primarily the espadín) being baked, then crushed, fermented, and finally distilled.
Production of pulque, by contrast, begins with aguamiel which has been extracted from the core of distinctly different types of agave, known as pulqueros. Once the pulquero has matured, after between 12 and 20 years of growth, the aguamiel is harvested and then fermented; no baking, no crushing, no distilling. The preponderance of proof indicates that drinking pulque has been a tradition of Zapotecs and other indigenous groups dating back to the 3rd century AD, often associated with ritualistic social and religious imbibing.
Lorenzo is the eldest of Abraham and Victoria’s six children. He’s 55 and married with four children and several grandchildren. Lorenzo and his father are fortunate this morning, having this writer and his research assistant drive them to the fields. They’re lucky because it rained most of the night, and the dirt roads are much more difficult than usual to navigate on foot.
It’s still dark, but Abraham knows the way. On hundreds of previous occasions he’s walked the paths between rows of agave, nopal, and freshly plowed furrows awaiting the sowing of corn. He also works other family plots, cultivating black beans and garbanzo, in an effort to maintain self-sufficiency.
For collecting aguamiel Abraham and Lorenzo bring along their simple yet effective tools of the trade. There’s the ten liter plastic receptacle (a gas can to foreigners); a length of rubber hose taped to the neck of a 2.5 liter plastic Coca-Cola bottle; a funnel fashioned from another Coke bottle; and a slightly concave, razor sharp, one-piece metal raspador.
The pulquero is a magestic and attractive succulent. At maturity it’s often ten feet tall, and six feet in diameter. Its curled blue-green leaves known as pencas have a slightly raised design on both sides. Because of the needle-sharp tip and series of thorn-like pricks forming the penca’s edges, precautions must be taken before harvesting begins.
At maturity a stock or chiote shoots up, extending almost 20 feet. It’s “castrated” with a machete, following which the plant is left for a week prior to the commencement of “tapping.” Several pencas are sheared off, while others are gingerly bent over backwards, the spiny tip inserted into and through a lower penca. This reduces the likelihood of injury once harvesting aguamiel begins.
A specially forged and sharpened iron tool is then employed to carve out a cavity in the center of the plant from where the chiote had emerged. This well is about 18 inches deep by six inches in diameter.
We walk through the mud, each step more difficult than the last, although only so much can cake onto one’s shoes. Abraham and Lorenzo are far ahead, knowing exactly where they will work this morning, anxious to begin and then finish harvesting ten of their 400 plants. Darkness accentuates the feeling of tranquility; the air is fresh after the night’s rain; moon beams shine on the agave, enhancing their natural brilliance.
Abraham approaches a pulquero, steps onto a makeshift wooden perch stretching across and resting on the plant’s leaves, then carefully reaches in and removes strategically placed thorn-laden bush branches; then a hand-hewn wooden top about ten inches in diameter; followed by a piece of cloth, then a smaller wooden lid, and finally a sling-shot shaped piece of wood. The plant’s inner sanctum is revealed.
In his broken Spanish (Zapoteco is his first language) Abraham explains:
“You see that colored liquid, that’s water, not aguamiel; we have to get it out from last night’s rain, before reaching the aguamiel. The “Y” shaped piece of wood straddles the well opening so that little top stays in place and doesn’t fall in. The cloth keeps bees and other insects from getting at the aguamiel. The larger top has to be nudged into place between the pencas; it keeps them from bending forward and encroaching on the open well area. Then I put those spiny branches on top of everything. They keep the animals, especially possums, from getting at the well during the night. When we finish with each plant this morning I won’t have to put the branches back on top because the possums only come out at night, and I have to come back in the late afternoon for another harvest. Then I’ll put them back. Even though I use two tops, and the cloth, look how the water has managed to sneak in.”
Aguamiel is harvested twice daily; in the early hours of the morning, and again at the end of the day. Abraham obtains an average of four to five liters of aguamiel per harvest, with luck 10 liters a day. Depending on the size of plant, it can be tapped twice daily for two to four months. But less aguamiel is produced when it rains.
While assisting in some steps of the process, Lorenzo assumes more the role of passive participant, content to hand his father the tools upon their request. Lorenzo’s still an apprentice in the eyes of dad. He will have finally gotten it right when his father is no longer able to do the harvest.
Abraham lowers the bottle end into the cavity, then sucks on the hose. The rainwater enters the bottle through a small hole in its bottom. He pours the water on the ground, then repeats the task. Finally he’s reached the milky aguamiel, so this time, with the aid of the funnel the liquid is directed into the gas can; the once again, until the last drop has been suctioned from the well.
Using the raspador at the end of each harvest is the key to being able to obtain the maximum aguamiel the plant can yield. Abraham scrapes a thin layer of fleshy fiber from the inside the cavity. The cloth and wooden pieces are then carefully placed on top of the well, in appropriate sequence, before moving onto the next plant.
Lorenzo and his father don’t go to the agave in the same row beside the first, but rather pass it by and continue walking until Abraham selects the plant to be worked. He knows exactly where he’s going. He occasionally must point Lorenzo in the right direction. The routine is repeated nine times.
Hard work is deserving of reward. It’s about 8 am, and all things considered the harvest has been successful, with four liters of aguamiel collected. Abraham pulls a small plastic soft drink bottle from his pocket, together with a tiny half gourd. We each have a couple of shots of mezcal before heading back to the house.
Late that afternoon, while Abraham is back in the fields with his team of oxen preparing the earth for planting, wife Victoria holds court with a few neighbors, one of whom translates from Zapoteco:
“Let me get you some pulque, but wait, it’s strong. Do you think you can tolerate it?”
Although 80 years old, her sight and hearing failing, Doña Victoria plays her part in the business. She filters the aguamiel, and ensures that at least two grades of pulque are readied. She deftly controls the degree of fermentation, using strong pulque from a previous batch as a starter for the freshly harvested aguamiel, the goal being to adjust the percentage alcohol with the aid of time and ambient temperature, to achieve the desired kick. As partner in charge of sales, she must have a good idea as to who will come by when, for how much, and the desired degree of fermentation for those particular customers – both neighbors and other townspeople, and the odd vendor who buys and resells either in Oaxaca or in town marketplaces.
It’s been said that pulque is good for the white blood cells. But the women chatting with Doña Victoria this afternoon have differing beliefs. As is the case with all traditional tales regarding the relationship between food & drink and health, each is subject to conjecture and proof. One neighbor says “it’s good for the lungs,” while another assures that if drank before breakfast a longer and healthier life is guaranteed.
The Oaxacan culture of diplomacy dictates that one does not lightly speak of the inferior quality of the product of the competition. One gleans only that of the several pulque producing families in Matatlán, some may cut corners and use commercial additives. There’s the same subtle gossip amongst Oaxaca’s rural mezcal producers: “our product is the real thing, 100% natural;” or, “she sells pulque in the markets, but she doesn’t grow agave, and doesn’t do the work that we do – she just buys from us, and from anyone else she chooses, and resells. So who knows the quality?”
Whether drinking pulque made by the campesino who awakens with the roosters to harvest aguamiel before the sun begins to beat down, or purchasing it in the markets, there’s a definite, distinct difference from the pulque produced for the commercial marketplace, and the real thing. One can only hope that when the time comes, Lorenzo follows in his father’s footsteps.
Alvin Starkman runs Casa Machaya Oaxaca Bed & Breakfast (http://www.oaxacadream.com), consults to documentary film companies working in Oaxaca, and assists couples and small groups interested in exploring the si