Chasing 400 Rabbits: Pulque from the Aztecs to Now
We’re all long time listeners, first time callers, gathered around a trio of pulques at Pulqueria Insurgentes in Mexico City. We’ve read enough to know what to expect of our first sip of fermented sap of the maguey plant, and as we pass them around — one plain (natural, claro or blanco, as it’s called) and two curados (flavored: guava and mango) — all the boxes we’ve lined up in our brains get checked off one by one. Funky? Indeed. Sour? Most definitely. Viscous and jiggly? Yup. Is that liquid, or a piece of boba in my mouth?
The huge painting above us is a trippy reminder that we’re here thanks to a history dating back to pre-Columbian civilization. Titled Pillahuana, or “the Drunkenness of Children,” it depicts just that: a leap year festival in Aztec cosmogony, during which godparents took all children born since the last Pillahuana to watch human sacrifices and allowed/encouraged/forced them to drink vast amounts of pulque, normally reserved for priests, sacrificial victims and medicinal purposes.
Like much other artwork centered around pulque, Pillahuana is heavy on the rabbit motifs. In Aztec mythology, Mayahuel, the 400-breasted goddess of the maguey plant, bore 400 rabbit children, the Centzon Tonochtin. These divine creatures — some of whom are mischievous, some of whom have a dark side — are responsible for drunkenness in general, and individually represent all the different ways intoxication manifests itself. Angry, sad, scandalous, chatty, beer-goggled, sulky: Next time you’re drunk and feeling yourself some feelings, remember that there’s an Aztec rabbit god for each one, and hope you don’t meet them all in the same night.
This statue of an ancient rabbit at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City represents one of the 400 rabbit children birthed by Mayahuel, the 400-breasted goddess of the maguey plant. According to Aztec mythology, the rabbit children are responsible for the sensation of drunkenness.
As for the origin of the beverage itself, there’s evidence to suggest that pulque dates back 2,500 years. As with many a form of booze, it probably came about from observing animal behavior. Like monkeys and elephants that let fruit ripen on the ground to the point of fermentation before consuming it for a little buzz, rodents would scrape the trunk of the maguey to return later and lap up the liquid that sprouted and fermented thanks to wild yeast. The Toltecs (a civilization that flourished in Central Mexico before the Aztecs) likely took note and began making pulque themselves.
Of course, colonization changed everything. The conquerors made attempts to suppress pulque production and consumption, but eventually, the Spanish both developed a taste for it and realized an opportunity to generate cold, hard cash. By the 18th century, it was an important source of tax money for the Spanish crown, and thus, the drink that was a ritual in the ancient world became one of the most prosperous industries of colonized Mexico.
After Mexico won its independence in 1821, pulque became the national drink of a newly established country. Pulque’s popularity grew all the way to its height at the end of the century, when it became associated with unsavory behavior: A newspaper reported that from 1885 to 1886, the city police had arrested an impressive 281,000 citizens for “scandalous drunkenness,” and in the public perception, pulque was to blame.
With the dawn of the 20th century, beer came to Mexico by way of breweries founded by European immigrants, and in a big way overtook pulque, which in turn got knocked down to a much less prestigious status. What was once sacred became relegated to the lowest rungs of society. Urban legends about the pulque production process, likely originated by beer brewers and most notably involving poo, didn’t help.
And thus began a slow and steady decline. Today, in a city of over 20 million people, there are less than 70 pulquerias. For reference, at the height of pulque’s popularity, Mexico City was home to 400,000 people and 1,800 pulquerias.
But we’re here because pulque is indeed alive and enjoying a purposeful resurgence, with many members of a new generation working feverishly to restore the status of a drink that is innately, uniquely Mexican. What makes pulque so thoroughly enmeshed in its home in central Mexico is not only its ancient roots but also its delicate, time-consuming production process, and strict geographical limitations. It takes 12 years for a maguey plant to begin producing sap, and the pulque itself is fragile and unstable; it is always fermenting, and abrupt changes in temperature will spoil it. It cannot be transported when it’s raining, because Mexico City’s acid rain can infect the pulque and kill it. Unless there’s an enterprising, booze-loving, and patient soul ready to proliferate the maguey plant across the globe and wait 12 or more years, the likelihood of pulque becoming Japan’s matcha or Bolivia’s quinoa is slim to none, simply because of logistics.
It is a living thing, embodying millennia of Mexico’s culture from the Toltecs to the Aztecs to the cool kids populating art shows and poetry readings at pulquerias today. Before the recent resurgence, half a century had gone by without a new pulqueria opening. The new crop (including places like Insurgentes) often marries tradition with a new, modern attitude, embracing counterculture, punk aesthetics and quality standards straight out of the modern playbook, such as using only natural fruit and nut ingredients and fair trade sugar in flavoring the pulque curado.
And that’s what the new chapter of a history 2,500 years in the making looks like. It’s conscious, it’s art-driven, it knows where it came from, and, with an army of 400 to guard its legacy, it knows it’s not going away anytime soon.