Alvin Starkman M.A., J.D.
Over the course of about a decade, from time to time a diversity of Oaxacan friends had been asking me for the opportunity to accompany a family of Zapotec tlachiqueros (aguamiel harvesters) into the fields to witness the extraction of aguamiel (honey water) from the majestic Agave americana americana. It’s the particular sub-specie of the succulent most commonly tapped for the production of pulque in this part of the state of Oaxaca. They all knew that I had become friendly with a few different families, and that I would periodically take visitors to Oaxaca, that is clients who were typically mezcal aficionados, into the countryside with a family to view and indeed participate in the aguamiel harvest. How can it be that virtually no urban or even rural Oaxacan folk have ever had the first-hand experience, and would readily and in fact anxiously rely on a Canadian to help them to learn about pulque and aguamiel?
Production of pulque begins with the extraction of aguamiel from the inner piña or heart of particular species of agave while still in the field, at maturity, roughly after twelve to twenty years of growth. The species are generically known as pulqueros. Once the aguamiel has been extracted from the plant, it immediately begins to interact with an environmental bacteria, causing fermentation, and so fermented aguamiel is known as pulque. There is no baking of the agave, no crushing, no leaving it to interact with environmental yeasts so as to cause fermentation, and certainly no distilling. Those steps are within the purview of creating an agave distillate.
Pulque, a pre-Hispanic relatively mild intoxicant, has been referred to as Mexican or indigenous beer, and likened to kombucha. It has been produced for literally thousands of years, some of the literature dating its origins to the 3rd century AD. And it has umpteen scientifically accepted medicinal properties known to its local imbibers. It also has ritualisitic, social and religious cultural significance for residents of the towns and villages in which it is produced. This is true in modern times, and naturally dating to the pre-Hispanic era.
On this early evening, an hour or so before dusk, a group of well-known and respected Oaxacans including artisans (i.e. internationally acclaimed ceramicist Angélica Vásquez), academics (i.e. Claudio and Prometeo Sánchez Islas), mezcal producers (i.e. Douglas French of Scorpion and Escorpion brands as well as Sierra Norte Whisky), chefs (i.e. Pilar Cabrera of Casa de los Sabores Cooking School), businesspeople (i.e. Fernando González Kauffman), and others, met at an agreed upon time and place in the town of Santiago Matatlán, purportedly “the world capital of mezcal.” It’s one of the oldest colonial settlements, founded in 1525, only four years after the Spanish made their way to what is now known as the state of Oaxaca. In 1980 the town boasted 360 small family owned and operated factories or palenques as they are locally known. Their numbers have greatly diminished since that time allegedly due to government incursion into the industry. But the number of tlachiqueros in pulque production, I would suggest, has either remained constant, or increased.
The excuse for embarking on this trek with my Zapotec family of friends, and the group, was a seed I had planted in the family’s mind some years earlier. They had never heard of nor eaten smoked turkey, so I had promised them that one day I would bring them a whole, smoked turkey that we would carve up to make tortas (sandwiches). Of course in Oaxaca no meal would ever consist of simply tortas, but rather the whole shebang; appetizers, accompaniments, soft drinks and beer, mezcal of course, along with dessert and hot chocolate.
Our caravan of assorted cars and SUVs converged on the Matatlán home of Juana and Andrés and their children. From there we headed out into the fields, some packed into either the covered rear box or the interior of their gas-guzzling pick-up, the rest following behind in whatever vehicles we thought would make it into the fields without getting stuck.
It was chilly out, certainly by Oaxacan standards, late autumn, with the sun quickly setting behind the mountains, yet still light. We filed out of the vehicles and trekked along a narrow pathway between rows of agave, predominantly americana, but also some angustifolia. While not common in the area, I spotted a couple of salmiana as well. Notebooks, cameras and video equipment were in abound.
As we accompanied the family into the fields to the pulqueros yet to be tapped that evening, Juana recalled that she and her brother Isaac learned all about agave and its derivatives from their father and grandfather, who learned from their abuelos y bisabuelos. But Isaac, also along for the event, lamented that it’s not like it used to be:
“I remember that years ago the pulqueros grew much bigger around and taller than they are now. We’ve been using the same fields for so long that the land just doesn’t have the nutrients in it like before. We fertilize at least once a year, using only abono de toro y chivo (composted feces from cows and goats). The problem is twofold: chemical fertilizer is very expensive, and besides we want a 100% natural fermented drink; and we don’t have enough abono to fertilize as often as we’d like to, as we should. This year we had a problem with ice during November and December; it affected those small espadín agave over there, but not the large pulqueros. Even though most of the espadín leaves are brown and dead, the plants will survive.”
On the land behind Juana’s house, back at the ranch, there are smaller plots with young agave, both espadín and pulquero. These plants must be watered regularly during the dry season. At between one and two years of growth, they’re transplanted into the fields outside of town, but only during the rainy season. From then on they need not be watered – but they should be fertilized, though not obligatory for their growth.
Juana’s homestead includes smaller enclosures where the family raises chickens, ducks and goats, strictly for family consumption; they have a large field of mature nopal cactus as well, available for the family to pick paddle by paddle to make soups and salads, and other dishes which traditionally may call for nopal. These nopal appears very similar to the variety used for growing cochinilla – the tiny insect used to create natural dyes of red, pink, orange and purple – thick and fleshy, essentially without espinas (thorns).
Along our trek over the pathways we passed by a roofed, three-sided hut made of dried carrizo (river reed) and laminated metal, used to provide shade and shelter from inclement weather, and to keep a bit of clothing and tools of the trade. There was a simple wooden bench inside, a few hooks for hanging things on the walls, and no more.
Continuing along, we reached 5 - 6 plants which Juana and Andrés had not harvested since the early morning collection. Juana was carrying a large clay pitcher. Daughter Luz Clarita was struggling with a big wicker basket containing a scraper (raspador) used for scraping out the plant’s well, a number of jícaras (half gourds) of different sizes, a plastic sieve, and two plastic jerricans of five and ten liters.
Upon a pulquero reaching maturity, it is readied for the harvest; some of the bottom leaves (pencas) are removed to more easily facilitate access to the middle of the plant, its heart; and others are bent over backwards with the needle-sharp point gingerly inserted into another penca to reduce the likelihood of the tlachiquero being stabbed. A simple prick which breaks the skin and draws even the smallest amount of blood can result in swelling and pain which lasts two or three days.
The initial phase of tapping consists of digging a well into the piña of the plant, optimally before the quiote has appeared. It’s roughly 8” in diameter and 12” deep. Then slowly but continuously aguamiel begins to seep into the well. The first few days only a couple of ounces are extracted twice daily, but at peak production after 3 – 4 weeks, a plant is capable of producing up to five liters twice daily, before slowing down production as the cycle ends. Subject to the particular terroir, microclimate, specie and other factors, as a general rule aguamiel is very sweet as long as it’s extracted at a time of year when there is no rainwater which manages to seep into the well. Juana confirms that business dictates harvesting year round, but that it’s more difficult and time consuming during rainy season, and the aguamiel is inevitably of a lesser quality and requires more work in order to produce pulque of an acceptable standard.
As Juana and Andrés approached a pulquero, they removed pieces of stone, penca and cloth from covering the well. They inhibits insects, possums, etc., from getting at the sweet coconut-water-like liquid which seeps into the orifice. Other tlachiqueros use a piece of wood or large flat river stone about the diameter of the well, with or without anything else.
The tools used to extract the aguamiel are varied, depending on family tradition. Sometimes a jícara is used to scoop it out, sometimes a rubber hose employed as a syphon, and sometimes a long gourd known as an acocote is used, with a small hole at each end for sucking the liquid into it. In modern times a two liter Coke bottle with a small hole at the bottom, the top opening affixed to a length of rubber hose, serves the same purpose. In all cases, the aguamiel is then poured from its initial receiving receptacle into a larger container.
On our excursion day the aguamiel was the sweetest and most flavorful honey water I’d ever tasted. It was dry season, almost winter. Juana had brought along five-day fermented pulque in case we wanted to compare, or to prepare a mixture of pulque and aguamiel for a moderately fermented beverage. I like my pulque relatively strong.
We then each sampled honey-rich aguamiel. I was in heaven drinking each, separately without “adulteration.” In due course Juana added a little pulque to the aguamiel to give us a taste of what regular pulque should be like. Later on she might add a little to the aguamiel as a starter to the fermentation. Alternatively, tradition dictates adding pieces of tree root known as timbre to the aguamiel which serves the same function.
“The doctors confirm that pulque is very healthy for you, especially if consumed every day, first thing in the morning,” Isaac stated convincingly.
Members of our group were given an opportunity to see the aguamiel while still in the well, extract it, then use the scraping tool. Rasping induces more seepage into the well so that at dawn there would be more, hopefully a lot. With each scraping the well becomes at bit deeper and wider, able to produce more and more aguamiel until the maximum amount can be extracted.
After removing the aguamiel from the next succulent, Juana strained it through the plastic sieve into another half gourd, and then poured it into the pitcher. We all smiled as we tasted the fruits of our labor, remarking about the quality of the harvest. Then, before moving on to the next plant, Andrés covered the well with a folded agave leaf on top of which he places a broken piece of concrete, to hopefully keep those pesky insects and rodents from gaining access to the honey water as it seeps into the well over the course of the subsequent 10 - 12 hours.
At the next plant, before extracting the aguamiel Isaac had to remove pieces of old cotton shirts from the top of the well: “It doesn’t matter if you use penca with a rock, or whatever kind of material is available, as long as no little creatures can get into the well and drink or contaminate the aguamiel.”
The sun set with tones of red, pink and orange stratus cloud hovering over and between the distant mountain tops. We walked by pulqueros which had seen better days; that is, plants which had already been fully harvested. All of their leaves had been cut off and lay strewn about nearby. “That’s it, there’s nothing else you can do with the plant, except chop it up and use it as mulch or compost, or let it dry and use it as firewood, the same as with the pencas on the ground,” states Andrés. I added that the leaves are often grilled and used to add flavor in the highly ritualized process of making barbacoa, most often sheep or goat baked in an in-ground oven.
“Well, you’re right about the use of the discarded pencas, but not entirely when it comes to the piña,” informed Isaac. “As long as it’s still green, you can use it to make mezcal.” When pressed in the course of ensuring discussion, they all admitted that using this already-spent part of the pulquero agave, while capable of producing mezcal, the process requires much more effort and yields much less mezcal per kilo of plant. The resulting mezcal is of a lesser quality than if starting from scratch with mature and untouched agave, unless you go through the effort of distilling a third and perhaps fourth time. It makes sense that there would be some nutrients remaining in the pulquero, after it’s no longer capable of yielding enough honey water to make it worthwhile to continue the harvest. Amongst families which struggle to eke out a subsistence existence, it’s often worth the effort. I use the shaved, spent cylindrical piña shell as a planter. Others have fashioned it into a bongo drum.
The few non-Mexicans in the group were shocked that the pulque they were sampling was nothing like what they had drank in pulquerías in Mexico City, Puebla, Guadalajara and in other major centers in the country. The aguamiel was sweet like honey, and more significantly the pulque was not thick and viscous nor mucous-like. Pulquerías tend to prepare and sell curados, that is, a pulque base with added sweetener, fruit extract or grain, and sometimes a thickener and/or milk or cream. Many of my clients have initially rejected the idea of sampling pulque with me because of their experiences trying what they have mistakenly believed is the real deal, at pulquerías. Some who go out with me still do not find it to their liking, but to a number they prefer it to what they have previously sampled. Most importantly, they have gained a knowledge of both the process, and of what the pure drink can taste like, both as aguamiel and as pulque, without adulteration. And as for aguamiel, it’s almost impossible to sample it if you do not do so in the village where it has been harvested. By the time it’s transported for example from Matatlán to Oaxaca, it´s begun to ferment, unless in a refrigerated vehicle or a cooler; and even then …
On our return to the home of Juana and Andrés, Chef Pilar, Juana and a couple of other invitees began to work feverishly carving the smoked turkey and preparing the rest of the food for our dinner. We sat around the table reflecting on the evening, drinking mezcal, beer and soft drinks. Claudio presented our gracious hosts with a book he had recently published. Douglas French pressed Juana and Andrés regarding attending at one of his fields of Agave americana with a view to investigating the possibility of extracting aguamiel, rather than using them to make mezcal. We sat, ate, imbibed and chatted for a couple of hours. Then came the hour-long ride back home, all the while reflecting on my guests’ learning experience, and just as importantly the total enjoyment of the evening.
As an adjuct to his Mezcal Educational Excursions of Oaxaca (www.mezcaleducationaltours.com), Alvin leads groups of clients into the fields to harvest aguamiel with one of his families of friends such as Juana and Andrés.