Pulque: Aztec Drink Ferments New Economy

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Reviving traditional foods and drinks can be an income-boosting source of new economic activity. Many cultures can benefit from looking again at their rich traditions to find new ways to increase enterprise. This can be difficult at first. Big global brands have many initial advantages: they are backed by wealthy and experienced international companies and can deploy aggressive marketing and distribution power to get products into the hands of consumers. The power of Coca Cola to reach all corners of the earth is legendary.

But the case of Mexican drink pulque shows how marrying the power of an ancient taste with a younger demographic can rejuvenate businesses. This is important because many emerging countries across the South have young populations – and yet unemployment is also high among these youthful populations. Engaging the youth market will be critical to the future prosperity and development of these countries.

Pulque is also playing a part in Mexico’s tourism strategy: the state government in Tlaxcala (http://www.tlaxcala.gob.mx) has created a ‘Pulque Route’ to draw in tourists.

Having for decades lost ground to slickly marketed alternatives like beer and tequila, pulque drinking is being revived with the help of a new generation of Mexicans re-discovering a beverage that boasts origins reaching back to the Aztecs (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aztec).

There is also another benefit to reviving ancient food and drink: alarm has been raised over the diminishing range of food products consumed by people around the world. Throughout the history of farming, around 7,000 species of plants have been domesticated. Yet everyday diets only draw on 30 percent of these plants, and even this number has been going down as more people consume mass-market foods (FAO).

Once-rich culinary traditions have wilted and left many people unsure what to do with formerly common vegetables and fruits, even if they can actually find them in markets.

One consequence has been poor nutrition resulting from the reduction in consumption of high-vitamin foods, leading to stunted mental and physical development across the global South.

Pulque (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulque) is made from the juice of maguey or agave (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agave), a spiky green plant. It has between three and four percent alcohol content. Unlike the well-known Mexican drink tequila, which is fermented and distilled to make a strong, clear alcoholic drink, pulque is a foamy and milky beverage that is fermented, not distilled.

Made from a sap harvested when the agave is mature, it appears in the Codex Borbonicus written by Aztec priests in the 1530s.

Advocates for the drink say it is high in Thiamine, Riboflavin, Niacin, Pantothenic Acid and packed with beneficial microbes for human digestion. It also has vitamins C, B-complex, D, E, amino acids and minerals such as iron and phosphorus.

Pulque had developed a bad reputation, with an image as a peasant drink lacking the class of tequila or beer. The stigma had built up over decades from its reputation as the favourite drink of alcoholic farmers, commonly depicted drinking pulque all day long.

Once pulque was available only at makeshift pulquerias: a few tables and chairs with farm animals roaming about. Portions were large, using gourds or, by the 1970s, plastic buckets. Some still sell the drink in this rough-and-ready fashion from containers hitched to donkeys.

Those behind the rebranding of the drink hope to move away from the former drinkers – largely poor, old and rural – to young urban drinkers. Pulque has taken on a “cool, retro” image tapping into a taste for connecting with Mexico’s Aztec roots.

In Pulqueria Las Duelistas in Mexico City, the young crowd like the new taste. “It is cooler than beer and a lot cheaper than Tequila,” Jaime Torres, a 22-year-old design student and computer tech for an advertising agency told the Washington Post. “It’s old Mexico.”

By 1886 a census found 817 pulquerias in Mexico City serving the residents of just 9,000 homes. By the 20th century, they had become so common that neighbourhoods would have a handful each. Now estimates place the number in Mexico City at between 60 and 100, with many closing when their owners die.

Las Duelistas is trying to buck that trend.

“This place has been in business for 92 years, and I have six as the owner, and I have totally changed the image of the pulqueria, a totally new concept, with different clientele,” said proprietor Arturo Garrido. “Most of my clients are young, and it is my way to continue giving life to the pulque.”

So, how have the pulquerias made themselves appealing to a new generation of drinkers? Music and new interior design have made the establishments more attractive to youth.

Pulque sells for 30 pesos, or about US $2.50, a litre. The most popular version is called curado (cured) and is infused with other flavours like strawberry, guava and celery to add greater appeal to a younger demographic.

“My customers aren’t old anymore. Now they’re young people,” said Nabor Martinez, the owner of another pulqueria, La Risa.

The drink is difficult to export because it keeps fermenting in the bottle or can. This makes it something special to Mexico, only enjoyed by a visit to the country.

Some, however, like Everado Gonzalez, director of the 2003 documentary “Pulque Song,” about an old-school establishment, lament the loss of the old atmosphere.

“A pulqueria is not a cantina. It’s not a bar,” Gonzalez said. “It is a refuge, or was, for the lowest classes of society. Your drink is cheap. You are not sitting at a table, with good manners. You don’t need a table. You sit on a bench, where you can do what you want, say what you want.

“It was a beautiful island of freedom.”

Resources

1) Teh Botol Sosro: It is a drink of cool, black, sweetened tea with a hint of jasmine. Invented by the Indonesian family of Sosrodjojos, Sosro was founded in central Java in the 1940s. Website: http://www.sosro.com

2) Just Food is a web portal packed with the latest news on the global food industry and packed with events and special briefings to fill entrepreneurs in on the difficult issues and constantly shifting market demands. Website: http://www.just-food.com

3) Small businesses looking to develop their brand can find plenty of free advice and resources here. Website: http://www.brandingstrategyinsider.com

4) Brandchannel: The world’s only online exchange about branding, packed with resources, debates and contacts to help businesses intelligently build their brand. Website: http://www.brandchannel.com

Creative Commons License

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