Once little more than party fuel, tequila has graduated to the status of fine sipping spirit. Tequila USA traces the spirit's evolution in America from frat-house firewater to luxury good. But there's more to the story than tequila as upmarket drinking trend. Author Chantal Martineau spent several years immersing herself in the world of tequila -- traveling to visit distillers and agave farmers in Mexico, meeting and tasting with leading experts and mixologists around the United States, and interviewing academics on either side of the border who have studied the spirit.
The result is a book that offers readers a glimpse into the social history and ongoing impact of this one-of-a-kind drink. It addresses issues surrounding the sustainability of the limited resource that is agave, the preservation of traditional production methods, and the agave advocacy movement that has grown up alongside the spirit's swelling popularity. In addition to discussing the culture and politics of Mexico's most popular export, this book also takes readers on a colorful tour of the country's Tequila Trail, as well as introducing them to the mother of tequila: mezcal.
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How the Gringos Stole Tequila
The Modern Age of Mexico's Most Traditional Spirit
By Chantal Martineau
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2015 Chantal Martineau
All rights reserved.
Before Tequila Came Pulque
Esta noche corro gallo
hasta no encontrar velorio,
para preguntarle al muerto
si hay pulque en el purgatorio.
— Traditional Mexican drinking song
In Mexico City, the night air just about crackles with energy. Officially, it's La Ciudad de México, Distrito Federal. DF, as the natives and jet-setters know it, is one of the most vibrant, edgy, colorful, bustling, artsy, chaotic, stylish cities on earth. Springtime here is even more colorful than usual: the city's countless jacaranda trees are in bloom. Like the cherry blossoms of Japan, they are an iconic sight to behold, an endless mauve garland lacing the city and filling the air with its heady perfume. In the spring of 2012, on a lively strip in the trendy neighborhood of Roma Norte, where the beautiful people flock, wisps of black fabric were draped over the branches, setting off their deep lavender-colored flowers and absorbing their sweet aroma. The way the fabric pieces flapped and waved in the breeze gave the impression of dark, looming ghosts. The sheets were a public artwork protesting the senseless mass killings of innocent people in the country's high-profile drug wars.
If you were to look down instead of up at the trees, you'd see the sidewalks around the neighborhood lined with stick figures, like a child's cutout craftwork, representing the more than sixty thousand cartel-related murders to date. In Mexico City's streets, parks, and galleries, artists install, paint, and graffito-tag their dissent. At art openings, they sip champagne and newly chic mezcal, discussing the country's future and the United States' role in it.
But it's not just the purple-flowered trees, or even the proliferation of artists and activists, that make Mexico City pulsate with life and color. It's the street food and high-end restaurants, the glitzy clubs and old-man saloons, the lively public squares and bustling street markets, the bike paths and parks, the students, the workers, the tourists, the hipsters, the hippies, the wealthy, the poor. It's the city's rich palette: the bright cobalt blue of homes like Frida Kahlo's, which is now a museum of the artist's life and work; the butter yellow and Pepto pink of other buildings, like Casa Luis Barragán, a private museum that was once the modernist architect's private residence; and the wild splashes of Mexico's history painted right on the city's most important institutions, like the Diego Rivera murals adorning the arched walls of the National Palace, where pre-Hispanic earth tones give way to the violent blacks and reds of the Mexican Revolution. How many cities cover the walls of their government buildings with loudly antiestablishment art?
Inside a bar in the Roma neighborhood, sawdust covers the floor. Here the lights are dim, the music so loud it forces people closer. Faces are hard to make out, but the painted image on the wall near the entrance is unmistakable: the Aztec goddess of fertility and agave, Mayahuel. The image is a little racy. She's squeezing a milky liquid out of her left breast into a bowl for a man decked out in regal headdress. Sometimes she's depicted as having four hundred breasts for feeding her four hundred children, the Centzon Totochtin or four hundred rabbits, a pack of partying deities said to be the gods of drunkenness. But here she looks like a normal woman, despite the green shade of her skin and hair. A young man looks up at the mural, raising an eyebrow at the image. He's here for the first time. Taking his inaugural sip of the house drink, he squeezes his boyish face into a grimace at the tangy, milky liquid, then smiles. So this is what all his friends have been talking about. He has finally caught up to the crowd and can now be the one who asks the uninitiated, "Have you tried pulque yet?"
The bar is a pulquería, a place that specializes in the ancient Aztec beverage called pulque (pronounced POOL -kay), a fermented agave nectar. This is the drink that predates tequila and mezcal in the same way that beer predates whiskey: fermentation must come before distillation, after all. Pulquerías have been cropping up all over Mexico City in the last few years, a new phenomenon that, like so many drinking trends today, is inspired by a very old one. There were once hundreds of pulquerías peppered around the Mexican capital, and a few from that era still stand. Modern ones now compete with those antique establishments, opened by young, educated types looking for a link to their past. The older places, once all-male hangouts with peeling paint and sticky floors where the barflies came in both human and insect form, have been forced to evolve with an interior redesign or the addition of a Facebook page. These bars attract artists and scholars, creative types and philosophers, but also the old indigenous men and mestizos (those of half native, half European descent) who have long been associated with a penchant for pulque.
Like mezcal, pulque has made a comeback in the Mexican capital. The bar in Roma is relatively new, but La Hermosa Hortensia, a pulquería on Plaza Garibaldi, dates back to 1936. Its sunny pale lime exterior and Facebook page attract tourists, but locals frequent the tiny bar as well. Presided over by the octogenarian Señora Lilia, it serves flavored pulques by the glass or liter as mariachi ensembles play nearby. The square is swarmed by these flamboyantly dressed musicians, who have flocked here for so long that a mariachi statue was erected just outside La Hermosa Hortensia. At an outdoor table one day, a visibly intoxicated couple is being serenaded by a band of guitar-strumming singers. The two roar with laughter at the lyrics the mariachis come up with on the spot to tease them, then break into a sloppy dance in the late-afternoon sun.
The pulquería fad has surely come as a surprise to older folks in Mexico City who have long considered pulque the drink of the lower classes. It's all part of a greater trend of young Mexicans embracing their pre-Hispanic culture and history in rebellion against the European-influenced generations that came before them. Everything ancient is cool nowadays, pulque and mezcal included. Young people raise their quaint little clay cups, called cantaritos, or the traditional one-liter cañones, in a toast with (and to) an ancient fermented drink.
The stories of pulque and agave are intertwined with that of the goddess Mayahuel, and thus with the mythology of Mexico. The legend of Mayahuel tells the story of a beautiful young deity whose death gave the world agave. The ancient Aztecs believed in an evil goddess named Tzitztimitl, who lived in the sky with the stars and devoured light. In one version of the legend — and there are too many to count — Tzitztimitl watches over her granddaughter Mayahuel, who sleeps through the day and night in a perfect state of well-being. The feathered serpent god Quetzalcoatl, who in Aztec mythology is associated with creation, craft, and knowledge, one day ascends to the heavens to kill Tzitztimitl. Instead, he finds her sleeping granddaughter. Taking the form of the wind god, he gently brushes his breeze against her, awakening her. The two fall in love and he takes her back to earth so that they can be together.
When the evil goddess discovers what has happened, she is furious. She searches the globe for the couple, but they flee and take cover. They hide in different places around the world, their love finally becoming so strong that they transform into a tree with a branch on either side. The evil goddess eventually finds the tree and rends it in half, killing Mayahuel in the process. Tzitztimitl rips her granddaughter's branch from the dead tree and thrusts it upon her demon followers to devour. Quetzalcoatl, devastated and angry, pursues the demon goddess and ends up killing her after all. He takes the remains of his lover and buries them. From these, the maguey plant grows. Its nectar, sweet like honey, is said to be Mayahuel's blood, infused with her spirit. When Quetzalcoatl drinks it, he feels warm and fuzzy and a little loopy: a gift from the gods.
Agave is a perennial succulent plant that can grow in a range of arid and semi-arid climates, from rocky, dry land to thick, brambly forest, from high, cool hillsides to hot, harsh valleys. Known in English as the century plant for its "once in a century bloom," more than two hundred types of agave exist around the world. (It should maybe have been dubbed the quarter-century plant: wild agaves live up to twenty-five years, not one hundred — although in one documented case of an agave kept indoors in Boston, the plant lived until the ripe old age of fifty.) The vast majority of agave varieties are native to Mexico.
Agaves come in assorted shapes and sizes. The heart of the plant, the piña, also varies from one variety to the next. It might be a colossal orb, or a gargantuan egg, or even long and narrow like a baseball bat. Depending on whom you ask, anywhere between twenty-five and forty species of agave are suitable for human consumption. Other varieties don't have enough sugars or are too fibrous to make for enjoyable eating or drinking, or they contain toxic compounds. Four or five varieties of agave are sought out for pulque production. Blue Weber agave, the type used for tequila, is not one of them.
Once a plant reaches maturity, it pushes out a long stem from its center: its sexual organ, called a quiote (pronounced KEE-oh-tay). The quiote can grow twenty-five feet tall and sprouts flowers at the top. Once an agave has flowered, it soon dies. Long ago, not only the piñas but also the leaves and flowers were boiled or roasted and eaten. You can still find agave flowers in certain Mexican markets. (It's not only people who consume agave. Cows love the roughage the plant provides — should you ever come upon agave growing in the wilds of the Mexican countryside, you may notice large bite marks in the hefty leaves. Apparently, cows don't mind their sharp thorns.)
Botanically speaking, agave has been reclassified several times over. It was once considered part of the lily family and is now deemed closer in nature to asparagus. It shares its current taxonomical classification with other desert dwellers like the yucca and Joshua tree. Researchers say agave has been consumed by humans for at least eleven thousand years. But the plant itself is said to date as far back as ten million years. For early Mexicans, it was an important source of carbohydrates and other essential nutrients. Remnants of agave found at archaeological sites around the country suggest that it would have mostly been eaten crudely roasted over a fire and sometimes even raw.
Visit just about any tequila factory in Jalisco today and you'll get a vague idea of how agave might have been consumed centuries ago. A distillery tour usually includes a chunk of cooked agave to taste. The sweet pumpkin-like sample isn't for swallowing whole. Instead, you chew it, pulling the soft, honeyed pulp from the rough fibers with your teeth, then spitting out the stringy leftovers. This is especially true of the outer parts of the piña, which get extra caramelized during cooking. The very center of the piña can cook up soft enough to bite into and swallow. But beware this sweet snack: too much and you'll soon feel the digestive effects of such a fiber-rich food. Let's just say that prune juice has nothing on cooked agave.
Pulque is just one of a couple dozen alcoholic beverages made from agave. Tequila is another; there's also raicilla, bacanora, and many, many more regional mezcales. But it's safe to say that pulque was the first of the agave drinks. How the ancient Aztecs discovered the technique for fermenting the fresh sap of the maguey plant — the aguamiel or "honey water" — to turn it into pulque is a mystery. One legend tells of an opossum or tlacuache becoming the world's first borracho ("drunk") after extracting the agave's sweet nectar with its small, humanlike hands. Pulque is also associated with the Centzon Totochtin, or four hundred rabbits, who are said to represent the four hundred shapes inebriation can take — sleepiness, silliness, violence, lust, discombobulation, and everything in between. Another legend says the gods revealed pulque to humans by striking an agave with a lightning bolt, splitting it open and spilling its intoxicating nectar.
Over time, pre-Columbian Mexicans developed a process for producing pulque that is still used today. It begins with finding a plant that has reached maturity, which happens at ten to twelve years of age, depending on the variety of agave. Agaves that are used for pulque production tend to be much larger than the variety used for tequila, big enough for a man to crawl inside. The magueys have their quiotes cut. Amputating the quiote, also known as castrating the plant, helps preserve energy it would otherwise spend on flowering. It also allows all the nutrients the plant pulls from the earth and the sugars those nutrients help it produce to be concentrated in the base stem or the piña. As in all alcohol production, more sugars make for a better transformation into alcohol.
To collect the plant's nectar, a cavity is carved into its heart. In the past, a long gourd would have been hollowed out and dried to use as a tube through which to suck out the aguamiel, like an oversized straw. Today, a plastic tube fashioned out of an empty soda bottle might be substituted. In certain villages, a tin scoop is used. Once the sap has been collected — up to three liters per day — the extra goo at the heart of the plant is scraped out, encouraging it to keep producing more sap, not unlike picking a scab causes more bleeding. The cavity is then covered with pieces of the plant's large leaves to keep bugs and other unwanted critters out of the aguamiel. A plant will produce sap like this for up to six months, and sometimes longer, before it dies. The sweet liquid is taken back to the pulque maker's home or modest production facility, which might be nothing more than a nearby shack, where it is fermented.
While beer is fermented with yeast, pulque is borne of a bacteria, called Zymomonas mobilis, which lives on agave plants in the wild. It's the same bacteria used to make African palm wine. The natural fermentation process can take anywhere from five to twenty days and sometimes longer, depending on weather conditions (yeasts and bacteria come alive in warm temperatures and get sluggish in cooler weather). The result is a viscous, milky, almost slimy liquid with a sour, yeasty taste. Pulque clocks in at anywhere from 4 to 8 percent alcohol by volume. Not strong stuff, but when you consider that pulquerías traditionally serve it by the liter, it's easy to see how the drink can do its share of damage.
Modern pulquerías infuse their house pulques with fruit flavors like pineapple and guava, even celery and beet, a practice that can be traced back as far as the sixteenth century when pulque was first making the transition from sacred beverage to recreational drink. These curado (cured) pulques were thought to be more palatable to customers back then, just as they are to today's young, urban drinkers. During the height of the original pulquería craze in Mexico City, certain bar owners might also have flavored their pulques with fruit peels to correct foul flavors from poor fermentation.
Purists, of course, drink their pulque plain — except in Puebla, where it's fermented with the aromatic herb epazote and ancho chilies to make chiloctli. In Saltillo, in Mexico's northern state of Coahuila, the funky maguey beer is used to make the local pan de pulque, a type of bread. Across Mexico and in certain parts of the United States you can find pulque packaged in cans, like beer. Bigger pulque producers have figured out how to increase the beverage's shelf life for large-scale manufacturing and distribution, but true handmade pulque doesn't last very long. It's made to be drunk fresh.
Pulque as a drinking trend among young Mexicans is an urban phenomenon, concentrated in Mexico City. Most people outside the capital still associate it with dive bars and drunk old men. It's a little like mezcal in the United States, which despite its swelling popularity among spirits enthusiasts can still only be found in certain cities, in certain bars. Elsewhere it's still thought of as the firewater with the worm at the bottom of the bottle.
When pulque was first consumed two thousand years ago, however, it was not a drink for the masses. It was sacred. Only high priests and tribal chiefs were permitted to partake of the beery liquid, which they believed allowed them to communicate with the gods. The general population was mostly banned from drinking pulque; exceptions were made for the elderly or those who had taken ill and were in need of pulque's mysterious healing powers. Drunkenness, in those days, was a state deemed divine and not appropriate for just anyone at anytime. Specific religious ceremonies and holy days were special cases, when pulque could be shared by all — occasions like Days of the Dead or the human sacrifices the Aztecs were so fond of. Otherwise, the punishment for public drunkenness was a beating, public shaming, or even death. Interestingly, pregnant women and nursing mothers were encouraged to drink pulque, their state being about as close to sacred as mere mortals can get. Pulque was seen as nutritious for both expectant mothers and babies in utero.
Excerpted from How the Gringos Stole Tequila by Chantal Martineau. Copyright © 2015 Chantal Martineau. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
Preface: In the Beginning, There Were Body Shots ix
1 Before Tequila Came Pulque 1
2 The Mysteries of Distillation 13
3 The Long, Hard Life of Agave 31
4 Putting Tequila on the Map 51
5 The Terroir of Tequila 75
6 La Ruta del Mezcal 87
7 El Díe del Magueyero 101
6 Tequila Goes Top Shelf 119
9 Bottling Mexican Identity 135
10 The Agave Activist 149
11 America's Favorite Cocktail 169
Epilogue: The Nightcap 177
Appendix: Another Round, or, 99 Tequilas and Mezcales to Try Before You Die 183