Finding Pulque, the Ancient Mexican Drink, in Williamsburg
"I'm still getting used to the taste—slightly funky, with the edge of pear past its prime."
On first sight, Mexico 2000, a somewhat dingy grocery store in Williamsburg, is not so unique—tomatillos and canned jalapenos for sale up front, and a little open kitchen sending out decent tacos to the two tables in the back. It's a set-up you'll find all over the city, and a beloved staple for Mexican guys finishing a day's work and starving hipster types alike.
But wait—there is something amid the cans of Bud in the fridge that I have never spotted before in any borough. It's pulque, the ancient Mexican drink made from fermented maguey nectar (maguey is a species of agave). Perhaps you've had the good fortune to visit a pulqueria in Mexico. More likely, you saw Anthony Bourdain thusly bro-ing down on the season premiere of No Reservations, which ran on January 5. The next day, Daniel Maurer, Grub Street's editor, announced a contest to his readers: the first to find a pulqueria in New York would be treated to a glass of the stuff. Maybe he would have had better luck with a cash prize, since there remain zero comments on that post, but, more likely, there are no such saloons in town. The canned stuff at Mexico 2000 will have to do for now.
As it turns out, pulque has not officially (as in, legally) been distributed in New York state as of yet. I spoke to Dan Benavidez, a consultant to Boulder Imports, the company that brought the pulque I found into the states from Mexico. Benavidez is a pulque enthusiast and expert, and has been importing it for a dozen years (at Boulder Imports and at another import company). He said the demand has grown here in recent years (it's now licensed to be sold in 21 states), as well as in Mexico, where younger people are rediscovering a drink that had fallen into grandpa domain in the last half-century.
The process of making pulque is a simple, and not very profitable one: the center of the maguey (a relative of the water lily—not a cactus as is widely thought) is scooped out to create a hollow cup into which the nectar runs naturally. Twice a day, that juice ("aguamiel" or "honey water"), which has already begun to ferment, is harvested and the fermenting is sped up with a shot of starter. In a traditional pulqueria, it's served fresh and whatever is left over at the end of the day is discarded. (Canned pulque is controlled to maintain a 5.5 percent alcohol level, and pasteurized.)
It takes about seven to nine years for a maguey plant to reach maturity, and it only produces aguamiel for a few months. It's easy to see how the beer business squashed pulque when it became popular in Mexico. But Benavidez is confident that there's a market for the drink, which he compares to tequila, (made from another variety of the agave plant). He believes a market exists among "Anglos," and he may be right.
Ted Henwood, the mixologist at George Mendes' new Union Square restaurant, Aldea, has been in touch with Boulder Imports in the hopes of getting pulque distributed in New York. Tom Howard, a sales rep for Boulder Imports, is working with him to make that happen. Alcoholic beverages can't be sold directly to retailers—they have to go through a wholesaler, and every state has different guidelines. "Quite frankly," Howard said, "it's a pain." But he hopes to work out the details within 30 days.
The company is now distributing a brand of pulque called La Lucha, but the pulque at Mexico 2000 is from Del Razo, a plant they worked with in the past. "It must have been spirited in somehow," Howard said. Both brands are available in flavored (or "cured") varieties, like strawberry and coconut-pineapple, and the owner of Mexico 2000 told me he carries different flavors, though at the moment he only has "natural," which is plain but can be mixed with hot sauce or fruit juice. Bourdain got to try several flavors of fresh-made, artisan pulque, including guava and oatmeal (also available were pistachio and oyster), and what he drank looked thick and frothy, while the canned version is milky-looking but thin as juice.
I took a can ($2.50) out of the fridge at Mexico 2000 recently, shook it up, and took a swig, much to the amusement of three Mexican men sitting at a table littered with cans of Modelo Especial. I ended up sitting with them, and chatting with the most outgoing guy, a young one with a ponytail. Despite a significant language barrier, he told me he had never tried pulque, even though he's from Mexico.
I told him it was good, though I have to admit I'm still getting used to the taste—slightly funky, with the edge of pear past its prime), and he asked me to fetch him a can—he wanted to try it. He liked it so much that, before I knew it, he had paid for mine. (OK, he also told me I was a beautiful lady and requested my phone number, but I swear he was hot for the pulque too.) "This tastes good!" he kept saying, alternating between his beer, which he had mixed with Clamato, and the pulque.
367 Broadway, Brooklyn NY 11211(map)
Bonus Video: Anthony Bourdain Drinks Pulque on 'No Reservations'
He discovers it at about 2:25.