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A good beer is a thorny problem down Mexico way

Exploring the food, drink, and hangover cures of Mexico

A friend who is devoted to cask ales was horrified to learn that his teenage daughter had taken to lager. Worse still, she favoured an especially watery, sweet lager that could be rendered vaguely drinkable only by the insertion of a wedge of lime.

The product of her choice is Mexican, and my friend thought this gave him an argument: "My dear child, do you really think the Mexicans have a brewing tradition?"

This is not a valid argument. For one thing, some countries with no tradition of doing so make excellent beers, while others with hoppy histories produce bland brews.


For another, Mexico does have a thriving brewing custom that dates from Aztec times, as well as a tradition from the 19th century.


For another, Mexico does have a thriving brewing custom that dates from Aztec times, as well as a tradition from the 19th century.

When the Spanish colonised Mexico, they recorded that the Aztecs had a fermented drink made from a cactus-like plant of the family agave, which is related to the lily.

Had they colonised India, they might have found similar "native" or "traditional" beers made from palm sap.

They did have colonies in Africa, but perhaps not sufficiently far south for beers made from cassava root or millet.

Despite the differences in raw materials, these traditional beers are surprisingly similar. The use of wild yeasts, all of the type resident in tropical countries, seems to be a particular influence in their character.

Similar or not, the traditional beer of the country is a taste I always wanted to sample. Unfortunately from my viewpoint, both my visits to Mexico have been to the city of Guadalajara and its environs, in Jalisco province.

This area does grow agave -- it is noted for them, in fact -- but it does not stop at fermenting them.

The Spanish, who were probably Europe's first distillers, realised that the blue agave of Jalisco province was well suited to that process. Just outside Guadalajara, to the northwest, the plantations of blue agave begin, growing in the volcanic soil of Mount Tequila.

Less than an hour's drive away is the town of Tequila, the centre of the distilling region. Which is named after what? Both were named after a local tribe.

The blue agave have a turquoise colour. Above the ground, each plant fans out in what look like the blades of saws.

The highest may reach six feet. In the wild, it has a central spike of about 15ft, but the farmers prune this in order to concentrate the plant's energies in its root. The root looks like a huge pineapple, about one yard long, and can weight up to 500 pounds.


Fermentation looked much the same as it would in a brewery or whisky distillery.


At the Jose Cuervo distillery, I saw the roots softened in steam ovens, shredded, then sparged with water to wash out the fermentable sugars. Fermentation looked much the same as it would in a brewery or whisky distillery. Distillation was in stills similar to those used for malt whisky.

The fermenting wort would have been a beer of sorts, but there seemed no way to tap a sample for me from the stainless steel vessels. Because they are reserved for Tequila, the blue agave are not usually made into beer.

I was in the wrong region, I was told. For the traditional beer, known as pulque, I needed an area where they grew a different agave, a variety called the maguey.

"Surely we must be able to find pulque somewhere in this region?" I pleaded with my friend Manuel Garcia, who has his own Tequila distillery.

He was sure he had seen a stall selling pulque somewhere south of Guadalajara, in the direction of Chapala Lake, a spot where the locals like to go for a day's outing.

"I think I can remember more or less where he was. Let's go tomorrow, and drive around until we find him."

Next day, we met for breakfast. I had a Tequila hangover, and Manuel suggested a cure: menudo, a peppery stew of calf's foot (I think), seasoned with oregano, peppers and onions. Then we had chicharron: pork skin in green tomato sauce. This was followed by lenga de vaca: cow's tongue with jalapeno peppers.

Fortified, we headed off through the broad boulevards of Guadalajara. The gardens blooming with jacaranda soon gave way to scrubby land dotted with mesquite.

There would be the odd clump of pomegranate trees, and stalls selling carnitor: hot pork fillets and chops. We kept passing pick-up trucks loaded with families and children, and the occasional horse ridden by a vaquero--the Mexican version of a cowboy.

After about 25 miles, and the odd sortie down a side road or farm track, we found the pulque vendor, near the town of Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos.


His stall was at the side of the main road. It comprised a table, with the canopy of palm fronds.


His stall was at the side of the main road. It comprised a table, with the canopy of palm fronds. Above it was a sign announcing aguamiel ("honey-water": the sap of the maguey) and pulque, annotated with the words rico (rich) and sabrosa (delicious).

Despite the dust from the road, the vendor was a neat, spruce, man. Beneath a broad-brimmed hat, he showed traces of silvery hair to match his mustache.

He wore a white shirt and grey slacks. Over a drink or two, he told me that his name was Manuel Carrillo, that he had been a schoolteacher until his retirement, and that he had spent some years in Los Angeles.

The aguamiel and the pulque both had a greyish-milky colour and a sticky consistency.

Senor Carrillo explained that the central flower-stalk of the maguey is cut near the base, to release the sap, which is siphoned through a bamboo tube into a gourd.

Each plant will yield about two litres of sap per day. He told me that a maguey had to grow for seven or eight years before it could be "milked", and would produce for four or five months before dying.

If the sap is left overnight in a wooden barrel, it will ferment spontaneously. No doubt there are resident wild yeasts in the barrel and the atmosphere, but Senor Carrillo added orange-skins, too.

Their wild yeast must have made an interesting contribution; he said this was a common practice.

He had his aguamiel and pulque in ten-litre earthen-ware amphorae. He said he sold equal proportions of each, totaling 25-30 litres on a weekday, 60 on a Saturday and 80 on a Sunday. This included some sold in polythene take-away bottles.

In the circumstances of its storage and serving, the aguamiel cold not have been entirely free from fermentation. It tasted fruity and sherberty, developing lactic acid notes reminiscent of goat cheese, and had a rather musty finish.

The pulque had the same characteristics in more intensity, with some natural carbonation and a more quenching tartness in the finish.


Senor Carrillo also offered a glass of mixed, or either drink laced with a sauce made from "tree chilis" and garnished with diced onions and a turnip-like vegetable called jicama.


Senor Carrillo also offered a glass of mixed, or either drink laced with a sauce made from "tree chilis" and garnished with diced onions and a turnip-like vegetable called jicama. It tasted pretty much as it sounds.

"This is the best thing of all for a hangover," he told me. "People come here shaking, and walk away calm. It cures arthritis, and it's good for your eyesight.

"I had a customer who was 120 years old. He had a better step than some guys of 80. It's an aphrodisiac."

From amid the dust and pick-up trucks on the road, a shining black limo pulled up at the pulque stall. A man who was probably in his late thirties or early '40s, in a very well-cut suit, and wearing expensive-looking dark glasses, climbed out of the driver's seat.

A smart, pretty young woman emerged from the passenger seat. They exchanged pleasantries with us, had a glass of pulque with the full house of garnishes, then drove off.

"She is his secretary -- and his mistress," said Senor Carillo. "They have a place down by the lake. See what I mean about this stuff being an aphrodisiac?"


Published Online: OCT 1, 1997
Published in Print: , 0778
In: What's Brewing

Brew Travel

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