NANACAMILPA, Mexico — Mexicans have been brewing it from the juice of cactus-like maguey plants since before the time of Christ.
It's not tequila. That firewater was invented after the Spanish conquest and is a relative babe compared to the thick, beer-like beverage known as "pulque"--pronounced POOL-kay.
While the Mayas preferred mead (fermented honey), the Aztecs of Mexico's central highlands revered pulque, reserving it for the highest social classes and the most special occasions.
It's not exactly an obvious choice for an aperitif. It's a milky white liquid that ferments quickly--so fast that, for decades, attempts to can or bottle it failed.
Some of those attempts, which date back to the 1940s, ended when pulque cans exploded on store shelves from the buildup of gases released by fermentation.
But in 1994, a small, family-owned company figured out how to can pulque and began seeking out business as far afield as California, Texas and Germany. The export business of Bebidas Naturales San Ysidro now runs to tens of thousands of cans a year.
The head of the company is Rodolfo del Razo, a 72-year-old farmer from the high-plains state of Tlaxcala. He won't give details of the family's secret for canning pulque, although he concedes it involves pasteurization.
"It ferments in about 12 hours," he says. "But our special processes have earned it a 12-month shelf-life rating" from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Pulque doesn't need refrigeration. With the addition of fruit juices, it comes in several flavors, or "curados"--guava, mango, coconut, strawberry and pineapple.
At 6 percent alcohol content, it's about as strong as the average beer.
According to tradition, pulque is an aphrodisiac. Legend has it that the serpent god Quetzalcoatl committed indiscretions with a female relative after drinking pulque and fled east into the Atlantic out of shame.
Unlike tequila, whose history dates back perhaps 300 or 400 years, pulque has been brewed for 2,000 years or more. The Aztecs had at least eight gods credited with its invention.
The bad news for pulque makers is that rabbit-cooking chefs are threatening the industry.
In a clash of two traditions, the silky inner membrane of the maguey--the agave plant from which pulque is produced--is being used as a cooking sac that gives a special flavor to a traditional rabbit recipe called "mixiote." That is depleting the supply of healthy magueys.
"The mixiote people are our biggest problem. They come at night and raid the magueys," says Del Razo, whose company has come up with an alternative for maguey membranes that he says can flavor rabbits and save the plants.
Del Razo hopes the incipient pulque export business will save the three fast-disappearing species of agave plants from which pulque is made. Tequila is made from a fourth species, known as the blue agave, which is thriving on commercial plantations.
It would be a shame if the agave or maguey plants disappeared from the dry highlands of central Mexico, Del Razo says. The Aztecs got almost everything they needed from the maguey: cloth from leaf fibers, roofing materials from the leaves, needles from thorns and drinks like pulque from the sap.
Traditionally, lovers carved the name of their beloved on the leaves of the maguey, where the scars would show for decades.
So, Del Razo says, have a glass of pulque--and save a maguey.