"How do you compare it to anything else?" Benavidez asks as he opens a can of Nectar del Razo pulque. "There's nothing like it. It's not a distilled spirit, it's not a wine, and it's not a beer."
But it's definitely alcoholic. Pulque is a naturally fermenting nectar from the maguey plant, a member of the agave family that flourishes in the high deserts of central Mexico; it's the same juice that's distilled to make mezcal. The natives discovered this heady beverage over 2,000 years ago, and it became the elixir of choice for Aztec leaders, who occasionally shared it with their subjects: About-to-be human sacrifices were given pulque before they were killed. Aztec legend tells of a leader who got drunk on pulque and removed his clothes in public. The shamed man was banished to a remote area, where he and his followers enjoyed a lifestyle rich in pulque parties and frequent nudity.
That tale may shed light on pulque's most celebrated characteristic. "It has an aphrodisiac property," says Byron Hurey, a distribution rep for Boulder Imports. "Ask any Mexican male, and he'll say, 'Ooh, pulque makes you very strong!'"
"I've talked to more than one gentleman over 75 years old who says, 'I drink my pulque every day; it's what keeps me going,'" agrees Benavidez. "There may be something to it. Why would it live on for so many centuries?"
Over those centuries, pulque has morphed from royal nectar to a blue-collar beverage enjoyed mainly in pulquerías: gritty, working-class, men-only establishments. Benavidez discovered the drink when he was in Mexico on business and ventured into his first pulquería. "I thought, 'Wow, this is totally different,'" he recalls. "I couldn't pin down the taste, but I had a warm feeling that hits you quickly when you drink it." He got in touch with Productos Naturales de Agave, a Mexican company that had been experimenting with canning pulque, pasteurizing the drink to make it stable. (Productos Naturales is currently the only pulque canner in Mexico, Benavidez says.)
Pulque is harvested from massive maguey plants that reach heights of over eight feet by the time they're seven to ten years old. Once a plant is mature, a pulque harvester prunes off the top, carves out a reservoir in the center, then covers the opening. Juice from the plant's leaves drains into the reservoir, and farmers harvest the liquid -- the aguamiel -- twice a day. A typical maguey plant yields about a gallon a day for several months, but legendary magueys have collected nectar for as long as a year. (Local officials sometimes witness the topping of more promising plants.) Harvesters store the juice in vats, where a naturally occurring bacteria from the plant causes it to ferment; within the course of a day or two, it reaches 6 percent alcohol.
Canned pulque comes in a "natural" version and curado variations flavored with fruit. Poured into a glass after a good shaking to stir up the solids, the natural version is an uncarbonated, pearlescent drink that resembles extra-thick coconut milk or an unfiltered sake. The drink's body is akin to pulp-free orange juice, its nose offering subtle aromas of bananas that call to mind ginjo sake or a Bavarian-style hefeweizen beer. Its taste brings the flavor of more bananas and pineapple, with a citrus note balancing out the drink's sweetness. The fruit-flavored pulques deliver all this as well as the character of their respective fruits, including strawberry, passion fruit and a coconut-pineapple blend.
Pulque is delicious, very refreshing and immensely easy to drink. It's also a beverage with broad potential, since it can be enjoyed for breakfast (like a mimosa) or during lunch, dinner or post-dinner fun. In this country, the canned, colorfully packaged drinks sell for about six bucks a six-pack. Unlike in Mexico, our pulque-pounders include both men and women. And while so far the primary audience has been Hispanic, others are embracing the drink as much for its unique history and taste as for its nutritional properties -- some of which are documented on the can's FDA-approved label.
"I'm seeing more and more non-Latinos who are buying their pulque," Benavidez says. "They're saying, 'Here's an alcoholic beverage that tastes good and is good for your health. This is really different.'"
Pulque's finding so many fans in the United States that Benavidez has had a tough time keeping up with demand. For a while, Hurey says, he was selling 12,000 cases a month in parts of Illinois with a large Hispanic population. Benavidez hasn't been able to ship new pulque into Colorado for months.
But the supply shortage may soon be over. Last month, Benavidez sold Boulder Imports to a trio of Texas-based businessmen who share his belief that pulque has a future north of the border. The new owners are injecting fresh working capital and marketing help into the company, lining up distributors across the country. Benavidez is staying with Boulder Imports, where he'll oversee the importation of the drink from an expanded list of producers. His goal of bringing pulque to America -- and better income to producers back in Mexico -- is coming closer.
"We're not talking small-time anymore," Benavidez says. "Has it been easy? No. Will my dream come true? Yes. Once people try pulque, it just goes."
And while the business still has a ways to go, pulque is bringing Benavidez other rewards. "The many dear, deep friends I have in Mexico as a result of doing this -- that's what pulque has done for me," he says. "It's taken me to fields and haciendas, and I've met beautiful people who drink the pulque directly from the cavities. I'm having fun with my Mexican friends and dreaming with them. I have been so lucky to have it."