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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 70.djvu/219

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THE CENTURY PLANT

other cover is replaced, and he passes on. Sometimes he trudges home with his burden as often as the pig-skin is filled; but on the larger haciendas a burro, saddled with large bags of the same kind, awaits him at one side of the field, and the work continues until at length man and donkey go in with a full load.

The fluid which collects in the hollowed trunk of a cut maguey plant and is gathered in the manner described, is called 'agua miel,' or honey-water, because of its sweetness: nine or ten per cent, of its weight is sugar, and this furnishes the basis for the alcoholic fermentation which is the chief factor in its conversion into pulque. The agua miel of the Apam district is thin, clear and colorless. It is of a rather pleasant taste if dipped from the plant in a gourd and free from drowned insects, but fact or fancy gives it various reminiscent flavors under other circumstances.

The fermentation practises in pulque making are still mostly primitive. I have had a Mexican gentleman tell me that although when the agua miel was gathered and fermented in a way to please him he considered it a delicious drink, he would not think of touching pulque as offered, for instance, at the railway station in Apam—where the conversation occurred. The vats used are of ox-hide stretched on frames, and they are usually three or four feet wide and nearly as deep. Fermentation is begun by the introduction of a starter or 'mother of pulque' obtained by preliminary fermentation, and is carried on without, or at most with little, artificial control of temperature, and under conditions of positive or negative cleanliness which differ with the various haciendas.

When marketed, the pulque is a white, decidedly viscous fluid containing about eight per cent, of alcohol; fermentation has not been solely alcoholic, however, and its flavor is in part due to changes wrought by bacteria of several kinds which are introduced with the starter in company with the yeast. Continuation of the action of these collateral ferments causes the beverage to spoil in a day or two under ordinary conditions.

Familiar sights about Apam and in the capital are wagons loaded with the large casks in which pulque is transported from the haciendas to the railroad and again to the gaudily colored but often disreputable and usually filthy shops where it is dispensed—from open barrels into which glasses are plunged by hand with no greater care to prevent contact with the human person than marks some of the earlier stages in the conversion of grape juice into wine—and the patrons of which are not prepossessing.

Where the maguey, though capable of cultivation, yields a lesser or inferior product, agua miel is often more appreciated in its unfermented state. As hawked around the streets of Monterey, for instance, in porous earthenware receptacles, it is a cool yellowish fluid, that I