An array of colorful fermented beverages sits on the tiled bar of East Austin Mexican restaurant Nixta Taqueria. There’s the shockingly pink colonche made from tuna — the fruit of the prickly pear cactus. There’s the earthy terracotta mesquite tea, made from ground mesquite pods, and the restaurant’s newest addition: the pulque-rita. A twist on the Tex-Mex cocktail staple, the milky drink has a subtle yellow hue and a chile piquin-citrus salt rim. The base of the beverage is pulque — a traditional Mexican drink that dates back to the pre-Columbian era.
As the head of Nixta’s fermented beverage program, Andrés M. Garza’s priority is two-fold: They want to push people out of their comfort zones by getting them to try something they might not have heard of before, but they also want to educate them. Because while these drinks might be brand-new to some customers, the beverages have been around Texas and Mexico for centuries. “These are drinks that were made here that aren’t anymore,” Garza says. “Working in fermentation at Nixta, it feels like my responsibility to pay homage to that.”
Originally from Monterrey, Mexico, Garza moved to the Rio Grande Valley and later left to attend college in Austin. Their anthropology courses at the University of Texas at Austin sparked an interest in the culinary traditions of their native Northern Mexico and the Southwest. “I wanted to know more about what our ancestors were eating and drinking,” they say. “All throughout that region, there’s a rich history of fermented beverages going back thousands of years. Indigenous groups were using what was available to them — mesquite, agave, prickly pear — and fermenting them because it was healthy, it gave them energy.”
While fermented products like kombucha, kimchi, and miso have exploded in popularity in recent years, the practice of fermentation is one that humans all over the world have been partaking in for thousands of years. The process, which converts sugar to alcohol, is behind the creation of everything from yogurt and pickles to wine and beer.
For Garza, it was like falling down a rabbit hole. The more they learned, the more inspired they felt to make the recipes. Working at Nixta when it opened in 2019 only invigorated their interest. When they returned from a pandemic stint in the Rio Grande Valley in 2021 and became the restaurant’s director of fermentation, they knew exactly where they wanted to start: pulque.
Like tequila and mezcal, pulque comes from the agave plant, also referred to as maguey. But rather than being harvested from the slow-cooked piña or heart of the plant, it’s made from aguamiel, its sweet sap. Centuries before the Spanish colonization of Mexico began in 1519, Indigenous groups throughout the region collected aguamiel (which translates to “honey water”) for medicinal purposes and fermentation. The sap breaks down naturally, becoming a frothy, viscous beverage about as alcoholic as beer with a tartness similar to kombucha.
The sanctity of agave to Mesoamerican groups meant that for much of the pre-Columbian era, pulque was treated with great importance. It was featured in a number of myths and legends related to the Aztec goddess of maguey, Mayahuel, and was primarily reserved for the nobility during Aztec rule in what’s now Central Mexico. With the arrival of the Spanish, the forced assimilation of the native people meant that pulque, like a number of sacred traditions, was divorced from its religious roots, though production persisted into the late 19th century. As European beer became popular in the 20th century, the consumption of pulque waned, helped along by a successful brewery-run smear campaign.
Many pulque recipes have been passed down for generations and are still consumed today, but one of the long-lasting impacts of Spanish colonization is the forced disconnect between descendants of native Mexicans and their traditions. But for families like Garza’s, those ties were severed, and they’re now in the process of reconnecting with them. “I don’t have that passed-down knowledge,” Garza says. “So I have to read what these drinks tasted like, learn how it was done, and I’ve been lucky enough to travel back to Mexico and learn from people making it there.”
In recent decades, pulque has had a resurgence throughout Central Mexico, where pulquerías and street vendors often offer it the traditional way or mix it with fresh fruit juice (guava, mango, pineapple, etc.). As increasingly popular as it is in Mexico, pulque’s quick fermentation is mostly to blame for why it hasn’t yet hit it big in the U.S. The drink has a short shelf life, making it difficult to ship into the country unless it’s pasteurized. “We’re the first restaurant in Austin to carry pulque,” Garza says of Nixta. “This is the closest we can get to traditional pulque, but for me, it was just important to get people access to it, even if it’s slightly different than what they might find in Mexico.”
It’s a message that resonated with them. On a recent trip to Mexico City, Garza visited a pulque museum and saw a display about bottled pulque that read, “It doesn’t taste the same because it’s not like natural pulque ... but it does permit the Mexicans who are far away to get closer to home.”
Nixta serves Pulque Octli Conejo Blanco, a bottled brand from Hidalgo that now ships to Australia and Korea. Each bottle features a white rabbit on its amber glass — a nod to the pre-Hispanic legend of the 400 rabbits, the divine children of Mayahuel who represented the 400 states of consciousness that could be achieved by imbibing in alcoholic beverages like pulque. It’s also tied to the belief that it was mountain rabbits drinking from the agave plant that allowed native Mexicans to discover aguamiel.
Since Nixta began selling it last November, pulque has become one of the most popular drinks on the menu, particularly in pulque-ritas. “It’s the number one drink people ask for,” Garza says with a smile. “Having 50 people a day try pulque, most of them for the first time, it’s amazing.”
Garza was apprehensive at first about taking a traditional beverage like pulque and using it as the base for a margarita. From chai to kombucha, there’s a long history of traditional foods and drinks becoming so popular in America that they become separated from their cultural context. Garza wants to meet people where they’re at, but not at the expense of muddying pulque’s origins. “I can already see how someone could exoticize pulque,” Garza says. “Taking something like the history of pulque as an Aztec drink and turning it into something like the nectar of the Aztec gods, that information isn’t wrong, but when it’s being portrayed that way, you’re not doing the full history and people justice. I would love for it to have a resurgence here that isn’t a trend, but something connected to the community.”
Garza envisions a world in which pulque is appreciated on the same level as wine. “This is a drink that showcases our biodiversity, our history in this region. You pay $12 to $15 for a glass of wine, I think you should pay about the same for pulque if we’re trying to respect it the same way. But at the same time, I want everyone to have access to it.”
As with wine, pulque can vary wildly from region to region. The elevation in a particular part of the country can impact the taste of the agave, and the method of fermentation or any herbs and roots cofermented with the aguamiel can add notes of sweetness or amp up the tart, lactic taste. In Monterrey and Guadalajara, for example, the drink tends to be thinner, in part because of varying local styles, but also because of the differences in elevation. “It’s all an expression of the land,” Garza says.
In the long term, Garza imagines a future where more people feel inspired to connect with the native plants of the region and make their own fermented drinks. Garza and the team are fermenting tepache (a drink made out of pineapple rinds), colonche, and mesquite tea in-house, some of which are available at the restaurant. And this is just the beginning. “Just having pulque here gives people an idea. If more places have pulque and there’s a demand for it, maybe people will start making it. It feels special to harvest these ingredients and make something with it. It’s so rewarding.”