If you travel to Central or South America, chances are you’ll find plenty of places selling Chicha. Chicha has become somewhat of a catchall term nowadays for a range of fermented and non-fermented drinks. It can be made from an assortment of different bases, like yuca, grape, apple, plantain, quinoa, and corn. The most well-known variety outside of South and Central America is probably Chicha de jora, which is a fermented drink made from corn. Basically it’s a corn beer. And while that may seem pretty simple, Chicha has long been an important part of South American and Central American history.
Chicha has a long history in South America, going back at least 5,000 years ago and it has strong ties to many of the empires of South America. For the Incas, the consumption of Chicha was part of many different religious rituals and women were trained in schools in the brewing of Chicha. There were many different religious ceremonies where the consumption or offering of Chicha was a central element. For example, during some ceremonies, the Incan King would make offerings of Chicha to the Sun God, done at the Navel of the Universe (a special stone dias constructed in the Incan capital Cusco), which then poured down to the Temple of the Sun. At many religious festivals, there would be mass drunkenness for days, as everyone (both common and noble-class people) consumed huge amounts of Chicha.
The Wari Empire (they were the second-largest empire in South American history and reigned from 600-1100 AD) was also very serious about their Chicha. Women were often given an honored place in the brewing process and Chicha had a pivotal role in their religious ceremonies. Like the Incas, their festivals and religious events often included getting really drunk on Chicha. If you want an example of how seriously awesome their drinking ceremonies could get, you just have to take a look at the ritual demolition of Cerro Baul that happened around 1,000 years ago.
For around 400 years, Cerro Baul served as a diplomatic outpost for the Wari. It was the spot where their elites would meet with their counterparts in the Tiwanaku Empire and carry out what was basically their version of the Cold War. The Wari ambassadors would meet with the Tiwanaku ambassadors, put out any potential major fires, and maintain a general level of standoffish peace. Eventually, the Wari and Tiwanaku civilizations began to decline and the Wari decided that it wasn’t worth maintaining Cerro Baul anymore. So they decided to demolish the place.
Now, how did they carry it out and how does that relate to Chicha? Well, they fired up the brewery one last time (this outpost had it’s own large brewery), brewed a massive batch of Chicha, everyone there got roaring drunk, and then they burned each and every building to the ground. As a final hurrah, they shattered all their drinking glasses before heading off into the sunset.
So, how do you make this South American corn beer of badasses? Well, if you’re making the non-alcoholic kind (like Chicha Morada), you boil the corn or other base ingredient (grape, apple, etc.) with some spices and other fruits (pineapple is a popular addition) to blend the flavors and then you serve it. To make the alcoholic Chicha, you first need to germinate the corn, soak it in high temperature (about 155 degrees Fahrenheit) water to extract the sugars and produce a wort, boil that wort to both sterilize it and concentrate the sugars, and then allow it to ferment for several days before service. If you want to get extremely rustic with it, as is done in some parts of Peru and in the Amazon, instead of malting the corn you grind it into a powder, place it in your mouth and wet it with saliva, and then form that salivated mass into cakes. The enzymes in your saliva break the starch in the corn down into sugars. Once dried, the cakes are then soaked in hot water to produce the wort, which is then boiled and fermented.
What’s so important then about Chicha? It’s a part of beer’s history that not many people outside of South/Central America are aware of. And for thousands of years natives of the Americas were brewing this corn beer, using it to in their festivals and religious ceremonies, and offering it to their gods (in some cases along with human sacrifice). For anyone that’s really interested in exploring beer’s history, Chicha is something that definitely shouldn’t be overlooked.
Readers: Have you ever tried Chicha? Was it somewhere in S. America, or was it through a special brewery release at a place like Dogfish Head? Tell us about it!