How to Brew Chicha: Corn beer of South America

Unless you’ve spent much time in South America, or followed Dogfish  Head Brewery closely, you probably haven’t heard of Chicha.  I have to  admit, when I first found out about it and profiled it, I was intrigued.  Seriously: an ages-old beer indigenous to much of the Americas,  sometimes made with spit, and which was used in ancient religious  ceremonies?  Hell yes!

Now, in traditional western brewing, corn is usually just an adjunct that’s sometimes used in a small percentage in relation to the barley (and possibly wheat)  — and that’s if corn is even used at all.  And when it is, it’s usually flaked corn.  But lately I’ve decided that I want to step outside of regular Western brewing and see what recipes I can recreate here from the confines of my one bedroom apartment in Seattle.  I’ll be using only those items that are already around in my kitchen, with the one exception being a one gallon glass carboy I purchased from a homebrew shop.  The batch size is going to be small — most homebrewing is done on the 5 gallon or 10 gallon scale — but since I’m starting with spit, and plan to continue to be funky, I decided it’s best to keep it to just a gallon.

And so, to kick off my series on recreating indigenous and little-known beers (and other alcoholic brews), let’s start with Chicha.

First, the base ingredients and stats:

1lb Purple Corn Kernels

.5 lb Piloncillo

2 pints strawberries

1/3 pineapple

Safale US-05

Mash temp: 153 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 minutes

Boil time: 1 hour

OG: 1.048

FG: 1.018

ABV: 3.94

Now, here in depth is how you prepare the Chicha de Muko and, at the end, our tasting notes.

Step 1: Preparing the corn

To start, I purchased two 1lb bags of dried purple Peruvian corn.  I only planned to use 1lb of corn for this recipe, but I recommend picking up extra.  Making Chicha can get messy, so it’s best to be prepared.

Preparing for Grinding

What you’ll need to prepare the purple corn

After opening the packages, I emptied the corn into a colander and thoroughly washed the kernels under running water.  Because the corn was raw, organic, and I had no idea of how sanitary it was, I wanted to clean it before grinding it and shoving it in my mouth.

Drying the purple corn

Drying the purple corn

I spread the corn out on a large silicone baking sheet to dry.  For two pounds, it will take about 2-3 hours to fully dry off.  I recommend using something that is easy to wash and at least water-resistant, as the corn will leech some coloring out as it dries and you may end up staining whatever it’s drying on.

Purple corn in blender

Ground purple corn in blender. You’re aiming for a coarse grind.

After it’s dry, throw the kernels batch-by-batch into the blender.  Each batch for me contained about 3 cups of the kernels, as I wanted to avoid overworking my blender.  You want to achieve a fairly coarse grind, as you need to be able to strain these kernels out when you’re done steeping them for the mash.  If you turn the kernels into flour, you’ll be left with a gooey mess instead of Chicha.

Drying purple corn cakes

These purple corn “cakes”, known as Muko, have been moistened with saliva and are drying.

Next comes the fun part: you get to take all this coarse corn flour and put it in your mouth.  It’s not going to taste good, and the dryness of the flour is going to suck the moisture right out of your mouth.  Overall, it’s not a pleasant experience.  But if you want to brew Chicha the traditional way, you need to do this so that the amylase enzyme in your saliva can convert the starches.  To get really technical, since we are using our saliva to get at the sugars within the corn (instead of malting the corn), the full name of what we are making is Chicha de Muko.  Muko is the name for the little spitballs of corn.

Here’s how I recommend making the Muko: first, take about half a large spoonful of the ground corn and place that on the front half of your tongue.  Then, hold that bit of the corn against the roof of your mouth with the front half of your tongue.  What you’re doing here is keeping it away from the back of your mouth (you do not want to trigger your gag reflex, nor do you want to swallow this stuff), and work it there until your mouth makes enough saliva to turn the dry ground corn into more of a mushy ball.  Then you use your tongue to mash it into a ball or a cake and then spit it out.  I found that a baking tray works great for spitting the corn onto.

Doesn’t making Chicha sound fun so far?  Relax, the hard part is over.  Let the saliva-moistened corn cakes dry for about 24 hours.

Step 2: Mashing the Muko and boiling the Chicha wort

Corn steeping at ~153 degrees

The corn steeping at ~153 Fahrenheit for one hour

Now we get down to the mash for Chicha.  I filled a 10L pot with 2 gallons of tap water.  I brought that water up to 160 degrees, put the Muko into a fine nylon mesh bag, and added them to the hot water. I kept the temperature relatively stable on the stovetop at 153 for 1 hour.

Chicha ingredients

Preparing the extra ingredients: strawberries, 1/3 pineapple, 8 oz. piloncillo

While you’re steeping the Muko to prepare your Chicha wort, get your flavor additions ready.  In this case, I’m enhancing the fermentable sugars in my Chicha wort by adding .5 lbs piloncillo.  For flavor, I’ll be adding 1/3 of a diced pineapple and 2 pints of finely sliced strawberries at the end of the boil.

Though I’m choosing to go the fruit and berry route, one of the great things about Chicha is the variety of flavors it is able to take on.  Different regions of South America will use different additives.  Some common additions include: curacao, lime, coriander, mint and cinnamon.  Feel free to experiment.

Chicha wort cooling with strawberries and pineapple

After the boil, and once your corn wort has dropped below 180, add your strawberries and pineapple

After boiling for an hour, I allow the wort to cool down below 180 degrees before adding the fruit.  This is to prevent the release of pectins from the fruit.  I keep the fruit in there to steep while the wort cools down to about 70 degrees, after which I remove the fruit and transfer the wort to the carboy.  At this point, the wort smells mostly of strawberries, with a slight backbone of corn and pineapple.  Then, pitch the yeast, cover the opening of the carboy with foil, and set aside to ferment.

Step 3: Fermenting your Chicha

Cooled chicha wort in carboy

Strain your cooled wort to remove the fruit and berries. Then add to your carboy

Allow your Chicha to ferment for about 24-48 hours.  Chicha is normally drunk fresh and still fermenting, both in order to prevent spoilage and to get a bit of natural carbonation as the yeast is still actively working.

I recommend drinking your Chicha within a few days of brewing it.  There are no hops used in Chicha, and that, combined with the low alcohol percentage, means there’s a decent risk of spoilage.

Step 4: Drinking your Chicha

A glass of fresh brewed ChichaSo, we’ve come this far, it’s time to answer the question: how does the Chicha taste?  Both my girlfriend Laura (who was kind enough to help me with making the Muko) and I sat down to enjoy the result of our hard work.  Here are our respective tasting notes from trying the Chicha.

Tasting notes – Joe

Aroma – It smells primarily of soured fruit.  Mostly soured strawberries with a hint of pineapple. There is a secondary smell of aley-yeastiness in the background.  It’s not very enticing so far.

Taste – Corn hits the tongue first right away.  Followed by strawberries, and again a hint of pineapple.  Then some more corn.  Followed by yeastiness.  It’s not nearly as bad as the smell would lead you to believe.  With some recipe changes, like reducing the fruit and adding some mint, it could be pretty nice.

Mouthfeel – Not bad.  Very much like a still beer.  There’s still plenty of residual sugars from the corn and the fruit, which helps create the fuller mouthfeel.  Having some carbonation, maybe kegging and force-carbing, would be an improvement.

Overall – For what it was, and how unusual part of the brewing process was, it was better than expected.  The aroma is the least enjoyable part of it.  The taste, with the soured-fruit aspect, has some hints of a slightly backsweetend lambic.  Sort of like a corny, poor man’s Lindemans.

Score – 4/10.

Tasting Notes – Laura

Aroma – Pretty rough. Slightly reminiscent of old yeast mixed with overripe-but-not-fully-rotten strawberries. Or an old keg. Corn scent is present, but more like popcorn, and less like corn on the cob.

Taste – Fairly sour, but not bad. Much, much better than the aroma would suggest. Pleasantly acidic pineapple-corn aftertaste. I don’t get much of the strawberry flavor, except at the beginning, due to the smell.

Mouthfeel – Moderately heavy, but very smooth. Really nice.

Overall – I’ve certainly had better beers, but I’ve bought worse ones too (rarely, thankfully.) Given its origin and corn base (which I personally dislike) it really wasn’t bad. I’d expected it to be significantly worse. If you were in a jungle and this was your only way to get loaded, you could do worse.

Score – 3/10

Readers, what are some unusual beers or other alcoholic beverages that you’ve tried or wanted to try? For those of you who brew, what’s the most unusual creation you’ve attempted?

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2 thoughts on “How to Brew Chicha: Corn beer of South America

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