Americans may have committed to the DIY and microbrewery trend two decades, , women in southern Peruvian farming communities have been brewing their own beer from their family’s harvested corn for centuries. This tradition, beginning with Peru’s Pre-Columbian natives, offered the locals both a beverage for their own consumption and semi-inebriated happiness, as well as offerings for their gods. During my visit to a neighborhood market in the Cuzco region of Peru, my local friend and guide Mariela mentioned the existence of this atypical beverage, known colloquially as chichi. Intrigued, I set out to find and test this bizarre beer, hoping to see how it would compare to the American craft beers back home.
We arrived late in the afternoon at one of the more popular chicherias, La Casa De Chicha, run solely by its brewmaster, Señorita Mercedes. Upon introducing myself inside the chicheria’s courtyard, Mercedes guided me to her cramped brewing room where she described the brewing process used by her family for generations. “I begin by removing the kernels and soaking them overnight to cause germination,” Mercedes explains. “Afterwards, I put the germinated kernels in a clay pot and cover them with their husks to ferment for fifteen days. Next, I lay them in the sun for three days to further develop the corns’ sugars. I then crush the dried kernels until they are coarse and boil them for six hours. Finally, I press the kernels and obtain the chicha.”
In addition to being more labor intensive to brew than most commercial beer, chicha is created with relatively primitive devices. In Mercedes’ brewing room, brown sacks containing her family’s recently harvested corn lie in the corner awaiting their shelling; simple pots, wooden spoons, and nature are the only tools she uses; and the vessels that hold the finished product are cheap containers. Peruvian women have been brewing chicha this way for over 500 years, and it seems unlikely that it will be changing anytime soon.
Following Mercedes’ lecture on brewing chicha, she poured samples of the cloudy yellowish liquid for the both of us. Before indulging in the brew, Mercedes quickly splashed a small portion of her beer on the ground. “For Pachamama, Mother Earth,” Mercedes explained. “It is tradition for us to give her our thanks first before consuming her abundances,” she said, motioning for me to do the same.
After I spilled a splash, I finally tried a swig of the historical beer. My expectations that chicha would be reminiscent of an inexpensive macro brew were dashed. While your typical beer usually offers bready flavors, chicha instead features strong hints of corn, as well as an unexpected sour aftertaste vaguely reminiscent of lemon. Furthermore, unlike your everyday beer, chicha contains minimal carbonation and texturally is reminiscent of a slightly grainy juice.
Although chicha is an alcoholic beverage, it takes some effort to get buzzed from drinking the beer. “Each batch I brew is around somewhere between 1-3% ABV” Mercedes explains. “You’re going to have to drink seven or eight caporals to get relatively drunk [each caporal holds 1/2 liter of chicha], but by then you’ll probably have exploded.” These numbers are much lower than the typical 5-8% in commercial ales or lagers, and as a result, locals often mix chicha with commercial beers, or drink it alongside them. Most Peruvians, however, consume chicha merely as a social drink.
Making a comparison of chicha to our local beers is like comparing apples and oranges, or in this case hops and corn, which give diverging flavors to their respective beverages. While chicha might be not be appreciated by everyone, my gringo self included, it still thrives today in Peru, where it’s a social lubricant and a cheap, thirst-quenching beverage for the farmers sweating all day in the fields.