The Story of Chicha

By Bill Ridgely

(Written for BarleyCorn, May 1994, All Rights Reserved.)

Reproduced with permission of the author.

The year was 1516 A.D. The western world was rising from the ashes of the dark ages. In Germany, the Elector of Bavaria proclaimed the Reinheitsgebot, the world's first beer purity law, which allowed for only water, malted barley, later malted wheat, and hops to be used in brewing (Yeast, of course, was taken for granted). The Reinheitsgebot was necessary because German brewers had begun using questionable ingredients (including animal parts) in their beer, resulting in a somewhat deleterious effect on the public health.

Experimentation in brewing hadn't begun in Germany, however. Beer (by broad definition any fermented beverage made from grain) already had a long and colorful history as one of mankind's oldest beverages. Nearly every culture, with the exception of the Eskimo & the Australian aborigine, had extracted sugar from grains and produced at least one alcoholic beverage.

From earliest times, these beverages were viewed as safe & nutritious supplements to the everyday diet, but they were also seen as gateways to the universe inhabited by the gods. Unlike modern society, where altering of consciousness is perceived as an attempted escape from reality, most pre-industrial cultures viewed intoxication as a genuinely religious experience.

Much was happening in the world at the time of the Reinheitsgebot. In South America, an extraordinary culture with a very different brewing tradition was just reaching its apex. A highly advanced agricultural and engineering society, it lacked a written language and knowledge of the wheel, but it extended its influence to well over half a continent.

The Inca Empire (Tawantinsuyu to its inhabitants, literally "Unity of Four Parts") was consolidated in the year 1438, when a Cuzco-based confederacy led by Pachakuti Inka Yupanki defeated the Chanka tribe of the north and took control of an area comprising modern-day Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, half of Chile, and the northwest corner of Argentina.

It all lasted barely 100 years. By 1521, Hernando Cortez had conquered Mexico and unleashed a plague of diseases that quickly spread through the continent. The Inca king Wayna Qhapaq and at least a third of his subjects were killed by smallpox in 1525. The war of succession launched by the king's surviving sons resulted in the deaths of thousands more. By the time Francisco Pizarro and his "army" of 30 conquistadors arrived in 1532, there was little left to conquer. The last Inca ruler, Atau Wallpa, was put to death in 1533 shortly after Pizarro ordered his weight in gold and silver as ransom for his release (a promise, like many others made by the Spanish, never fulfilled).

Despite its short existance, the Inca empire made great strides in agricultural engineering and high-altitude food preservation. Two crops became food staples - potatoes (which were developed in the Andes), and maize (corn).

Fresh potatoes were cut in pieces and laid on rooftops, exposed to the freezing temperatures of the Andean night followed by the warmth and dryness of the day. The resulting product was called ch'unu (ch'oonyu), the first "freeze-dried" food. It could be stored indefinitely and transported easily, and it was a primary energy source of the "runners" who transported goods and information along the vast system of high-altitude roadways connecting the empire.

Maize served as the raw material for a fermented beverage that came to be valued as highly as gold, a beverage that played a key role in the economics of the empire. It was called aqa (a'kha) in Quechua, the language of the high Andes, and kusa (koo'sa) in Aymara, the language of the altiplano and low country. The Spaniards called it chicha, a word derived from the Spanish "chichal", meaning "saliva" or "to spit".

The name comes from the beer's early method of production. Andean people for centuries had found saliva to be an effective means for converting starches in grains to fermentable sugars. This discovery likely dated from the earliest times of grain cultivation, although the exact nature of the process (amylolytic enzymes found in saliva), was not identified until the last century.

Beers made from salivated roots and grains had been brewed in Central and South America long before the time of the Incas. The people of the Amazon basin brewed a beer called masato from dried, roasted and chewed manioc root a thousand years before the conquest. Other indigenous beers were brewed from salivated quinoa, algaroba (seeds of the carob tree), and various fruits and vegetables.

Maize beer, however, came to occupy a special place in the Inca economic system because it served as a direct medium of exchange. This may seem strange to us living in a market-oriented society, where money is used to purchase goods and services. The Incas had no money. Instead, they developed the exchange of labor for all necessities of life. Each citizen devoted part of the year to working on state projects (building roads, terraces, irrigation systems, and administrative centers), part to working on religious projects (building temples and monuments), and part to agriculture. Similarly, all food produced was distributed partly to the state (for storage in time of famine), partly to the gods (in support of the priesthood), and partly to the local community (for everyday needs). This highly-efficient system allowed for major state projects to be accomplished while food was distributed equitably and abundantly to everyone.

Performance of mit'a was largely paid in the form of the two staple foods, ch'unu and chicha. Both were produced on a very large scale in state-owned facilities.

Brewing was done entirely by women, primarily the Aqllakuna (Akh'yakuna) or "Chosen Women" of the king (sometimes referred to as the Mamakuna or "Virgins of the Sun"). These women labored in buildings distributed over a wide area of a typical Inca administrative center. At the height of the empire, very little chicha was still brewed from salivated corn (called muko) because the process was extremely labor-intensive. Malted corn (called jora) largely replaced salivated corn by the end of the 15th century. The process of malting had been developed over a long period, and Inca rulers understood the economic reality that large-scale production required the most efficient process.

Modern archaeologists recently examined the ancient remains of a single brew in the Inca administrative city of Manchan (1). Based on the quantity of spent grain discovered in a disposal pit, it was estimated than an average brew comprised a little over 5 hectoliters (500 liters) of finished chicha, not far removed from the average daily output of a small modern brewpub or microbrewery. Assuming an estimated consumption of 3 liters of chicha per day by the average citizen, this single brew would have met the daily needs of close to 170 people. And this was from a single brewery in a city largely devoted to brewing! One begins to see the huge role that chicha played in the everyday lives and affairs of these people.

Shortly after the Spanish conquest, production and consumption of chicha was banned by the Catholic church, and the large-scale indigenous brewing industry disappeared. However, the craft did not die entirely because the beer had come to occupy a major role in the religious observances and special events of the Andean people. It simply became dispersed as a cottage industry at the village level, where it remains to this day.

Little was known to the modern world about the techniques of chicha brewing until the mid-20th century. Two botanists from Harvard University, Hugh Cutler and Martin Cardenas, visited the Cochabamba area of Bolivia in 1947 and observed chichamakers at work. The result of their observations was the most definitive study to date of the procedures and ingredients used to brew the beer (2). The recent writings of beer anthropologist Alan Eames brought the observations up to date and highlighted significant changes over the last half century (3).

The basic ingredient of chicha is still maize (corn), and several types are used throughout the Andes. A popular one is chuspillo, a yellow, many-rowed sweet corn. Another is culli, a cherry-red to nearly black corn, which makes a chicha with a rich, burgundy color. Uchukilla, a small-eared white corn found mostly at elevations over 8,000 feet, makes a very light-colored chicha. All varieties make chicha of very high quality.

At the time of the Harvard study, some chicha was still being made from muko or salivated flour, which was produced by first drying the corn and then grinding it into a flour-like meal. The meal was moistened and rolled into balls which were popped in the mouth until well mixed with saliva. The salivated corn balls were then pressed against the upper palate to flatten them, removed from the mouth, and dried in the sun. Muko commanded a high price in the market place because of the high quality of chicha it produced.

Very little muko was still being used for brewing, however. Most chicha was being brewed from germinated or malted corn called jora. To make jora, whole kernel dried corn was soaked overnight in a large earthen vessel, called a wirki. It was then removed, spread out on leaves to a depth of 4 or 5 inches, and covered with blankets to germinate. When shoots reached an inch or two in length, the jora was spread out on a blanket in the sun to dry.

The actual process of brewing was a multi-day event requiring the full attention of the chichamaker and her assistants. On the first day, the muko or jora (sometimes in combination) was ground, placed into the wirki, and covered with hot, but not boiling water. The mash was mixed thoroughly, then allowed to settle and cool for about an hour. The liquid portion (now called upi (oo'pi)) was removed with a gourd and placed in another wirki. More hot water was then added to the honchi (corn residue) in the pot, and this in turn was drawn off and added to the previously extracted upi. The upi was then left to stand for a full day and night, during which time it acquired a lactic infection which produced the characteristic sourness of the final product.

On the third day, the upi was transferred to a perol (cookpot) for the boil. This was always done late at night so that Mamasara, the corn goddess, would intercede and provide good luck to the brewers and strength to the beer. The upi was boiled for 3 hours, at the end of which time spices (traditionally allspice, anise, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, mace, mint, or any combination) were added to the pot. The liquid was then transferred back to the wirki to cool. In season, strawberries were often added to make frutillada, a beverage which Alan Eames described as "the holy grail of beers".

Today, time and economic constraints of 20th century life have induced chicha-makers to eliminate the mashing and souring step entirely and proceed directly to the boil. The crushed jora (called huinapu) and water are placed in the perol and slowly brought to a boil. Some conversion of starches takes place during the transition phase, but extra sugar is always added in the form of chancaca (unrefined Andean cane sugar with a taste and consistency similar to English treacle) and malta (a dark, sweet malt beverage with little or no alcohol content, similar to German malzbier). At the end of the 3-hour boil, the honchi is strained from the liquid by pouring the contents of the pot slowly through a reed basket.

Once the liquid has cooled, the sediment from a previous batch is pitched, along with a traditional bit of burning charcoal to propitiate evil spirits. Fermentation takes place over 3 to 6 days, and the chicha is generally drunk before fermentation has completed. It is believed that the beer will gain strength if kept underground for a long period of time. A little clove, cinnamon, or cilantro is often sprinkled on top at serving time.

Chicha is cloudy, tart and rather cidery. It takes its color from the color of the corn used, and its frothy head comes from release of CO2 during the incomplete fermentation. Chicha also shows some complexity from the spices and sugars added to it.

Although chicha is occasionally consumed in the home and often served at social and religious events, it is mostly consumed in the chicharia or "chicha bar". The availability of fresh chicha is announced by the aqa llantu (ak'ha yontu) or "chicha flag", a broomstick usually decorated with flowers, ribbons, and corn husks. More sophisticated chicharias have ornate signs announcing the beer's availability.

It is traditional to flick chicha toward the ground in the four directions of the compass before drinking. This is in respect for Pachamama, the earth goddess. Chicha is also sprinkled on domestic animals, on wounds, and on graves as a final salute to the deceased.

Chicha survives as an indigenous beer, and hopes are that it will continue to be brewed by enterprising Andean women for centuries to come. The secrets of chichamaking have been handed down from mother to daughter in a long standing oral tradition, and more chicha is being produced and enjoyed today than anytime over the last century. So let's raise our glasses to this ancient beverage and say, along with the people of the Andes, "Tomasunchis" - let's drink together!


1 Moore, Jerry D., "Pre-Hispanic Beer in Coastal Peru: Technology and Social Context of Prehistoric Production", American Anthropologist, v.91 (1989), pp 682-695.

2 Cutler, Hugh and Martin Cardenas, "Chicha, A Native South American Beer", Harvard University Botanical Museam Leaflets, V.13, N.3, December 29, 1947.

3 Eames, Alan D., "The Brewsters of Urubamba", All About Beer, April/May 1992, pp 32-34.

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