By Bill Ridgely

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

Reproduced with permission of the author.

Let's say you wanted to make 10 gallons of chicha, the Andean corn beer, for a big brewers' conference on the west coast. The idea certainly sounds simple enough - just get some corn, malt it, crush it, mash it, and boil the wort same as with any other beer. Then ferment it, put it in a keg, and serve it up on the day of the big event.

My colleague Wendy Aaronson and I decided to attempt this for the American Homebrewers Association annual conference in Portland, OR last summer, and it turned out to be a true adventure, an exploration of the joys and rigors of indeigenous brewing.

First, we had to decide on a type of corn to use. The great variety of colorful corns grown in the Andes were not available to us, so we had to experiment with regional varieties. Yellow corn was easy enough to find. It was available at most feed stores, used mostly as horse feed. We knew it was safe to eat and uncomtaminated by the fungicides used on many commercial seed corns.

For our earliest brewing experiments, we malted one pound of yellow corn for each gallon of finished chicha we desired. The process was fairly simple. The whole-kernel corn was soaked in cold water for 24 hours, then placed in a kitchen colander to sprout. The corn was sprayed with cold water twice a day and turned once a day to prevent molding. It germinated within two days, and shoots grew to approximately 2" in length within 5 days. The resulting jora (malted corn) was spread out on a sheet in the sun to dry.

Our first chichas were thin and light-bodied, so it became apparent that we needed to use more corn. Only about 50% of the corn germinated during the malting process, so we suspected at least twice as much would be needed to achieve proper sugar content. We also experimented with various additons of raw sugar to our boils (including brown sugar and South American chancaca sugar, which we found at a local Latin American grocery store). We fiddled with various spicings and spice combinations.

For the conference chicha, we decided to use a more exotic corn, so we contacted a local natural food distributor and obtained 50 lbs of whole-kernel, organically-grown blue corn from the American southwest.

With that quantity, we needed a much larger germinating vessel, so we purchased a plastic kitchen dishpan and drilled numerous 1/8" holes in the bottom to form a drain field. The pan would hold 6-8 lbs of soaked corn in a bed approximately 3" deep. We malted our blue corn over the course of a winter and early spring, drying the resulting jora in the sun when weather permitted and drying it in an oven set at the lowest temperature possible (about 150 degrees) when it didn't. The dried jora was stored in plastic bags to keep it free from moisture.

We continued our brewing experiments using 10 lbs of jora set aside from our 50 lb stash. There were variations in mashing and sparging schedules to try as well as different combinations of sugars and spices. Finally, by late Spring, we produced a full-bodied, flavorful chicha and settled on the recipe for our big batch.

Creating the proper atmosphere for the brewing session was our next goal. We wanted to boil the chicha over an open fire (per Andean tradition) and late at night to invoke the positive influence of Mamasara, the corn goddess. We contacted our good friend Ralph Bucca, who had just the equipment we needed - a wood-fired potbelly stove set up in his back yard for his own all-grain brewing. We decide to hold the "Great Chicha Brew-In" at Ralph's place and invite all interested members of BURP, the Washington, DC area homebrew club, to the festivities.

Unfortunately, we picked the hottest weekend in July, with temperatures hovering at the 100 degree mark. Undeterred, we began our work.

On Saturday morning, we crushed the 40 lbs of remaining jora. The crush was done using a professional, electric-powered grain mill recently surplused by Baltimore's Oxford Brewing Co. The jora corn required multiple passes through the mill, but the job was completed in less than 30 minutes. We gave thanks to Mamasara considering the amount of work saved by not using the old hand-cranked Corona flour mill.

The crushed jora (huinapu) was next placed in two 48-quart Igloo coolers, each equipped with a multi-barrel PVC manifold for drainage. Approximately 10 gallons of water (1 quart per pound) at a strike temperature of 185 degrees F was added. This formed a thick mash which stabilized at 160 degrees F for the one hour conversion. The "first runnings" were then drained, and an additional 10 gallons of water was added to the hanchi (corn residue) remaining in the coolers. This in turn was drawn off and added to the frist runnings. The upi (collected wort) was then left to sit for the remainder of the afternoon while the assembled brewers headed to the nearby Chesapeake Bay for a cool swim.

At sunset, we began building our fire and transferred the 14 gallons of collected upi to the cookpot. At the appointed "witching hour", the pot was placed on the fire, and the long boil began.

To keep the gods happy, our brewing session was conducted strictly by the women of the group. The men simply looked after the fire and took care of any "heavy lifting" that was required. In Andean society (and, for that matter, most non-Western cultures), participation by men in the brewing process is considered bad luck as well as pure stupidity, since men are considered to lack the basic skills required to brew good beer. This is a very ancient and long-standing tradition.

When our brewpot achieved a rolling boil, four pounds of chancaca sugar and 6 bottles of malta beer were added to the brew. Malta is a dark, very sweet non-alcoholic malt beverage very popular in Latin America. It can be found in may local Latin grocery stores. To keep the South American tradition, a bottle of Xingu, the black beer from Brazil, was also added.

At the end of the 3-hour boil, the fire was banked, and spices were added to the brew - clove, cinnamon, and fresh mint harvested from the garden of one of the brewers. The spicing was a bit heavy, a tablespoon each of crushed clove and cinnamon. We later decided that this should have been reduced by at least a teaspoon, but our goal was to produce a chicha that would hold its flavor during the long trip to the west coast. After adding the spices, the brewers settled in for the night, leaving the pot on the stove in hopes of acquiring an additional slight lactic infection by sunrise.

The next morning, we all enjoyed a hearty breakfast of gueze and pancakes with woodruff syrup as the women performed the final ritual - adding a small amount of charcoal from the evening's fire to the cooled chicha. This tradition, shrouded in antiquity, is performed by indigenous brewers the world over to ward off evil spirits.

Finally, the chicha was syphoned to a 1/2 barrel keg and pitched with a quart of ale yeast provide by Dominion Brewing Co. Primary fermentation began quickly and completed in less than a day, with the original graity of the beer dropping from 1.050 to 1.008 in 8 hours time. The following weekend, the chicha was transferred to a second 1/2 barrel keg and force carbonated for the trip to Portland.

Delayed in shipment, the chicha finally arrived on the last day of the conference. We proudly displayed our akha llantu (chicha flag) and served the beverage to all comers at the concluding banquet. Most of those attending seemed a bit leary of the beer at first, but at least a few were spotted hovering over the tap by evening's end.

All in all, the "Great Chicha Brew-In" was a grand adventure, and we look forward to trying our hand at other interesting indigenous beers of the world.

Back to the Chicha Page.