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Tuesday, August 06, 2013

From Cusco to Portland: Chicha's Epic Journey

A few weeks past, a group of friends boarded planes for Peru and an adventure that would take them up to Machu Picchu and down into the Amazon.  Owing to penury and my own world travel, I had to skip the expedition, but I did impress upon them the need to try Peru's most famous product (if you're an advanced-stage beer geek like me, anyway): chicha de jora

You probably know chicha.  It's the famous corn beer that in ancient times women brewed by using the enzymes of their saliva to convert the raw grain prior to mashing.  A clever, if somewhat rustic, form of malting.  I understand that mostly chicha uses malted corn now (as Sam Calagione discovered when Dogfish Head made it a few years back, chewing enough corn to make a batch of beer takes forever).  Nevertheless, it remains an elemental form of beer--of a type people have been making in South America, Africa, and Asia for thousands of years. 

In traditional beer-making, brewers prepare a simple mash of raw or malted grains, usually in a combination of boiling and steeping, and then let the mixture ferment spontaneously (either strained or in porridge form).  A student named Jeff Renfro described the process of making African sorghum beer on here on Beervana two years ago.  The beers usually ferment pretty weakly--two to four percent--and are served before they've reached terminal gravity so they're naturally bubbly.  Many have a pleasantly acidic tang from wild yeasts, a floury, bready body, and some are spiced or flavored with fruit.  If you want to do some research on this, look up umqombothi (Africa), huangjiu (China), or handiya (India).

But back to the chicha.  My friends went off, had a grand adventure hiking up to Machu Picchu and learning about the extraordinary history of the region, and afterward landed in Cusco.  That's where my friend Joe began asking about chicha.  A lot of the production is domestic, and finding a glass means looking for locals willing to sell it.  The way you know chicha is afoot is by looking for a particular pole with a cloth on the end.  (In Germany, they have a similar arrangement where people can brew on communal equipment and sell beer out of their homes--it's called zoigl there, and you look not for a pole but the six-pointed brewers star.)  Joe was directed to a restaurant that made it, so he didn't have to trawl Cusco for a pole--and there was some thought that maybe it would be more reliable that way.  When they arrived, they learned the place only had six glasses on hand--which of course they promptly purchased.

Joe, to his enormous credit, pocketed his glass, secreting it away in a thermos.  There's a long story of derring-do that involves carrying the precious cargo down through a portion of the Amazon, smuggling it aboard airplanes (a chicha mule was used on one leg of the flight), transferring it to a Costa Rican rum bottle for added subterfuge, and all the while finding refrigeration to store it in.  Promisingly, when Joe transferred it from the thermos to the rum bottle, it let out a sonic blast of gas--clearly still alive and fermenting along.

Last night the chicha came into my possession and we cracked it open.  When I removed the duct-taped cork from the bottle, I got another champagne-like pop--again, the mark of freshness for any traditional ale.  (And amazingly so, given the adventure that beer had been on.)  It was effervescent enough to rouse a nice head--one sustained through to the end.  There was a layer of yeast on the bottom of the bottle, and the liquid had quite a bit of particulate matter--corn flour, I'm assuming. 

What does chicha taste like?  It's actually quite palatable.  The nose was all tart yeastiness; wholesome, like fresh yogurt.  That was the effect on the palate, too--gentle acidity, but instead of breadiness, the flavor was strongly reminiscent of freshly-made tortilla.  I wonder if in addition to sprouting the corn the brewer didn't also kiln it.  It had an ever-so-slight flavor of crustiness, as if the edge of a tortilla had gotten browned.  It was thick as a milkshake and had a doughy mouthfeel.  Although you can see the little specks of corn floating in the beer, I couldn't feel them in my mouth.  It's instead just full and floury.  Joe confirmed that it was much the same as at the restaurant, but perhaps a bit more tart--predictable, given that it had continue to ferment. 

Big thanks to Joe for making the exceptional effort.  If anyone else is headed out to exotic locations where they make traditional beer, I strongly encourage you to smuggle back a portion for me.  Rum bottles work well.

The smuggler and his chicha.


  1. Please please please tell me you saved the yeast to culture and grow up to use.

  2. ¡El maíz nos salvará! ¡El secreto está en la Chicha de jora, baby! ;)

  3. Dirty, dirty do badders! I congratulate you on being despicably under the law and for bringing about such a great article. As murky (and odd) as the beer sounds, I'm jealous of your connections!

  4. Please please please tell me you saved the yeast to culture and grow up to use.

    Uh, yeah, that would have been a good idea, wouldn't it? In the event, Joe dropped by with a secret gift I didn't know anything about and it wasn't until we cracked the seal that we realized it had lively, viable yeast in there. I can't believe it didn't occur to me in the moment, but in my defense, it WAS a surprise that caught me off guard. Plus, you know, senility and all...

  5. Having lived in Bolivia for a year, I have had my fair share of chicha. "Palatable" is not a word I would use. Nastyist crap I have ever put in my mouth. Also, you need to pour it from a gas can into a gourd to get the full experience. Nasty, nasty stuff.