After a strenuous hike, there’s nothing quite as satisfying as cracking open a cold one. In fact, for the serious craft beer-loving hikers among us, packing a can or two is often just as essential as trail mix or sunscreen. Turns out, this practice isn’t unique to modern-day hikers. In fact, ancient civilizations like the Incas have been slaking their high-altitude thirsts with fermented beverages for centuries.
Take the Andes, for example. Today, more than 5,000 people visit Machu Picchu daily. A portion of these tourists access the astounding ancient site on foot, trekking through mountains and rainforests much like the Incas did over 500 years ago.
Journeying through Peru’s Sacred Valley en route to that historic fortress in the clouds, one hardly expects to find beer. And yet, there’s a chance you’ll encounter modest stone buildings along the trail, marked with rough wooden poles and red plastic flags. These markers indicate places to buy bottles of Inca Kola and liters of Cusqueña beer, both are iconic brands in Peru.
Many of these shops also sell chicha, a thick, sweet alcoholic drink made from corn. Women in skirts and long braids ladle the foamy, straw-colored beverage from 20-gallon buckets into clear plastic cups, selling it to passing porters, guides, and sometimes, through-hikers.
When my trekking group stopped at one of these shops to try chicha, our guide instructed us to pour out the first sip for Pachamama, or Mother Earth—a sign of respect before quenching our own thirsts. The chicha had a sweet foamy head, while the liquid itself was thick, slightly tart, and had a rich cornbread-like flavor. As we drank, our guide explained that chicha was an ancestral brew that is still drunk for energy in the highlands of Peru.
As an ardent hiker myself, this idea stuck with me. But I wondered, would I find anything like it back home?
How corn becomes beer
Today, many of the world’s 300 species thrive in Peru’s diverse microclimates. Ask Peruvian chef and nature-guide José Luis Lescano and he’ll tell you that while corn appears in many forms in Peruvian cuisine, from soups and creams to tamales and desserts, or simply boiled and served with cheese as a snack, “One of the most interesting ways to enjoy it is chicha.”
In South America, this ancient homebrew can be made from corn, quinoa, peanuts, or manioc (also called cassava or yucca). The traditional method of making chicha involved chewing the corn and then spitting it out, utilizing the enzymes in saliva to accelerate the fermentation. No one does it this way today, Lescano says. But chicha is still a popular beverage. The fermented, alcoholic version is known as chicha de jora, while chicha morada is a non-alcoholic, non-fermented ruby-hued variety made from purple corn.
“In the Sacred Valley, there are many places with red flags,” Lescano says. “That means, ‘Here I am selling chicha.’”
Inspired by the Incas
Finding chicha in the United States is a bit more challenging. Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has brewed a few small-batch iterations over the years, and Avery Brewing Co. brewed chicha in 2017 as part of their Ales of Antiquity program. “Almost every ancient culture had some sort of alcohol in it,” says Travis Rupp, a beer archaeologist, professor, and head brewer at Avery. “And the vast majority are what we could define as beer.”
Both of these brewers attempted the ancient traditional method of chewing the corn and spitting it out to jump-start the fermentation process. Dogfish Head’s latest version tapped hundreds of employees to chew and spit out the corn before the sanitizing boil. Avery’s brewers tried chewing and spitting for their beer as well. “We did on the pilot batch, just to see what it’s like for the experience,” Rupp says. “By the end of that day, our jaws were so sore from chewing all this corn.”
Of the seven ancient ales they’ve brewed, Rupp says they “had the most problems and I broke the most equipment,” while making the chicha. “It’s corn-based beer, and modern brewing systems are not designed to handle corn.” Because it’s so dense, water can’t get through as easily as it does with malted barley or wheat. Yet, Rupp considers his version of chicha, which he dubbed Pachamama, to have been a success.
Colorado-born Judd Belstock has always had a personal family connection to chicha. “My dad was in the Peace Corps in Peru in the late 60s,” he says. “He’s been telling stories about [chicha] since I was a kid.” Belstock and Sam Alcaine, who is now a professor of fermentation science at Cornell University, met while working for Miller Brewing Company over a dozen years ago, and discovered a mutual interest in chicha. Eventually, they decided to open a brewery focused on the ancient Peruvian beverage. Dos Luces Brewery opened in Denver’s South Broadway neighborhood late last year.
Belstock acknowledges the beer’s tradition of masticated corn, but chose to modernize the process for his brewery. “Corn is made fermentable by chewing on it,” he says. “The modern equivalent, the other way of making something fermentable, is by malting it.” The process of malting allows corn to create enzymes and break down starches into sugars. “It does what chewing did,” Belstock says. He sources malted blue corn from Grouse Malt House in Wellington, Colorado. He gets purple corn directly from Peru for his non-alcoholic chicha morada.
Like Rupp, Belstock has faced his share of challenges. “I’ve burned the bottom of my kettle five times now,” he says. “It’s very challenging getting the temperatures right, and making sure [the corn] doesn’t clog the tank.” But he’s adapted his process with customized equipment, including a tank that works as both a mash tun and a boil kettle. “It’s a mash tun with a burner on the bottom so we can turn up the heat and boil with the grains still in there.”
Traditional chicha—including the chicha I tried in Peru—is viscous, like a thin porridge. While Belstock’s version is also unfiltered, it drinks like beer. He serves it in ceramic cups, pitchers and growlers, mirroring the types of vessels one might find in Peru. “My purpose with what I’m making is not to replicate the ancient pre-Incan recipes,” Belstock says. “I’m trying to imagine a world where, for the last 500 years, chicha has been accepted as just another style of beer. I’m picturing how it might have evolved.”