This Ancient Incan Corn Beer Might Bring You Closer to the Gods
The rustic corn beer known as chicha de jora was once a sacred drink of the Incas, and it's still widely consumed in the Andean highlands, homebrewed by locals.
All photos by Marianna Jamadi.
For just one Peruvian sol (around 30 cents), you can get drunk in Peru's Sacred Valley. Concealed amid the areas monstrous mountains, a series of domestic speakeasies serve an ancient Andean drink known as chicha de jora, a fermented corn beer dating back to the ancient Incan Empire. Still widely consumed in the Andean highlands, locals homebrew the concoction through a series of methodical steps involving the germination of jora (a type of yellow corn), a crop revered for its life-sustaining attributes.
Chicha de jora was once a sacred drink of the Incas, often reserved for the most cherished of ceremonies. The corn drink was first offered to the pachamama—or Mother Earth in the Incan language of Quechua—by pouring one out to the prosperous ground below, signifying gratitude for the fertile land in which the corn derived. The next step was to salute the mountains, known as apus, by raising the kero (chalice) to the sky. Then it came time to drink the chicha to transcend normal human existence, allowing oneself to rise closer to the gods and closer to existential awareness.
Today, chicha de jora is still widely produced in the Sacred Valley, and a trip to Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba reveals the chicha-making process. With the help of Inkaterra guide Angel Layme, I venture to the lodge's very own chicheria, passing rows and rows of fertile, organic farmland along the way. A local from the valley town of Huayoccary, Angel is no stranger to chicha de jora and gladly leads the way to the hotel's backyard bar.
"You know there's a chicha bar when you see a house with a red flag," Angel says. "And in the country, some locals line roads with flower petals," indicating a chicheria ahead, like a page straight from the Andean version of . And if you happen to consume enough of the mysterious corn drink, you could end up becoming part of the Sacred Valley, but only because you wouldn't want to leave. "It's better to drink only one or two glasses of chicha," Angel says. "The main ingredient is corn, so it feels like you're drinking a soup, and it continues to ferment in your stomach as you drink it. It's really heavy."
Another important thing to keep in mind is altitude. The Sacred Valley sits at almost 10,000 feet above sea level, making just one glass of chicha de jora (at about 4.5 percent alcohol) induce an effect three times that amount. I ask Angel what he thinks about this, and he seems unfazed. "Altitude doesn't effect how much chicha you drink … if you're from here," he says, laughing at the inquisitive gringo.
In Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba's farm-side chicheria, Angel gives an overview on how the Andean beer is produced. All chicha begins with corn, which is first soaked in water to aid in the germination process. The corn continues to germinate when it's placed atop a layer of peppercorn, folded between two Andean textiles. The corn is then left to dry in the sun, and after extracting the malt sugars, it's ready to meet the batan, a stone corn crusher, wheeled in a back-and-forth motion to grind the kernels into a fine powder. The cornmeal is added to a raqui, a large clay pot, and filled with approximately 30 percent water. During a series of boiling processes, malted barley is added and, with time, the blend eventually ferments into a beer concentrate, known as upi in Quechua, which Angel swears will make you drunk with just one sip.
Before leaving it to sit overnight on the final eve of fermentation, locals add their own flair to the beer, fusing the brew with fennel, chamomile, mint, or cinnamon, all believed to aid in the digestion process. When afternoon hits the next day, a chicha de jora gathering commences, where the beer is served in glasses as large as your head. "We use these really large glasses called ," Angel says. "I usually finish this, and you won't believe the price—it's only one sol!" But what's the best part of chicha de jora? Locals make it at home, therefore avoiding any taxes imposed by the government, further adding to the allure of the elusive, red-flagged wooden poles secretly symbolizing chicherias in the valley.
The most common chicheria game is known as , an Andean version of skee ball, in which players attempt to land gold coins inside of the mouth of a metal frog or the surrounding circular holes, all indicated with a specific value amount. "There aren't really any fights over sapo, because you can only play for two hours at the most," Angel says. "Then you start seeing three frogs."
After learning how to make chicha de jora, the party moves to the bar inside Inkaterra, where resident mixologist Alfredo Quispctupac Orcowakanka serves his very own chicha de jora blend. Also raised in the Huayoccary valley, Alfredo learned how to make chicha de jora when he was a child, adopting the craft from his mother and grandmother. "We start drinking chicha when we're very young, and I learned how to make it when I was five or six," Alfredo says. "At this age, we only got to drink a little, but we drank it straight. It was like a juice to us."
Alfredo pours his brew, and we raise our glasses, first toasting to the apus and pachamama. I sample the Andean beer, and the opaque, golden drink holds a sour taste—something akin to a teenager's first sip of beer. In a show of sympathy, Alfredo offers to pour a palate cleanser, and we salute the day before downing shots of coca-infused pisco.