Chicha de Jora is the South American native corn beer that is ubiquitous across the Peruvian Andes. Its exact origins may be as blurred as the drunk peasant who first discovered it, but archaeologists estimate that the drink was discovered around 5000 BCE, as evidence of early pottery that was used to grind the corn was discovered near Machu Picchu. The name “Chicha de Jora” is not the original Quechua title for the drink but was coined by the Spanish following their conquest of Peru in the 1530s.
The history of chicha dates back to the Incas, who revered the drink so much that it was included in most important ceremonies. Today, a series of domestic speakeasies serve the ancient beverage, which is still widely consumed in the Andean highlands, where 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.
The history of chicha is on display when you watch the people drink this golden elixir—there’s always a sip poured on the ground in offering to the Pachamama, who in Inca tradition represents Mother Earth. The drink has survived through conquest and countless generations and is still popular today. Here’s everything you need to know about the making of this fermented corn beverage beloved by the Incas and present-day Peruvians.
Everyone sits in a circle, some sitting on the floor, others around a table that’s too large for the room. Each person has a large glass of chicha, which is about two pints each. Every time someone finishes a glass, the chicha maker takes the glass and dips it into a large clay vat, or chomba, exchanging a few words in Quechua. This is a typical chicha speakeasy, marked by a red plastic bag wrapped around a wooden pole that sticks out from the small building like a flag. These flags are found all around the Sacred Valley and Andean region of Peru, where the drink is most common.
When it is my turn, the chicha maker leans over the large pot, scooping up a glass full of chicha, which she sets on the ground in front of me. It has a large head, like any good beer, but the foam is golden instead of white.
The type of chicha we are drinking is made similarly to other types of beer—by germinating maize, extracting malt sugars, boiling the wort, and then fermenting. In some traditional preparations, rather than germinating the maize, the corn would first be milled and moistened in the chicha maker’s mouth to begin the fermentation process. The malts are then left to ferment in large earthenware pots for several days, and depending on the end drinkers palette, Chancaca, a hard form of sugar (like sugar cane), may be added to help the fermentation process and sweeten up the beverage. The result—unsavory as it may sound—is a delicious, slightly sour beverage containing about 2-4% alcohol by volume.
“Para Pachamama,” says a man sitting at the table adjacent to the circle. “You have to drink it all in one sip,” he says, smiling through crooked teeth.
He’s joking, but I attempt to do it anyway. After a few sips, I set my glass down and look up at him. He laughs and says, “you feel the spirit of the Andes when you drink it like that—the energy, you can feel it. ” We clink our glasses before I swallow the remaining liquid and place my glass on the ground in front of me.
We are in Pisac, a small town in the Sacred Valley known for its narrow cobblestone streets. The town is perhaps most famous for its Incan ruins, which cling to the mountains looming at the entrance to the valley. Researchers believe that Pisac defended the southern entrance to the Sacred Valley, while Choquequirao defended the western entrance, and the fortress of Ollantaytambo the northern. Chicha was perhaps even more popular then than it is now, but the tradition lives on in the red-flag speakeasies.
If you’ve ever had kombucha, chicha tastes a lot like that, with a hint of fruit. Like most fermented drinks, it has an almost sour taste to it, with a hint of sweetness, which makes it flavorful and rich. For one sole (around 30 cents) it is hard to beat—so be on the lookout for the red flag if you’re ever in southern Peru’s Andean highlands.