Mountain Magic: Spontaneous Fermentations from Peru’s Sacred Valley

Feature by | Jan 2019 | Issue #133
Photos by Martin Thibault

The holy site of Machu Picchu and the many hallowed temple ruins scattered about Peru’s famous Sacred Valley draw over a million visitors a year. This high altitude landscape, seemingly endowed with an eternal spring, is a veritable breadbasket where dozens of potato varieties, peaches, strawberries, and other notable edibles grow plentiful, alongside no less than 25 different types of corn. These crops are so important to the local Quechua population—over three million strong—that a gigantic ear of corn graces the main square in the town of Urubamba just like the statue of a past president would in many of the world’s city centers.

Here, as soon as the working day comes to an end, locals head straight to their favorite hole-in-the-wall. It’s often a humble abode where light bulbs darkened by time illuminate raucous card players sharing tables elbow to elbow with strangers. And all are sipping on a pint of frothy, naturally carbonated brew. You could easily imagine this scene in German Franconia, an old Czech pub, or a bastion for real ale in Great Britain. That is, until you notice someone voluntarily spilling a drop or two from their glass onto the dirt floor and invoking the name Pachamama, the earth goddess of the Andes. It’s a ritual so old that it apparently harkens back to the pre-Columbian Incans, when divine offerings to Mother Nature and homages to celestial objects were so common they took part in drinking ceremonies.

The chosen tipple in this part of the world isn’t Kellerbier, Světlýý Ležák, or Best Bitter. It’s Chicha de Jora. Sure, it wasn’t named Chicha until Spanish conquistadors arrived, yet the malted white corn beer that is drunk today in an aqha wasi (drinks house in the Quechuan language) is said to have been a staple of the Incas who ruled as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries. And it still thrives in many Andean villages and towns today, misunderstood by the rest of the global beer community. But this could soon change.

A Parallel Beer World
In practical terms, there are as many variations on Chicha in Latin America as there are Wild Ales in the US. Bolivia’s Cochabamba Valley, for example, is home to a rather flat, tart version that’s served in tiny bowls, and can be brewed from malted corn, barley, quinoa, or wheat through long mashes involving at least two decoctions. Chicha de Yamor is brewed from a blend of seven different types of corn in Ecuador’s Otavalo region, and it has its own festival in early September. Back in the Sacred Valley of Peru, Chicha de Jora is a lush, quenching beverage, crowned with tufts of puffy foam that cling to the sides of the caporal, the ubiquitous 1-liter shaker-like glass named after a respected soldier. This fluffy, mildly acidic brew has earned the nickname “chifon,” which refers to the frothy lacing that adorns every serving.

Speaking of texture and appearance, Chicha de Jora also bears a striking resemblance to milkshake IPAs. But since it’s naturally carbonated and unhopped, the similarities end there. This smoothness of texture, wildly different from that of the aforementioned Chicha traditions in the Andes, can be explained in three parts. First, the beer is always served very fresh. In fact, its fermentation hasn’t thoroughly finished when the chichera—or Chicha maker—pours it for her customers. Second, she pours into her caporales via a giant ladle, moving her spoon hand back and forth like a soup server would. This upward motion causes the natural carbonation to rush up and out of the liquid. Finally, this foam cascade gets stuck to the top of the glass because of the large quantity of corn proteins that the bacteria haven’t yet digested. And, lo and behold, some brewers even use wheat flour to further enhance the mouthfeel. This smoothie-like texture is also essential to the elaboration of the strawberry-flavored version: Frutillada.

Just as traditional Berliner Weisse has its raspberry and woodruff syrups to temper the acidity, Chicha de Jora has a beautiful and highly popular fruited counterpart. Frutillada is named for the wild strawberries it showcases, and is a thick, low-alcohol dessert of a brew (a pastry sour perhaps?) adorned with the rich perfume of strawberries balanced by subtle acidity and straw-like rusticity. And much like a pastry chef graces her creations with trimmings, most Frutillada brewers grind cinnamon or coriander seeds over each pint, decorating the very stable head and offering a spicy whiff whenever your nose approaches the oversized glass.

Of course, in a place filled with mysterious icons, myths also abound on the purpose of these added spices. Some say they help stop the Chicha’s fermentation in the drinker’s stomach. Others maintain they are healthy for the prostate. And some go as far as claiming they are good for your blood. Needless to say, few scientific studies have sought to understand the inner workings of this centuries-old spontaneous beer. Until recently, that is.

Complexity Proven Through DNA Sequencing
The spontaneous fermentation of Chicha de Jora takes place in large earthenware vats where the malted white corn wort sits after hours of mashing and boiling. Much like Lambic barrels are never cleaned in an effort to maintain the unique flora they contain, Chicha de Jora brewers never wash these pots, either. The same goes for the giant spoon used to stir the contents of these traditional fermentors. To Quechua brewers, these are hand-me-downs of the magical kind. But a team of Canadian scientists has recently become interested in Chicha brewing and aims to reveal some of Mother Nature’s age-old tricks and secrets.

Earlier this year, Le Labo – Solutions Brassicoles, based in La Pocatière, Québec, received three samples of Chicha de Jora from three different brewers, all collected on each batch’s first day of service. More precisely, these samples were taken from Sumaq Aqha (Beautiful Drinks), Mamacu (The Old Person), and El Descanso (The Resting Place) chicherias in Yanahuara, just outside of Urubamba. Conclusions stemming from the microbiological testing and subsequent DNA sequencing show that even though these brewers are geographically very close—all within a 1-mile radius—the microbiological profiles of their beers vary wildly.

Studies revealed that the Mamacu sample contained no less than 16 different microorganisms, including Candida humilis (a common sourdough bread yeast), Pichia kluyveri (a relative of Brettanomyces), Lactobacillus delbruckii, Lactobacillus rossiae, and, of course, different strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae. The Sumaq Aqha sample contained Saccharomyces cerevisiae chicha (a special strain so named in the GenBank world database for having been found in Chicha) and Lactobacillus acidophilus, while the El Descanso sample had higher concentrations of Lactobacillus plantarum along with Saccharomyces cerevisiae chicha.

The results obtained from Gérald Bourdaudhui, a master brewing engineer trained at the Institut Meurice, and Myriam Ladrie, his project manager from Université Laval, add to findings from research done in 2013 by a group of microbiologists and parasitologists from Spain’s Universidad de Santiago de Compostela, whose discoveries had focused on atypical Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains in their own Sacred Valley samples. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of these teams, the mystery of Chicha de Jora’s spontaneous fermentation is on the verge of being solved. Although, as Ladrie states, “the diversity of micro-organisms in the three Chicha samples sequenced is such that there seems to be lots of variability from brewery to brewery.”

The entrance to El Descanso (The Resting Place), a chicheria in Yanahuara, just outside the town of Urubamba, Peru.

Chicha in the 21st Century
Bamboo poles distinguished with a red plastic bag still dangle from the front wall of Peruvian chicherias the way flags did centuries ago, advertising the presence of Chicha de Jora. More and more, though, today’s beer lovers traveling to the Sacred Valley can look for places with names printed on actual signs. These brewpubs—called picanterias or chicherias—are now intentionally reaching out to customers through more contemporary means.

One of the better known brewers in the valley is Señora Flora, owner of Chicheria El Descanso, just outside the town of Urubamba, in the drive-through hamlet of Yanahuara. She is credited as the first to have dressed up her chicheria and created opportunities to explain her line of work to visitors by dealing with travel agencies. In doing so, she has not only built a bridge with a new audience, but she has also inspired a host of Chicha de Jora brewers around Urubamba to do the same.

A few doors down, Chicheria Mamacu is a case in point. It has since worked on its own educational display, decorating the small tasting room with knick-knacks from regional artisans and colorful corn varieties that hang by ropes from the ceiling. Farther down the same road, Sumaq Aqha takes it up a notch, with a full-on boutique and a small terrace where customers can observe the cornfield glowing in the sun while playing games next to a large, rustic oven.

Back in Cusco, La Cusqueñita near the Paseo de los Héroes, is probably the most obvious middle ground between the homely rural chicherias and the more cosmopolitan industrial beer scene. Its sprawling 320-seat drinking hall harkens back to Munich’s fabled Hofbräuhaus and the 1-liter caporal glasses feel right at home next to the daily dance performances on the large stage. Yet the Chicha de Jora made on site tastes every bit as fruity, tart, and hay-like as those brewed at the Yanahuara hangouts.

Even upscale restaurants are taking notice these days. Right in the center of the city’s UNESCO-protected old town, a classy dining room on the main square now boasts its own Chicha de Jora as well, going so far as to brandish the typical red bag on a pole next to its colorful signage. And at ground level, a board states in English that there is traditional beer to be had upstairs. La Feria has also started adding sugar to its Chicha in an attempt to appeal to more tourists.

A few blocks away, world-renowned chef Gastón Acuria has opened a restaurant simply named Chicha. It offers a refreshing modern interpretation of Chicha de Jora, a bit more acidic, served colder than the tempered rustic versions, and garnished with ground cinnamon sprinkled on a very stable head of foam—a clear wink to Frutillada. The result is a wonderful low-alcohol brew to drink alongside the restaurant’s many creative dishes.

Finally, a Lima-based microbrewery with a beer bar not unlike American contemporaries in terms of its decor and the generosity of its tap list, is the only one in the country to commercially produce and bottle a Chicha de Jora. Cervecería Barbarian sells its Chicha Tu Mare to many bars and restaurants in the capital. Even Central, Virgilio Martínez’s highly acclaimed restaurant (number six on the vaunted World’s 50 Best Restaurants list), serves it proudly to adventurous gourmands. Barbarian brewer and owner Ignacio Schwalb says his modernized example is kettle-soured and its fermentation is completed before bottling, unlike the more traditional Sacred Valley versions. But although the texture and flavor profile of his creation differ from the real deal, better product stability allows him to reach a wider audience.

Feeding Spontaneous Conversations
So if Chicha de Jora has been brewed in Peru’s Sacred Valley for centuries, and remains readily available throughout the region, why hasn’t the international beer community caught on? Is it because the brewers aren’t white? Is it because they often speak Quechua? Or is it because they are women?

It’s hard to speculate, and one possible explanation seems even more obvious. Indeed, the Western bewilderment surrounding Chicha is surely exacerbated by the many uses the word chicha has in the Spanish and Quechuan languages. For example, chicha can refer to something “informal and popular.” There is therefore chicha music, chicha culture, and chicha newspapers. Chicha morada, on the other hand, is a nonalcoholic soft drink made from purple  corn and spices. None of these chichas relate to Chicha de Jora, the spontaneously fermented corn beer. The subtleties of such linguistic obstacles can only be navigated by befriending locals or through pre-travel study.

Far from endangered, the Chicha de Jora scene is thriving in the Sacred Valley, with hundreds of producers scattered across its meandering length. And they’re certainly not waiting for Western approval to gain recognition. Where Lambic has struggled so far to get the Belgian government to protect its significance, Chicha de Jora has succeeded in obtaining its special status in Peru. In November 2015, the Cultural Minister of Peru declared chicherias and picanterias part of the country’s cultural patrimony, thus protecting them.

“It is the most important measure ever taken in the country for the preservation of a historical collective memory and the recognition of women’s main role in local cuisine,” commented sociologist Isabel Alvarez Novoa, who led a research team with two anthropologists and a local historian. This formal acknowledgement is meant to help brewers pursue this tradition by facilitating access to indigenous corn cultivars and by building links with the culinary and tourism industries. Together, these efforts might enable the spontaneous brew to flourish even more. It’s a goal that should feed many a spontaneous conversation at humble drinking halls high in the Andes. And it should certainly keep the benevolent Pachamama from going thirsty anytime soon.

To learn more about this traditional Andean drink, read 3 Chicha de Jora Myths, Debunked