Chicha: Peruvian Corn Beer – Traditionally Made With Spit!

Chicha de jora, traditional corn beer form Peru

First off: Chicha is originally made with spit! And that is reason enough to take a closer look at this traditional beverage from South America. Peruvian culture has evolved around the country’s location along the Andes as well as the produce that favoured the highland climate. Potatoes and corn are the two main agricultural products which are prevalent all over the country. Both exist in many different shapes and colors and find use in a wide variety of dishes in Andean cuisine. While Peruvians process corn into many delicious things, Chicha is for sure the most famous one. Chicha is basically Peru’s local, indigenous beer. The corn-based drink comes in two main variations. There is the alcoholic Chicha de jora and the non-alcoholic Chicha Morada.

Milling jora corn to brew CHicha, the traditional corn beer form PeruThe yellowish, cloudy Chicha de jora is a sour beer made from fermented jora corn. The beverage has a rather acquired taste, especially for Western tongues. Even today’s non-spit version of the drink – we will get to the spit part later – isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart. Apart from the taste, the lengthy storage in not-so-santiary conditions as well as the fermentation may have some effects on sensitive stomachs.

In contrast, the sweet, purple Chicha Morada is a safe bet. Its color may somewhat resemble that of blood but don’t let that put you off, it is delicious! You can get Chicha Morada pretty much anywhere in Peru, from street stalls and home kitchens to fancy restaurants. It is a great drink to accompany other delicious Peruvian foods like Anticuchos or Picarones.

How to make Chicha

“Spit or no spit, that is the question!” The Inca discovered early that saliva can activate the fermentation process. Thus, women would first chew the corn kernels to break them up and mix them with saliva and then spit them into a container. There it would rest for fermentation to finally create the cloudy brew.

Maíz morado from Peru. Used to prepare Chicha Morada

Nowadays, this traditional brewing process is only alive in very remote villages in the Andes. Malted barley works as a substitute for the saliva to start fermentation just like in modern beer brewing techniques. Brewers first germinate the maize to then grind and mix it with water and malt. Afterwards, the mass rests in large earthenware vats over several days for fermentation. When the brewing process is complete, the liquid runs through a sieve to remove the corn kernels.

Unlike Chicha de jora, Chicha Morada is not fermented. To produce the dark purple drink, Peruvians boil maíz morado and season it with pineapple rinds, cinnamon and cloves. Sometimes, people even add beets, strawberries or limes.

While the name is usually associated with maize, Andean people often use “Chicha” for any fermented or unfermented drinks that are homemade from vegetables, fruits or nuts. Thus, there are less common variations of Chicha with quinoa, peanuts, manioc or palm fruits, among many others.

Chicha is a profound element of the Andean culture

Beer brewing has always been an important craft in civilizations all around the world. And this isn’t any different in the case of the Andean peoples. Chicha has been around for millennia already. The Inca prepared and consumed the corn beer in rituals during religious festivals such as Inti Raymi. In specific mills, some of which were found at Machu Picchu, the Virgins of the Sun would produce the ceremonial drink. These “chosen women” were a small group of young girls selected by Incan kings for their beauty, youth, and purity.

Today, Chicha is still highly popular, especially in the southern parts of the country. But of course, nobody forces virgins anymore to brew it. Nowadays, families produce and sell the corn drink in unused rooms or corners of their patios. These usually unlicensed businesses go by the name of “Chicherías”. In the countryside around Cusco as well as other places in the Andes, you can easily spot Chicherías by the red flags, bags, flowers or baskets hanging on a pole outside. Usually you can get a big glass of the traditional drink for as little as one Sol which is the equivalent of about 25 Euro cents.

There, in the mountain villages of the Andes, getting drunk on Chicha is a popular and entertaining time killer. While the alcohol content isn’t particularly high, the sheer amounts that Peruvians consume especially during the many holidays will definitely get you tipsy.

Even though the traditional drink has survived the colonial era, the conquistadores did put their mark on it. After all, Chicha isn’t the original Quechua expression for the corn beer, but the name that the Spanish invaders gave it. Some sources suggest that it is a derivation from other indigenous Kuna languages in Panama or Colombia, or even from Nahuatl. While Cusco was the center of the Incan empire, the civilization stretched far beyond its borders. And so, Chicha also exists in other parts of South America such as Ecuador or Colombia.


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Find more food and drinks from Peru here.

Photos by Ryan McFarland, Milko Romero, Jennie

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