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Last Updated : 17/04/05



Liquid Gold from the Andes - by Steve Westby.

n holiday last year I think I discovered a place with more brewpubs than anywhere else in the world. And what’s more these brewpubs sold a sort of cask-conditioned beer!

No I wasn’t anywhere in the British Isles, indeed we only have a few dozen pubs that brew on the premises, although locally we are lucky to have the excellent Fox and Crown at Basford. It wasn’t North America either, although there are hundreds of brewpubs in the USA and Canada, sadly only a small percentage produce anything like a real ale. Brewpubs exist in the rest of Europe but there are not many and I do not recall any selling anything like a cask conditioned brew.

We were driving out of the beautiful and ancient city of Cuzco in Peru when I first started to notice long poles hanging out of the top of the doors of the small village houses. These poles had a red plastic bag on the end in a sort of rough ball shape. When I enquired of our guide as to their purpose I was astounded to learn that these were home brew houses and the sign indicated that they had a fresh batch of beer for sale. This was the invitation for the locals to gather in the front room of the house to imbibe on the fresh beer from stoneware mugs at a cost of just a few centimes.

Yes these are genuine brewpubs and what’s more I spotted hundreds of them on our travels through the magnificent countryside of Peru from Cuzco to Machu Picchu, sometimes eight or ten on one small village street. Apparently it was the tradition to hang out a red flag to indicate beer was on sale, and I did see a few red flags, but apparently the red plastic bag on a pole was a cheaper and more durable option. Of course I was now desperate to visit one of these houses to sample the beers, but our guide warned us that it was a strange brew and would upset our delicate western stomachs, but no way was I going to be warned off that easily!

I learned that beer that was brewed in these houses was called “chicha” and the brewpubs are called “chicharia” rather worryingly derived from the Spanish word "chichal", meaning "saliva" or "to spit"! Chicha is a truly historic brew and the name comes from the beer's early method of production. Andean people for centuries had found saliva to be an effective means for converting starches in grains to fermentable sugars. And originally the ladies who brewed the beer masticating the corn produced the beer; it was then spat out and left to ferment. But this proved to be a slow and time-consuming process and so the current, more efficient, method of making chichi gradually evolved that doesn’t include the chew and spit process!

Corn is now left out in the sun to germinate, it is then ground and water is added which is brought to the boil and some sugar is added. After a three hour boil the liquid is strained through a reed basket. Once the liquid has cooled, the sediment from a previous batch is pitched and fermentation takes place over 3 to 6 days, and the chicha is generally drunk before fermentation has completed, served direct from the open fermentation pot.

Interestingly, although it was around long before their dominance, Chicha came to occupy a special place in the Inca economic system because it served as a direct medium of exchange, effectively a form of currency. This may seem strange to us living in modern society, where money is used to purchase goods and services. The Incas had no money, instead, they used an exchange system for all necessities of life

My continual questioning of our Peruvian guide, a proud descendant of the Incas, eventually wore him down and he agreed that we could briefly stop our coach at a chichal he knew to be particularly good and tourist friendly. There we were shown the brewing process, which took place in a small room that also contained seating for drinkers. We were offered a tiny amount to sample, but the rest of our party dare not try it so I helped out by tasting as much as I could, but still much less than a quarter of a pint, insufficient to express a true opinion of this fascinating beverage.

But then I struck lucky. We stayed overnight in the small town of Agua Calientes, which is the base for visiting Machu Picchu situated high up in the surrounding mountains. There I spotted a chichal, not usually found in tourist areas. I looked inside and could see the locals sat round an small bare room clasping their stoneware jugs of chichi and smiling broadly at me, a bit like Ena, Minnie, Martha and Albert in the snug of the Rovers! However my knowledge of Preruvian was zero and so I did not go inside as I would not be able to make them understand what I wanted, they would surely have had me down for a nutter!  Instead I went into the small restaurant opposite where the girls spoke a smattering of English. There after using some sign language and continually repeating the word “chicha” they understood and went off to get me some from the chichal across the road, which presumably means it is also a beer-off!

It arrived in a stone mug and the taste was interesting to say the least. It was a murky beige colour with no particular aroma. The taste was very distinctive, if anything similar to a rough cider or Belgian lambic and certainly not unpleasant. In fact it was rather refreshing in the heat and I quite enjoyed it. When I returned to our hotel my wife was concerned that it would upset my stomach, but I was ok and so the next morning I took her with me to sample another one. Ok I admit there was a bit of gut rumbling afterwards but no real side effects and I would recommend anybody to try this fascinating brew.                                     

PS. If you want to read more about this interesting beer and its history, an excellent article “Gold Of The Aqllakuna, The Story of Chicha” by Bill Ridgely can be found at  http://xb-70.com/beer/chicha/aqllakun.htm

A Chicha fermentation vat A red flag denoting a fresh batch of Chicha is ready for scooping And again, more winners!!    
Peru Peru Peru    


All phots by Steve "I'm not a scooper but I'm still desperate" Westby.


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