Maize, or corn, has been a staple of Andean cuisine and culture since pre-Inca times. In fact, some archaeologists date the origin of chicha de jora, a fermented corn drink, to as early as the Chavin culture (circa 900 BC). Today, locals of the highland regions in Peru continue to produce the traditional beverage, an impressive demonstration of its resistance to being forgotten.
According to Eric Ylla, a lead tour guide at Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, the origin of chicha de jora can be told (appropriately) through a legend:
In the time of Inca Tupac Yupanqui, the son of Pachacutec, a piece of land was dedicated to cultivating corn. One harvest season, a major rainstorm destroyed all the corn. The Inca ordered that the corn not be used and so it was set aside. But one of the locals became so hungry that he ate the abandoned maize—which at this point had been fermenting for some time. Shortly after he was quite drunk and the preferred drink, chicha de jora, was discovered.
Upon the Spanish arrival to Cusco in the 16th century, the Incas managed to hide the chicha brew houses for some time; once the colonizers found out, chicherias (houses selling chicha) would not return until the 19th century, emerging in rural areas of Peru.
Inkaterra’s eco-lodge, set in the Sacred Valley, is doing its part to preserve the process and origin of chicha de jora by offering guests the chance to experience their on-site chicheria.
Chichería: A house to brew one’s own
It’s a short journey from the main building of Hacienda Urubamba to the chicha house, but a sightly one. We stroll down an earthen path, past the hotel’s spa and beds of lavender and eventually patches of corn. Greeting a pair of lingering llamas along the way, we are soon faced with the hotel’s on-site chicheria.
The humble adobe structure with beams of eucalyptus is a replica of a 17th century chicha house. Just as Inkaterra’s Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel preserves the orchids, here the maize is of utmost value. In addition to the humble architecture, the chicha house has all the elements of the age-old watering holes.
Traditionally, chicha houses carry a unique name. That of Inkaterra is named A’qa Wasi Pisonay: aqha wasi meaning fermented corn house in Quechua, and pisonay in reference to the blooming native tree looming over the structure.
Jutting out from the doorway is a bouquet of amaranto (amaranth). Along with quinoa and kiwicha, this pseudo grain was one of the most important for the Incas. Centuries ago, it was a custom to use plants like this to signify that there was still chicha available. Nowadays it is more common to see red flags or colorful plastic bags hanging from doorways of contemporary chicha houses.
The popular game, sapo (frog), is a vital part of any chicheria and sits to the side of the entryway. Historically, a mix of workers would frequent the chicherias, from farmers and handymen to lawyers. This house and this game gave them reason to socialize, while the slightly alcoholic drink (1-3% ABV) only made it easier to loosen up and forget about class divisions.
Maize: A symbol of wealth, power and respect
“Here at the hotel we cultivate the corn used for chicha and other dishes. It grows during the wet season, up until March-April,” explains our guide. “All of our hotels are supplied with the corn harvested here. At the Machu Picchu Pueblo Hotel for example, the altitude is too high to properly grow corn. So we send it over. Likewise, the Machu Picchu hotel and our hotels in the jungle send their harvested fruits to us here at Hacienda Urubamba.”
Inkaterra’s farms are pesticide-free and produce about 90% of the food served at the hotels (including livestock). Working with local farmers, traditional techniques and ancient knowledge are preserved.
Before planting crops, farmers will take a glass of chicha and spill a bit to Mother Earth, Pachamama, as a way to energize and honor Her. Local belief, dating back to pre-Inca times, has it that if you don’t give anything to Pachamama, your crops will be of poor quality.
The brew: A cheap yet labor-intensive process
We enter the chicha house and a playlist of typical huayno music fills the unlit space with energy, and we’re eager to get started with the brewing process.
“Depending on where you are in Peru, chicha de jora can take on different flavors and even colors. The chicha de jora here is made with yellow corn called Cusco maize, and takes nearly a month from start to finish,” explains Eric. He grew up in the neighboring district of Yucay, watching his grandmother fix up the fermented drink.
What we come to find is that the process is fairly similar to that of artisanal beer. First, the corn, with leaves attached, is dried in the sun. In ancient times, the small kernels were reserved for making chicha because the larger kernels could be sold.
Once the corn is dry, the grains are removed and placed in a clay barrel full of water where they will sit for 4-5 days. This part of the process is called wiñapu, a quechua term meaning wet corn.
Afterwards, the wiñapu is strained and laid out on a bed of corn leaves and topped with yet another layer of leaves. The wet grains rest for a week so that they can germinate and small tails emerge from the kernels. This is perhaps the most important part of the process, the jora, as it is said that the longer the roots the richer the chicha flavor. Some local women even sell ready-made jora to speed up the process.
Of course, as much as we would have liked, we didn’t stay an entire month at the hotel to participate in the full chicha process. Instead, we were shown the corn in various stages of the process and were able to help with minor tasks. We put some muscle into it however when it came to smashing the jora with the large batan, rocking it back and forth to crush the kernels.
Afterwards, a pot of water is brought to near boil and the jora added, boiling for some time until we can strain the kernels out and sip on the fermented drink from the heavy glasses known as qero.
Cupping a full glass of the slightly nutty drink, we were tempted to splash it across Pachamama: in part to give thanks to the bounty of natural resources She provides, and at once in atonement for taking them away from Her. The tour had ended but our respect for this tradition that carries values of resourcefulness, community and unique culture, left us in a daze. Or maybe it was the alcohol after all.
All photos: Alvaro Balcazar
This article was originally published in 2018 as a result of a sponsored visit in collaboration with Ravel Writers.