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Chicha: Bolivia's Tart Beer

Chicha cooper Don Morales repurposes wood from the native ochoo tree to make his barrels. (Credit: Martin Thibault)
Chicha cooper Don Morales repurposes wood from the native ochoo tree to make his barrels. (Credit: Martin Thibault)

Gentle tartness from citrusy and lactic acidity. Straw-like cereal flavors and very low carbonation. A dry mouthfeel, a rustic juxtaposition of ingredients and no herb or hop presence. If this description sounds familiar, that is perfectly normal. These are flavor and texture characteristics that the Western beer world has already accepted. But it has never quite adopted chicha as a proper beer style.

Sure, the word chicha has broad shoulders in Central and South America, referring to many kinds of beverages, alcoholic or not. Let's not allow this all-inclusive terminology to blur the understanding and appreciation of what can sometimes be a tantalizing tart brew. If unblended lambic, Berliner Weisse and other olden styles of the sour sort are considered to be beer, the traditional chicha made by the Quechua people in the Cochabamba valley of Bolivia also deserves to be recognized as a bona fide beer style. From malting their own corn to conducting decoction mashes, from letting the wort sit at lukewarm, acidifying temperatures to geeking out on serving methods and levels of drinkability, the Bolivians who still honor their Incan brewing roots are every bit as much of beer brewers as those we revere on the other side of the Atlantic.


Meet the Corn Maltstress


chichaThe gorgeous colonial town of Totora is about a two-hour drive from the city of Cochabamba. Here, people write on walls to advertise sales. Brewers hang a white flag or red star outside their doors to say that chicha is ready. But otherwise, the walls of houses and businesses stay bare – a stunning foray into advertising's past which might explain part of Westerners' confusion in regards to the local brew.


Meet Doña Leonor Mariscal, a 70-year-old Quechua woman who malts corn for her village's chicha brewers. (Credit: Martin Thibault)


For a town populated by barely 2,000 people, the number of chicherias is high in Totora; as high as the most dense brewery villages in Franconian Germany. Seems obvious that a maltstress would be necessary to supply the distinctive locally grown corn called wilkaparu to all these brewers in the form of malt, right?

Doña Leonor Mariscal, 70 years old, does just that for her fellow villagers. In her tiny ramshackle building, once a chicheria itself, she steeps the corn and lets it germinate a bit on a large piece of cloth laid out in the sun, directly on the cobblestone street in front of her building. The sun is sometimes hot enough to dry out her corn malt, but she admits to using ashes sometimes to complete the process. She then bags the malt and lets the area chicha brewers grind this corn into a flour at their own breweries. But not Doña Bertha, a lady brewer from a few houses away. She takes too long to pay.


Doña Narcissa, Chicha Brewer


A few kilometers outside Totora is a hamlet that basically serves as a large rest area for those driving through. Epizana even has an inn which humorously borrows the Hotel Hilton name. Steps away, Doña Narcissa and her granddaughter brew chicha for the one-room pub in front of their family house. The pub’s earthen floor is riddled with bumps and mini-craters because of the large number of people who, as is customary, have purposely dropped a small offering from their first bowlful to Pachamama, or Mother Earth. Once you step out of this room, you walk through the family house, consisting of a few rooms and an open-air space in the middle for cooking, washing and doing other daily tasks. The brewery room is about as big as the two-table pub out front.

Doña Narcissa mashes in her corn mixture at lukewarm temperatures. There is no thermometer here, obviously. Just experience. The mash very much resembles a decoction mash in that she takes a small quantity of upi, the Quechuan word for wort, and brings it to a boil before sending it back to her huge, wood-fired copper cauldron. The smoke from the eucalyptus wood she uses to heat the receptacle is blinding to anyone who enters the brewing room, but no doubt Narcissa is used to it. And her granddaughter, still a teen, seems impervious to the stinging as well. She is the one carrying out explanations in Spanish, as Narcissa only speaks Quechuan, like most people in these parts. Although highly surprised at a Westerner's visit to her village, and her house specifically, she is unfazed by technical questions and seems entirely ready to carry on Narcissa's work. Traditional Cochabambina chicha appears safe in Epizana.


A Thirst for Tartness


Like all brewers in the Cochabamba valley, Doña Narcissa creates the proper conditions for fruitiness and acidity to show up in every batch. The long hours of mashing – 14 hours in Narcissa's case – and the overnight cooling help her chicha gain its refreshing tartness. Lactobacillus notes abound, but citric acidity also clings to the finish of every sip.

Although the duo assured us that every brewer has a different recipe, there exist many similarities between brewers and brewing processes in this rural part of Bolivia. For one, nobody boils the upi once the mash is done. After mashing, most transfer the first runnings into a second vessel, and a third, and sometimes a fourth, where the upi cools down and is clarified. Part of the spent corn at the bottom of each vessel, which tastes like unbaked cookies at this point, is given to animals. The part that stays in the brewery is as vital to a chicheria as a lambic brewery's house cultures. The queta, as it is called in Quechuan language, will indeed be Narcissa's main fermentation source. She will keep it on low heat for a few hours to prepare it for the fermenters.

Once the upi reaches the fermentation barrels, often simple vertical bins, it is given the queta to help with fermentation. Lactic fermentation then occurs over the course of three to eight days, depending on the season and its temperatures. A healthy kräusen can rapidly be seen on top of these bins, protecting the brew from unwanted airborne organisms, be they flies or wild yeast. The fermentation therefore seems to be nearly entirely carried out by the natural content of the corn. Many traditional cochabambina brewers like Doña Narcissa do not seem aware that the lactic acid bacteria contained within the corn is the true origin of the alcohol, light fizz and acidic flavor of their brew. But what matters is that they are always able to quench chicha lovers' thirst for delicate tartness; the science behind their brewing methods isn't a major concern.


chicha


Although a chicha brewery in rural Bolivia may look like a witch's playground, there is seriously spellbinding beer being brewed there. Yes, beer. Because of malting, mashing and fermenting practices used, one cannot help but realize that Cochabambina Chicha is indeed beer. It is a beer style that dates all the way back to the Incas and is still brewed in remote areas of Bolivia. (Credit: Martin Thibault)


A Chicha Barrelmaker


On the main road leading out of Cochabamba city into the countryside valley, a building houses the business of Don Morales: he builds and reconditions wooden barrels made from the ochoo tree. Contrary to many other alcoholic drinks being aged in wooden barrels, chicha is only transported in wooden barrels from brewery to pubs. But that remains a pivotal moment in a chicha's life. At barely 3 percent or 4 percent alcohol most of the time, and with varying levels of lactic acidity and other potential bacterial sources, when it comes to chicha the fresher, the better. This Cochabambina chicha is a raw brew, just like some Lithuanian Kaimiškas Alus, Norwegian Maltøl or most Finnish Sahti. It needs to be consumed very quickly or else it will spoil and become too sour, a feature the locals do not want in their brew.

When the filled barrel Don Morales makes arrives at the chicheria, of which there are hundreds in the Cochabamba valley, the owner of the traditional pub transfers the fresh chicha into huge clay pots called wirke. And thus commences the drinking and socializing. The chicheria, that place with a white flag or red star hanging from its door, can be as small as the tiniest microbrewery tasting room, or as raucous and convivial as typical Bavarian beer gardens nestled under trees. People come to their favorite brewer to mingle just like we do at our favorite brewpub or bar. And sometimes, things get out of hand...

Even though the small wooden bowl used to drink or chug the chicha – a bowl made from the half shell of the tutuma fruit – cannot contain more than a few ounces, copious amounts can get guzzled at any time of day. Carpenters in the town of Punata, for example, don't work on Mondays – that's their day to drink. And just like in many English real ale pubs, the low alcohol level of this barely carbonated brew doesn't stop some punters, or any carpenter for that matter, from conversing idly for hours or getting completely smashed. Luckily for the discerning drinker, the chicheria is also the place to meet those who taste, analyse and talk about their brew with fondness.


Meet Alberto, Chicha Geek


"Arggh... it's surely from the bottom of the barrel, this one."

"This is served way too cold."

"The texture on this one is beautifully round, but it's a tad too sweet in the end."
chicha

Sound familiar? Yes, there is also a minority of chicha drinkers who are passionate about their alcoholic drink of choice and who strive to find examples in the best condition possible. Alberto Butron, Cochabambino chicha lover, looks for drinkability of course, clean flavors and a sort of balance between corn flavors, sweetness and tartness. Some chichas can be terribly dirty, he says. Added alcohol, found in chichas at the city's huge La Cancha market, for example, is a no-no, and adding too much sugar sometimes overwhelms the flavor and spoils his pleasure. A molasses made from sugar cane, called chankaka, is often used to boost alcohol and produce a cleaner fermentation, and that is perfectly acceptable to him, just like how candi sugar is employed in many Belgian ales. Moreover, the chicha geek likes to indulge in the best examples he can find after having sampled many different versions from area brewers. And oh, he attends festivals too.


Bolivian local Alberto knows how to sniff out the finest chicha. (Credit: Martin Thibault)


Just like Berliner weisse and lambic, there exist many versions of this tart and refreshing Cochabambina chicha. Strawberry, pomegranate, wheat, quinoa, even cinnamon ice cream (a chicha float!). These can often be found in town festivals; a great place to discover that Cochabambina chicha is not only the brew of choice in the high Quechuan valley; it is a beer world of its own.


Chicha's Surmountable Problems


Why is chicha still an enigma to most Westerners from the beer industry? A quick ramble in the Cochabamba valley rapidly points to a few reasons. For one, places that brew or sell traditional chicha in Bolivia only advertise themselves in the old-fashioned way: an object hanging from their front door. Those familiar with olden Germany will be pleasantly surprised to see stars hanging from chicherias in Tarata. In Punata though, there are small wooden signs that jut out from the wall near the door. Along the through roads, the most common sign is a white flag that hangs from a long bamboo branch arching over sidewalks like an extended handshake invitation. The flag, star and wooden sign are the only ways to know that chicha is being served. Moreover, there are no ways to know whose chicha is being drunk at a given place. Most chicherias don't have a name and all call their brew chicha. That's it. A very effective way to stay shrouded in mystery, to say the least.

Stories of bad chicha also abound, even among locals. Those who add straight alcohol or tons of sugar instead of corn malt have hurt the traditional brew's reputation. But most of all, the conditions in which most brew are unsanitary if following modern criteria; not inviting at all to those requiring Western-style comforts. Like many traditional foods and drinks here, chicha has suffered because of this, coming second to more Western-inspired offerings.

But a drink that is many centuries old and inherited from Incan ancestors cannot die so easily. Quite a few Quechua villages east of Cochabamba, like Tarata, Punata, and Totora, have been preserving the tradition by passing it on to their daughters. And it probably won't die if more people learn to appreciate different cultures that, in a beer sense, aren't so dissimilar to our own.


Thanks to Remy van der Berg, of El Mundo Verde, and Alberto Butron for their help in locating maltsters, brewers and barrelmakers, as well as creating many a moment of merrymaking. Salud!


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