The pre-Inca origin of chicha de jora and its lasting power give this fermented drink a strong cultural identity like no other.
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, as early as the Chavin culture (cerca 900 BC). With the Spanish arrival in the 16th century, chicha de jora would all but disappear.
Yet, today, international scholars and brewers, locals of the Andean regions, and ecotourism groups like Inkaterra hotels continue to produce and conserve 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.
Could the origin of chicha de jora really be boiled down to dumb luck? No matter the details of its creation, the culturally rich corn beer can be experienced in all its authenticity by guests at Inkaterra Hacienda Urubamba, a Sacred Valley ecolodge.
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.
Besides the humble architecture, the chicha house has all the elements of the age-old watering holes.
Traditionally, a chicha house (aqha wasi, in Quechua) will carry a unique name. That of Inkaterra is named Aqha Wasi Pisonay: pisonay in reference to the blooming native tree looming over the structure. Said to live up to 500 years, this tree is as sacred to the hotel as it once was to the Incas.
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 vibrant plants like this to signify that there was chicha available. Nowadays, it is more common to see red flags or colorful plastic bags hanging from doorways or visible spots of a home to show it is well stocked with chicha and receiving the public.
The famous game, sapo, is a vital part of any chicheria (here it 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
Cultivating corn, an array of vegetables and herbs, as well as livestock, the farmland at Hacienda Urubamba produces about 90% of the food served at the hotel. Working with local farmers, traditional techniques and ancient knowledge are preserved and crops are kept pesticide-free.
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.
Pachamama isn’t the only worshiped figure in history to enjoy the fermented beverage however. Historic records point to chicha de jora as the preferred drink of Inca nobility. It was also used in ceremonial purposes to honor Inca gods. Today it is greatly enjoyed during annual festivities in the Andes, such as Inti Raymi (Festival of the Sun).
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 neighboring district Yucay, watching his grandmother fix up the fermented drink and walking down narrow streets where the famous red flags were advertisement enough for chicha drinkers.
What we come to find is that the process is fairly similar to that of artisanal beer. After the corn has been dried in the sun, the kernels are removed and soaked in water for 4-5 days (no chewing and spitting here). Afterwards, the wet corn is tucked in between layers of dry corn leaves in order to germinate. After one week, roots will have emerged from the kernels, creating the jora.
The jora is perhaps the most important part of the process, as it is said that the lengthier the roots the better the chicha flavor. Some local women even sell the jora to speed up the process.
After boiling in a clay pot of water, the jora is strained and it’s time to indulge. We sip the finished product from the heavy glasses known as qero. Meaning wood in Quechua, these wide-mouthed vessels are fashioned after the ceremonial and utilitarian cups used by the Incas.
Cupping a full glass of the slightly nutty and bitter drink, we were tempted to splash it across Pachamama: 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—one that carries a legacy of resourcefulness, community and cultural identity—left us in a daze. Or maybe it was the alcohol after all.
This article was originally published on Ravel in April 2020. All photos: Alvaro Balcazar
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