But the Aztecs didn’t mind the sour vegetative taste and mucilaginous texture. Priests consumed pulque during important celebrations and sacrifices. The drink would instill a feeling of well-being and would even be fed to those virgins or prisoners of war about to be sacrificed. By some accounts, the sacrificed prisoners were then cannibalized—hopefully consumed with more pulque, because you’ve got to wash that down with something.
Chicha was, and is, another indigenous brew made by the Aztecs and Maya, as well as throughout North and South America. Typically a rustic brew of maize kernels, it can be made from corn stalks, manioc roots, plantains, amaranth, you name it. All of these starchy foodstuffs require some enzymatic degradation into fermentable sugars. Therein lies the rub, or the cud, so to speak.
When brewing with the tough roots of manioc, brewers thinly slice or pound the roots into a fibrous mass which is then chewed and spit back into a pot. The enzymes in the saliva break down the starches for wild yeast. What results is a murky gruel nearly the strength of modern beer.
With maize it is more common to chew a mouthful of flour or grits until it forms a gluey ball. The balls of dough are then dried overnight or slowly baked, then boiled in water the next day to make chicha. Any variety of maize might be used, and together with herbs, nuts, or fruit, no two chichas will be exactly alike.
Dogfish’s latest version of chicha incorporated purple corn and herbs from Peru, but malted barley was also added. This seems a common practice for those brewing commercial interpretations of ancient brews, from Anchor’s Ninkasi to Nønge Ø’s Sahti to Wynkoop’s Tut’s Royal Gold. Malt is added to provide a safety net, guaranteeing adequate enzymes for the mash. It also helps boost strength and add the familiar flavor of beer. Dogfish’s Sam Calagione says malt is used for all of these reasons, as well as to conform to the modern, legal definition of beer.
But Shelton thinks modern brews miss the point. “Putting spices into sweet, strong beers fermented with a standard, clean, cultured beer yeast will provide no clues about how those ancient beers might have tasted.” Instead, he points to two other trends in beer fashion: lower alcohol beers and sour beers. It is a fusion of these two classes that defines ancient brews, which are essentially wild, sour, session beers.
White likes the idea, although he thinks that session beers haven’t caught on quite like sour beers. “Sour session beers. Absolutely! With over a thousand breweries [here], people are looking for new things. Put a story behind it, sell it where there is an immigrant population or in a university town; academics are more adventurous.” As an academic himself, McGovern wouldn’t argue. “Alcoholic beverages bring us together in a congenial atmosphere, to say the least!”
“There’s something so satisfying about a sour, low-alcohol beer,” says Shelton. “You’re tasting 10,000 years of human history, something you can’t put into words. It feels natural. Fermentation is every where, it is this wonderful gift that we have, that makes so many wonderful foods, wine and beer taste different from what they tasted like before the fermentation. That change, not quite identifiable, that’s what any curious beer drinker would want.”
As for his modern chicha, Calagione wouldn’t admit it tasted like the Peruvian ones, but he would say, “We liked it.” One customer reportedly enthused “Huh? Spit happens. I’ll take a bite.” While another wrote on brewer Bryan Selder’s blog “I am so traumatized by the whole spitting and drinking it that I am not sure I can ever drink another beer of any kind ever again.” Verily, ancient beers may not be for everyone.
Brewing has always been hard work, just ask the crew that chewed up the corn grits for Dogfish. The ancients knew this. They didn’t just bump gourds with their pal. There was more respect required. “There’s the chicha maker’s prayer,” says Calagione, “you hold the glass in front of you and blow over it towards the fields where the corn grew, you blow towards the grave of your ancestor, then you look the chicha maker in the eye and down it.”
In a world of precision ingredients and computer-controlled breweries it is easy to lose sight of something the ancients knew long, long before us: A little beer not only helps to liven the party, it brings magic into our daily lives and it helps us feel closer to the divine. And who knows, drinking a primitive brew may even improve your next ritual sacrifice, er, that is, barbecue.