Geographic and historic traditions: Chicha

Now we start the long haul of figuring out what it might mean to develop a distinctly Bolivian style of beer or brewing or what have you. Just to recall, the elements I’ve isolated that primarily seem to contribute to a beer style are:

  1. Tradition based in a historical narrative that is geographically distinct
    1. A fairly set ingredient bill
  2. Unique, local ingredient(s)

#1 Geographic and Historic Culinary Traditions

We start with tradition, and inevitably when foreigners think of Bolivia and alcohol they go straight to chicha, a traditional corn brew that’s made a variety of ways. The predominant method involves sitting around and chewing maize (I use maize and corn here interchangeably) kernels to add enzymes from the mouth that are needed to break down starch into fermentable sugars and spitting them into the fermenter and adding water. Leave it out to sit for anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks, and let the yeasts in the air spontaneously ferment it. Then strain the kernels and drink. While every guide book about Bolivia lists this as a must-do, the spontaneous nature of its production means the polite, “it’s a bit too funky for my taste” is often appropriate.

Standard fare for a lot of street corners.

Chicha represents a very strong, distinct brewing tradition that definitely fulfills the first requirements I’ve outlined, based in historical narrative and geographically distinct, so well that I’d argue it presents a strong challenge to the hegemony of the BJCP (and related Global North organizations) and their working definition of beer as a concept in itself. Okay, well that perhaps might be an excessively strong statement, but it is actually a tenable starting point for a gastronomic critique of the Global North’s beer canon and definition of beer utilizing decolonial theory as the method of de- and re-construction. BUT I’m not going to do that (yet). Some PhD student in gastronomic anthropology can write their thesis on it.

I’ll just back off chicha as beer because it traditionally utilizes only maize, no barley or hops, and that generally would discount it from being counted as a beer. I know, I know, there are exceptions to everything (although I think that the BJCP guidelines all require at least some barley and hops in everything)—e.g. a Berliner Weisse without hops, or a 100% Wheat Wine (in the school of barleywine). But still, for the purposes of this essay I’ll say that it’s actually so distinct in ingredients and production so as to be considered alongside such larger categories of fermented beverages as “wine, beer, and chicha.”

Look at all the options.

Nonetheless, we should consider chicha here for what it might add to or influence in a Bolivian style of brewing. Is there something that can be gleaned from the tradition of brewing chicha that could be useful in brewing beer—whether method, ingredients, etc. Three things grab my attention from chicha brewing that might be useful. First is the method of adding enzymes to turn the starches in maize into fermentable sugars. I would need to research this a lot more, but I wonder if adding a certain amount of chewed maize to a beer mash would in any way contribute to the end product. I doubt it, as the mash does the same basic job with temperature and the enzymes already present in the malt. Conversely, what if instead of mashing the barley at standard temperatures, the chewed maize were added to the crushed malt and water at ambient temperature and left to spontaneously ferment? A kind of sour mash without the 110º F temperatures, then a boil afterwards. This might be worth exploring as an experiment, but I suspect that unless the results are spectacular or particularly interesting, it’s not what we’re looking for.

Ingredient-wise, I see two possibilities. First and obvious: maize. Generally, corn is not regarded as a very interesting addition to any grain bill, but this being one of the ancient homes of maize, there’s a heck of a lot of options available. Again, I doubt that you’ll find much variation in end flavors, but it might be worth a try. I do think it would be worth using the purple-colored ground corn flour that is available in most grocery stores and used to make api, a thick hot drink for winter. This presents some interesting possibilities.

Fresh empanada + warm apí = excellent winter snack.

Finally, what of the yeasts used to ferment chicha? Granted, it utilizes spontaneous fermentation, but I wonder if some of the more established chicherias (does a cottage industry like chicha-making have brewpubs?) have house cultures that might be sources of truly Bolivian yeast cultures. This is something I’ll examine more in-depth later in a discussion of ingredients, but I do think it presents the most exciting possibility—albeit also the most difficult to actually accomplish without a lab and interested biologist. Next, I’ll broaden the horizon a bit and examine a few other traditional drinks and flavor combinations that could yield something useful.

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