Chicha Beer

During a visit to Quito, Ecuador last year, I had the pleasure to learn about an emerging style of beer, chicha beer, that is starting to be made throughout the Andean mountain region. Wait! Don’t run away – this article has nothing to do with spitting in your beer. Most Americans know of chicha only through the old Brew Masters TV show where “Sam heads to Peru to explore an ancient corn-based brew called chicha; then, it’s all hands on deck in Delaware when the Dogfish staff uses human saliva to brew their own chicha.” Seriously, that is the actual synopsis the network used for the episode.

Historical chicha at one time did involve chewing the grain to provide enzymes as an alternative to mashing, but this modern style of chicha beer is an homage to that indigenous brew but involving more current (and I dare say, more sanitary) brewing practices. However, some elements of that story remain — it is from the Andes, it involves corn, and it is traditional. I have seen this transformation of traditional styles elsewhere — such as modern Finnish sahti, modern takes on medieval gruit, and updated colonial ales in the U.S. So, I do think that updating historical beers to modern times does make for interesting styles, just don’t think of these current interpretations as recreations of the originals — they are re-imagined.

Discovering the Style

My journey to discover the style involved judging at the Copa Cervecera Mitad del Mundo (Middle of the World Brewer’s Cup) in Quito. Mitad del Mundo is a monument in Ecuador marking the location of the Equator, and is often used informally to refer to the country. My friend, Nathan Keffer, was the competition organizer and he told me that I was going to judge a new category called chicha beer. He had written a draft style description and had a full flight of 11 beers for me. He told me that chicha was produced in countries like Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Colombia, and Costa Rica.

I was concerned about my lack of understanding of the style, although I had previously tried chicha in Chile and Peru. However, he had two experts to assist: Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) judges and brewers Andrea Huerta from Peru and Jose Pinos from Ecuador. These two kindly and patiently spent over an hour teaching me about the historical beer, including showing me some videos of its production. We then discussed how this new style re-interpreted the original. Only then did we get down to judging. It was quite a varied flight, but there was one beer that really caught my attention. It was described as “60% corn, 30% Pils, 10% raw wheat, 15-min. boil, no hops, Ecuadorean herbs, flowers, spices; split ferment Lacto and Sacch, bottle conditioned with Brett” — good detail.

Later in the competition, I had the honor of judging Best-of-Show (BOS). That chicha beer was on the table, and I could tell it impressed the other judges. Somewhat like an American wild ale, but you could swear it had hops in it. Very enjoyable. When I judge a beer in an earlier round that advances to BOS, I typically let all other judges express their opinion before mentioning that I had passed that beer. It was not a unanimous decision, but four out of five judges thought that beer was the best on the table, and it won the competition. But at this point I didn’t know its identity; the awards festival was planned for the evening of the following day.

The next day I was planning to do some sightseeing, but missed the bus. Undeterred, I saw a group of judges in the hotel lobby and started talking to them. My frequent interpreter, Carlos Estrada from Colombia, was among them, and he mentioned that they were going to a local brewery that had come highly recommended from other beer geeks. I asked if they had room for me to join them, and fortunately they did.

I learned we were visiting Cervecería Quiteña, a small farmhouse-style brewery outside of Quito. The brewer, Andrés Erazo, and his wife, Cristina Harja, graciously showed us their entire brewery and led us through a tasting of several of their beers. They had a chicha beer that seemed interesting — but it wasn’t the one I judged at Best-of-Show. Since the results had not been announced, I said nothing about this style other than noting that I had judged it during the competition.

Later, at the festival, I was surprised when Quiteña was announced as the BOS brewery. Apparently, they had made multiple versions of the beer and I had tried a different one earlier that day. Also, it turns out the arguing amongst BOS beers was pointless, since the top two beers were from this brewery. After returning home, I was able to get additional information from Andrés about his beers, and that information was invaluable in preparing this article. He also invited me to an online workshop earlier this year where brewers from five different countries discussed how they interpreted the style.

Links to the Past

Chicha beer retains some of the character of the traditional indigenous chicha de jora (made from malted yellow corn, soaked and dried in the sun), in that it has an earthy corn character and is usually at least somewhat sour. Traditional chicha is produced through a laborious process using a long boil but no mashing. In some versions, unmalted corn is cooked first, then milled, then wrapped in plantain leaves for a week before being used. It ferments often using a fruit-based starter (spontaneous fermentation of pineapple rinds) and develops character through micro-oxygenation — fermenting in clay pots covered with cloth, kind of like making traditional Kosher dill pickles. It is often filtered with straw before a mixed fermentation of yeast and bacteria takes place, where repitching of fermentation sediment is common. No hops are involved, but regional herbs, spices, and flowers provide bitterness, aroma, and flavor. It is often sold very fresh, while fermentation is still active.

Chicha beer is often filtered using straw in the lauter tun prior to undergoing a mixed fermentation.

Variations exist by region, and corn is not universally used. Ingredients are defined by regional and seasonal availability — terroir, anyone? Some Amazonian regions use manioc, and other grains like quinoa can be added. Fruit certainly can be used (particularly the small mountain strawberries of the region), but it isn’t a requirement. Since there is some intentional oxidation in the process, a light acetic character is acceptable as long as it does not get out of hand. Chicha can have a variable sweetness, and is often thick and cloudy, like many historical beers. Alcohol levels are usually not high. As you can imagine, these aspects make the beer somewhat unstable and it must be consumed quickly before it spoils.

I also tried some other regional drinks such as chicha morada (purple chicha) and colada morada, a sweetened, spiced drink often associated with the Day of the Dead celebration. I think it is important to understand that different countries have varying traditions and interpretations, and that any of these can be drawn upon to create a modernized version. Do not make the mistake of assuming there is a single inspiration for modern chicha beer.

Modernizing a Tradition

Modern chicha beer adapts some elements of chicha de jora while using some modern brewing methods that add to stability and drinkability. It’s more than a mere nod to tradition, there is a strong sense of respect of the regional heritage involved. It’s innovation without a cavalier attitude, never forgetting the cultural foundations. Some modern producers see producing chicha beer as an act of rebellion, honoring their pre-Hispanic heritage. They are proud of creating products with creativity, excellent ingredients, and modern health standards.

Chicha beer should use a significant percentage of malted corn (often produced at the brewery, or from artisanal suppliers using purple, white, yellow, red, or blue corn). Other grains can be used as well, but are generally base-type grains. The saison farmhouse tradition is the closest analog; Pilsner malt, wheat, oats, quinoa, or other regional grains are often used. Some of these additional grains can be malted (barley and wheat, in particular) or raw. But an all-corn version is certainly possible.

Hops are often not used, or if used, are used at a simple level as in kettle sours (something under sensory threshold level for antibacterial purposes). Instead of hops, chicha beer can be flavored with a wide range of traditional Andean medicinal herbs, spices, and flowers. Some herbs I saw mentioned were cedrón (lemon verbena), toronjil (lemon balm or sweet Melissa), escancel (bloodleaf), hierba luisa (lemon grass), hierba buena (spearmint), and congona (Peperomia inaequalifolia). Flowers included sweet violet, rose geranium, malva, manzanilla (chamomile), and ataco (purple amaranth). Spices are used a little less frequently, but can include clavo (clove), ishpingo (Amazon cinnamon), canela (cinnamon), and pimenta dulce (allspice). I often saw a raw brown sugar called panela or sometimes honey used to adjust sweetness. Fruited versions most often used wild strawberries, but also could include pineapple, orange rind, peaches, blueberries, or other local fruits such as golden berries. 

While I have mentioned a long list of potential ingredients, I think some care needs to be taken not to use too many of them or to use them in clashing combinations. It’s easy to make a train wreck of a beer by overdoing the additional ingredients. Selecting a combination of herbs that mimic hops is quite a task, involving experimentation. I personally would lean heavily into those with lemony or minty characteristics, and go very light on any spice additions. I always worry about using too much clove since that will trigger the phenol off-flavor sensors of many judges, but cinnamon-like flavors are fair game.

Modern mashing and boiling techniques can be used in the brewhouse to produce the wort for chicha beer. In the workshop, I heard brewers discuss several different types of mash programs — infusion, step, and decoction. Likewise, I heard of several different fermentation programs including kettle sour processes, mixed fermentation techniques, and blending of split fermented products. Some were exploring barrel aging as an alternative to clay pots to introduce micro-oxygenation. One brewer mentioned how strains of Brett were isolated from historical clay fermentation pots. I didn’t see anything standardized, so I think brewers are free to use whatever production and fermentation methods they see fit to produce the beer with the desired finished profile.

The use of alternative grains like these may cause lautering difficulties. Several brewers recommended using rice hulls, straw, or brew-in-a-bag to improve lautering. Experimentation with different grist compositions to gain enzymes and consistent results is possible, particularly if producing your own malted corn.

Sourcing Ingredients

Chicha is generally made with a high percentage of malted corn (colors vary) and regional herbs, spices, and flowers to provide bitterness, aroma, and flavor in place of hops.

Some of the brewing ingredients might be difficult for those outside the Andean region to find. Googling “how to malt corn” can tell you how to try this at home. I would start with dried corn sourced from a local Latin-American supermercado — mine has dried purple corn with large kernels. If you know artisan maltsters, particularly those who are exploring heirloom varieties, you may find they produce malted corn. One such maltster I found is Sugar Creek Malt in Lebanon, Indiana.

If you want to make the beer using a mini-mash, a good substitute for the malted corn is pre-cooked masarepa, or white corn meal flour. I found the P.A.N. brand widely available at Latin markets. Look for something designed to make arepas rather than masa harina since Andeans prefer the more pure corn flavor from it as it is less processed.

Ecuadorian horchata is an herb tea blend, not to be confused with Mexican horchata, a sweet rice drink with cinnamon. Horchata lojana is another Ecuadorian herb tea – I found iLe Té brand online, among others. These products are good substitutes or bases for the herbs — just don’t choose actual tea since you don’t want those extra tannins or flavors. Farmer’s markets or health food stores might also be a source for some unusual herbs, or stores that cater to traditional medicinal herbs or natural healing. If you can’t find individual herbs to create a blend, purchasing one of these commercial mixes might be a better choice. Breweries in Ecuador often purchase a mixture from local foragers.

If you want to experiment with creating your own chicha starter, you can try cutting up some pineapple rinds, mixing them with ground corn or sugar, putting them in a jar on the counter covered by cheesecloth, and leaving it alone for 2–3 days. The goal is to let a little air in but keep flies out. This is like making tepache, a sweetened Mexican drink with cinnamon. Personally, I would go with brewer’s yeast, Lactobacillus, and Brettanomyces, like a mixed fermentation beer, but this might be a more traditional alternative.

Yeast selections should favor attenuation. Diastatic yeast like saison strains work well. Andrés Erazo said he uses yeast from Yeast Bay but that dry yeast like LalBrew Belle Saison works great. He also suggested a clean yeast like SafAle US-05 as a good, widely available choice. Since there are no hops in these beers, any type of Lacto will work. Lactobacillus plantarum is a popular choice for sour beers. If using Brett, a Brett Bruxellensis strain gives good results.

Sensory Profile

It’s hard to write a traditional sensory profile for this style since it is so variable based on the choice of ingredients. I think it should show evidence of the ingredients used, but also have some basis in one of the traditional beverages. In general, most chicha beer will have corn in it, but might not seem overly sweet “corny” in flavor — rustic or earthy is more accurate. Maybe more like field corn than sweet corn. Most people associate some acidity with chicha, so it makes sense for some to be present in chicha beer (although a few producers are experimenting with chicha without sourness). However, excessive acidity is a fault, as is an overly acetic, vinegary product. Drinkability is important, and an overly acidic, acetic, or funky chicha beer would be more reminiscent of a spoiled or rancid chicha, not a fresh one. Acetic acid is a sensitive issue; maybe it’s like a Flanders Red — a little is OK as long as it doesn’t dominate the character.

The use of Andean herbs is a common theme, but many of these have lemony, minty, or sweet characters. Many herbs are also bitter and can balance the natural sweetness of beer. I found many examples to be virtually indistinguishable from hopped beer, with pleasant levels of bitterness and an aromatic quality that could be ascribed to some varieties of traditional hops. Maybe not some of the most modern or extreme hop varieties, but they didn’t seem vegetal, grassy, or overly “green.” 

Traditional chicha is lightly carbonated but modern chicha beer can be almost Champagne-like in character. The sweet, thick, heavy traditional drink is modernized to a fully attenuated, dry character. Since interpretations can vary, the body and carbonation ranges are broad, as is the balance. Most modern versions tended to the drier and more lively style, as this tends to be more stable
and drinkable.

Towards a New Style

Chicha sometimes gets a bum rap in Latin America, as it is often associated with old times, lower class people, and rural areas. Which is ironic, because it was once the drink of Incan nobility. The modern public thinks of it as something sold on the street in plastic bottles, leading poor people to get crazy. I think that viewpoint is symptomatic of how many traditions are viewed by those who wish to leave the past behind, particularly after Spanish colonial times when new traditions were introduced (including the belief that wine was superior to any local drinks).

I see how deeply cultural roots run in the Andean region and how passionate people are about preserving their heritage. I think chicha beer represents a good balance between modernization and tradition, and I hope it is a model for how other indigenous world beer styles can be rediscovered and reinterpreted in our times. It could be something of a renaissance, where a once-noble drink is elevated from its somewhat denigrated current position back to its rightful place as something to be admired.

I have been assisting the chicha beer enthusiasts in defining their style in modern terms. It’s been a challenge since the beer is so ingredient-driven. I think it makes more sense to think of the beer as a specialty-type beer as far as defining the beer in BJCP terms rather than a classic style base beer with some added ingredients. As a specialty beer, the brewer can define the ingredients and process, and give information to judges as to how to evaluate the concept. I think this offers more flexibility in preserving the creativity of the brewers without constraining the varying local traditions. I look forward to seeing how this style develops and is used in future competitions. I expect it to be a regional style in Latin America since some knowledge of the traditional beverages are needed to give a fair evaluation.

Cervecería Quiteña’s Fandango clone

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.040   FG = 1.002
IBU = 0   SRM = 2   ABV = 5%

My deepest thanks go to Andrés Erazo of Cervecería Quiteña for these recipes. These represent one approach to producing modern chicha beer, not the only way. The goal of this beer is a Champagne-like chicha beer, very dry and highly carbonated. See the “Sourcing Ingredients” section of the article for more information about obtaining some of these ingredients that are less common outside of South America.

5 lbs. (2.3 kg) malted corn
3 lbs. (1.4 g) Pilsner malt
1 lb. (450 g) unmalted wheat
3–4 oz. (85–113 g) Horchata lojana herbal tea blend
LalBrew Belle Saison, Wyeast 3711 (French Saison), or Yeast Bay Wallonian Farmhouse yeast
2 g Lallemand WildBrew Sour Pitch or other Lactobacillus of choice
Brettanomyces Bruxellensis of choice, such as Yeast Bay Beersel Brett Blend
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Mash the grains in 152 °F (67 °C) water for 60 minutes. Slowly ramp up to 170 °F (76 °C). Transfer mash to lauter tun lined with straw. Sparge slowly and collect 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort.

Boil the wort for 90 minutes. Add herbal tea at knockout, stir, let steep for 20 minutes, then chill wort to 95 °F (35 °C). Run off half the wort into your first fermenter. Pitch the Lactobacillus in this fermenter and give it two or three days to sour at temperatures up to 104 °F (40 °C).

Chill the remainder of the wort to 68 °F (20 °C) and rack it into the second fermenter and then pitch the saison yeast. Allow yeast to free rise in temperature up to 79 °F (26 °C).

When the first (Lacto) fermentation is complete, mix it into the second fermenter, and allow the blended batch to ferment dry. When fermentation is complete, rack the beer, bottle condition with the Brett, or keg and force carbonate to 2.4 v/v.

Corn meal option:
Replace the malted corn with 4.5 lbs. (2 kg) pre-cooked white corn meal (such as P.A.N. brand), increase the Pilsner malt to 3.5 lbs. (1.6 kg), and eliminate the unmalted wheat from the all-grain recipe. Follow the same step-by-step instructions, adding the corn meal to the mash with the Pilsner malt. 

Homebrew Chicha Beer

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.048   FG = 1.010
IBU = 0   SRM = 2   ABV = 5.1%

This is a more traditional, rustic version using homemade and locally sourced ingredients.

5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg) Pilsner malt
5.5 lbs. (2.5 kg) malted corn
3–4 oz. (85–113 g) blend of dried lemon verbena, chamomile, mint, cinnamon (blended to taste)
Tepache starter (see step by step)
SafAle US-05 or a saison yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by step
Two or three days before brewing, prepare the tepache starter. Wash a very ripe pineapple well. Cut off and chop up the peels. You can also add the pineapple core, chopped. Reserve the flesh of the pineapple for eating. Place the peels and the core, if using, in a pitcher or large jar. Add enough of a 1.030 solution of water and corn sugar to completely cover the pineapple. Cover container with cheesecloth and leave in a warm (77–86 °F/25–30 °C) place for 2–3 days, skimming white foam from the top every 12 hours. Strain and use as your starter after the wort has been prepared. Do not allow to ferment longer, or it will get too vinegary.

Using a brew-in-a-bag technique, mash the grains in 156 °F (69 °C) water for 90 minutes. Remove bag with grain, leaving behind 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort.

Boil the wort for 60 minutes. Add the herbs at the end of the boil and allow to rest for 20 minutes before running off.

Transfer to fermenter, chilling to 68 °F (20 °C). Add the tepache starter allowing a free rise in temperature up to as high as 77 °F (25 °C). Ferment for three days. After this time, pitch Saccharomyces yeast of choice and allow fermentation to run to completion.

Rack the beer as gently as possible without disturbing carbonation, package in plastic soda bottles and serve within the next week, or keg and force carbonate.

Partial mash option:
Replace the malted corn with 5 lbs. (2.3 kg) pre-cooked white corn meal (such as P.A.N. brand) and reduce the Pilsner malt to 5 lbs. (2.3 kg).

Two or three days before brewing, prepare the tepache starter using instructions from the all-grain recipe.

Using a brew-in-a-bag technique, mash the grain and cornmeal in 156 °F (69 °C) water for 90 minutes. Remove bag with grain, leaving behind 6.5 gallons (24.5 L) of wort.

Boil the wort for 60 minutes. Add the herbs at the end of the boil and allow to rest for 20 minutes before running off.

Follow the remainder of the instructions from the all-grain recipe.

Issue: October 2022