Chicha: Ecuador’s Ancient Beer
Chicha is a drink native to Latin America that first appeared during the aboriginal/pre-Colombian period, around 5000 BCE. It is essentially a corn-based beer, although corn can be substituted for quinoa depending on the region in Ecuador. The Incas discovered that saliva could be used to trigger the fermentation process in corn and other grains (the ptyalin enzymes in human saliva are a fermentation agent that assists in turning the cornstarch into sugar), and women used to chew the corn before spitting it out and storing it for fermentation. Nowadays most recipes use malted barley or other fermentation agents, but if you’re brave enough you can try making it the original way.
Chicha was a very important part of early Andean culture, and remains important even today. It’s still common to find chicha being sold out of small country homes, although we won’t judge you if you decide not to try it. Because it was the first type of alcohol in pre-Colombian communities, it was not only seen as an act of solidarity to drink chicha with fellow villagers (the ancient version of grabbing a few beers with “the dudes”), but it was also extremely important in religious ceremonies and festivals because of its intoxicating effects.
Just as there are many ways to appreciate chicha, there are also many ways to make chicha. As mentioned before, different regions in Ecuador have distinct ways of making chicha. Here’s a few:
Chicha del Yamor is made with 7 different grains of corn; chulpi, black, yellow, white, popcorn, morocho, and Jora. This recipe is particularly slow and time consuming because all grains must be prepared within 12 hours of each other, then they are sifted and placed in oak barrels for 12 days to obtain the ideal flavor. As a rule chicha must be fermented for 3 to 15 days in order to have a desired flavor. In three days of fermentation the recipe will reach 2% alcohol and by 15 days it can reach up to 12%. Chicha del Yamor is prepared during the festivities of Yamor (a festival that celebrates the harvest of the corn) in Otavalo during the first week of September.
Chicha de Jora is another type of this Latin American corn-based beer. Jora is a variety of corn that gets mixed with barley to create Chicha de Jora. It is often used during Inti Raymi, the festival fo the sun, during the first 15 days of September. Cotacachi is the city most famous for preparing this type of chicha.
Chicha Huevona is the name of a particular variety of chicha that uses egg mixed with jora, and pineapple. It is traditionally used during the parade of Niño Viajero in Cuenca on the day before Christmas.
Chia de Yucca is, as the name suggests, made by mixing yucca in with the regular ingredients of chicha. This drink in particular is seen as a symbol of friendship in the Amazon region. Tamarillo, mulberry, taxo, naranjilla, guava, and aromatic herbs are also popular additions to this version of chicha.
As you can see, chicha is just as varied and distinct as other Ecuadorian dishes and is a very important tradition and identity marker in Ecuador. We invite you to try it, if you dare! If you want to know more about Ecuador’s culinary offers, check out our Quito Food Tour and read about Traditional Ecuadorian Drinks and Desserts in our blog post.
Feature photo by Ryan McFarland on flickr