Sam Calagione, left, and two professors chew corn to make chicha, a beer. Photo by Ryan Collerd for The New York Times.

Sam Calagione, left, and Pat McGovern, right, chew corn to make chicha, a beer. Photo by Ryan Collerd for The New York Times.

The transformation of corn (maize) into beer or chicha was a monumental achievement of the early Americans, comparable to the conversion of cacao fruit and beans into a beverage. Like cacao, Chicha, too, was to become an elite beverage that powered its own “Neolithic Revolution.” Wherever it went, from Central to South America, it became imbued with social, economic, and supernatural significance. The earliest pottery from South America, dating back to ca. 5000 B.P., was likely intended for chichas, primarily made from corn but also manioc, wild fruits, cacti, potatoes, ad infin.

Chicha’s importance in the social and religious world of Archaic America can best be appreciated by focusing on the drink’s central role in the much later Inca empire of Peru.

Corn (Zea mays) was a sacred crop for the Incas and their predecessors. Chicha, in particular, was considered very high status. In late prehistory, huge local and state farms, the majority on steep, terraced hill slopes and irrigated plains of the deserts and valleys, were dedicated to the production of corn. This work was largely powered by chicha, viz., the local populaces carried out the work in exchange for chicha and other benefits from the their rulers. Chicha was consumed in great quantities during and after the work, making for a festive mood of singing, dancing, and joking.

Chicha was offered to gods and ancestors, much like other fermented beverages around the world were. For example, at the Incan capital of Cuzco, the king poured chicha into a gold bowl at the navel of the universe, an ornamental stone dais with throne and pillar, in the central plaza. The chicha cascaded down this “gullet of the Sun God” to the Temple of Sun, as awestruck spectators watched the high god quaff the precious brew. At most festivals, ordinary people participated in days of prodigious drinking after the main feast, as the Spanish looked on aghast at the drunkenness.

Human sacrifices first had to be rubbed in the dregs of chicha, and then tube-fed with more chicha for days while lying buried alive in tombs. Special sacred places, scattered throughout the empire, and mummies of previous kings and ancestors were ritually bathed in maize flour and presented with chicha offerings, to the accompaniment of dancing and panpipe music. Even today, people Peruvians sprinkle some chicha to “mother earth” from the communal cup when they sit down together to drink; the cup then proceeds in the order of each drinker’s social status, as an unending succession of toasts are offered.

Our latest endeavor with Dogfish Head was to make a truly American corn beer or chicha by chewing the native Peruvian red corn, spitting it out, and fermenting. Pepper berries and strawberries piquant and aromatic touches, and made for a delicious beverage which was a hit at the 2009 Great American Beer Festival and other events.

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