Although it's not nearly as well known as the pisco sour—Peru's national drink—chicha is an iconic beverage that's been intricately linked with this South American country for thousands of years and something that every visitor should try. In fact, it has secured its place in the annals of Peruvian history: a drink that was as much a part of pre-colonial sacred rituals as it was a celebratory refreshment among friends. These days you'll find both alcoholic and non-alcoholic chichas, made using various ingredients available throughout Peru (and in other Latin American countries as well) at roadside stands, from women selling chicha on street-corners, and in places like picanterias and chicherías. This ancient beverage provides a bridge between Peru's past and present and offers insight into its indigenous culture.
What Is Chicha?
While its name's origins are unclear, the word “chicha” is thought to be a general Spanish term for a fermented beverage, though the drink itself dates back long before Spaniards arrived in South America. Chicha originated thousands of years ago in Peru's Andean Mountains and has since taken hold across South America, where you'll find it in many different forms and varieties. It can be made with fruits, grains, potatoes, even quinoa, but its most traditional Peruvian form is chica de jora, a fermented corn beer made from malted yellow or white corn that's typically grown in the Andes and with a low alcohol content that sits between one and three percent.
For many, chicha is an acquired taste, with a sour aftertaste similar to that of kombucha. It's a beverage that's been around for seemingly ever: archaeologists have found earthenware used to store and transport chicha that dates back to at least 5000 B.C. The Incas considered it sacred, as it was made from holy corn, and chicha was the drink-of-choice among Incan nobility and Incas traditionally used as a sacrifice to Pachamama, the Earth Mother, pouring out a bit to this goddess of planting and harvesting before partaking in the drink themselves. It's a practice that still takes place among the Andean people today. Chicha is known as aswa in Quechua, the primary language of the Andes' Quechua people and the Inca Empire.
Throughout its history, chicha has also been a festive beverage, one that's often shared from the same glass as a communal coming-together and drank during celebrations—including religious gatherings and as a welcoming drink at Andean weddings. It's also used for bartering. Women have a long role in chicha production and distribution, specifically the aclla or “chosen women,” young girls sequestered during the Inca Empire to perform specific functions, including chicha brewing. The drink was traditionally part of coming-of-age ceremonies for young men, culminating in their transition into adulthood with a glass of this chosen beverage.
A variety of chicha types and combos exist throughout Peru and greater Latin America, including chicha de guiñapo (an Arequipa-based chicha made with ground black corn); chicha blanca with quinoa; and chicha de mani with peanuts. Other main ingredients include manioc (cassava), cacti, palm fruit, and potatoes. One of Peru's most popular chicha types of chicha morado, a non-fermented, non-alcoholic beverage that's made from purple corn that's boiled alongside pineapple rind, cloves, and cinnamon and then flavored with lemon or lime and sugar. The corn itself is known to have powerful antioxidants and help regulate cholesterol levels, as well as aid cardiovascular health. Chicha morado is so popular that it's even available in local markets, and is often drank with meals as well as on its own.
Another beloved chicha version is chicha frutillada, a foamy, strawberry-filled chicha found throughout the greater Cusco region, and one that's both refreshing and intensely flavorful (it's basically chicha de jora made with strawberries, so expect a bit of a buzz).
Chicha versions vary widely throughout Latin America. In Bogota, Colombia's capital city, you'll find it made with maize that's been cooked along with sugar and then fermented. In El Salvador, the fermented drink is made with corn, pineapple, and panela, a solid form of cane sugar. While in Venezuela, chicha is a white and frothy alcohol-free beverage made with a mix of boiled rice, sugar, and milk and often topped with ground cinnamon – much like a dessert.
In the Andes especially, chicha often comes served in a qero, or wooden vessel decorated with intricate carvings, though these days, the qero can also be made from glass.
How Is Chicha Made?
There are a couple of ways to make chicha: the modern way, in which the corn is germinated in the same way that barley is malted for beer, and the old way, which involves the brewer chewing on corn—or whatever the main ingredient—to jumpstart the fermentation process (human saliva mixes in to create a chemical reaction, converting maize starch to sugar), then spits out what's essentially mush and allows it to sit overnight, beginning the transformation into alcohol. This latter process is still used in many Peruvian homesteads today (another saliva-activated beverage is nihamanchi found in Brazil, Ecuador, and Peru), so you never quite know what you're getting. However, if you ask for chicha de muko, or chicha with chewed flour, you're practically guaranteed a taste of chicha as traditionally as it comes. In either case, the brewer eventually extracts the wort from the malting process, boils and chills it, and then ferments it to perfection in a chomba, or a large clay pot.
Because it's unfermented, chicha morado is always made without spit.
Where to Try Chicha
Chicha is easy to come by across Peru, but especially in greater Cusco, the Sacred Valley, and the Machu Picchu region. In Cusco especially, you can find lots of varying kinds—since the city attracts residents from all over the country. There will be traditionally dressed Andean women doling out glasses of chicha from large plastic buckets near Cusco's San Pedro Market and selling it along roadsides and in outlying rural areas. But for the ultimate chicha experience, the best places to visit are chicherías, or chicha taverns, homegrown spots that have derived from places travelers would stop for a bit of food and drink. Today they're found tucked among everyday houses and dotting villages and are easily recognizable by their red flag (or often a red plastic bag) attached to a long pole or broomstick protruding from above the door. These places are typically unlicensed and located within a corner or otherwise unused room of a family's home and are run by the families themselves. The cost of a half-liter glass of chicha is usually far less than that of a U.S. dollar, and refills are often free. Pro tip: for chicha frutillada, look for a white flag.
Another spot to sample chicha, especially if you're also hungry, are picanterías: lively, no-frills lunch establishments widely found throughout cities like Cusco and Arequipa that serve up small dishes called picantes (the world means hot or spicy in Spanish). Think stews and sharable plates of cuy chactado (guinea pig) or rocoto relleno (stuffed chili), accompanied by glasses of chicha.
For a more upscale tasting experience, try the Sumaq Machu Picchu Hotel, a luxe boutique property in Aguas Calientes, the gateway town to Machu Picchu and its iconic Inca ruins. The hotel's restaurant and bar are a perfect place to sample the region's gastronomy, including baked trout with apu flavors and slow-cooked, southern-flavored veal stew as different chicha varieties. Chicha is part of the hotel's Pachamanca experience, which includes a traditional cooking demonstration and meal, and plays the starring role in its “Taste the Andean Chichas of the Apus,” or Andean mountain spirits: a 30-minute tasting of both chicha de jora and chicha fruitillada, each served in a tumbler-shaped terra-cotta vase known as a kero, and accompanied with fuchsia and purple-colored potato chips—another regional specialty. Guests of the hotel are also greeted with glasses of chicha morado upon arrival. However, you don't have to stay at Sumaq to partake in its range of adventure, culinary, and imbibing experiences.
You can find chicha in cities and towns throughout Peru, including Lima and its Surquillo Market, Arequipa, and Iquitos, on the Amazon riverbanks. Pro tip: in the Amazon, chicha is better known as masato. A popular form is masato de yuca, made with chewed up and spit out (but then boiled and fermented) tubular roots. It's a tasting experience like no other.