Chicha de Jora – A Story About Corn Beer
by Erin Fiorini
In a small community near Otavalo in Ecuador’s northern Andes, Concepción Fuérez gathers large tanampu leaves growing along a dirt path. At her home in Yambiro, Concepción makes a cocoon from the durable leaves and pours in dried maiz. She thanks the Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth for the maiz, sips a bit of water then sprays it onto the seeds. Fuerez, dressed in a traditional Otavalan skirt (anaku) and blouse, folds the leaves together to secure the maiz while her young son, Kuri, looks on. Finally, she places this package into a hole dug in the earth where it will stay for two weeks in order for the kernels to germinate. That’s the beginning of how chicha de jora, or corn beer, is made in Ecuador and most Latin American countries, from Guatemala to Chile.
Well, actually, the beginning starts with the chicha de jora’s star ingredient—maiz.
More on Maiz
Maiz refers to corn, but heirloom; hand-hybridized and crafted over millennia. There are hundreds of different maiz varieties whose kernels are larger, meatier and have a lower sugar content than the industrially designed sweet corn commonly grown in the United States and Canada, and now some parts of South America. Varieties range in color from brown, yellow and white to different shades of blue and red. In southern Ecuador, morocho, a dense, white maiz is often used for chicha de jora. These kinds of kernels form the foundation of not only chicha de jora, but food staples like humitas in Ecuador, arepas in Colombia, tortillas in Guatemala, pozole in Mexico, and … the list is infinite.
This heirloom grain is nothing less than sacred throughout Latin America and Mexico where it was first cultivated 9,000 years ago and where nearly 60 kinds of maiz are still grown. The ancient Maya origin story recounts that the first humans were molded from maiz. The Aztecs worshipped three different maiz deities—Centeotl, Xilonen and Chicomecoatl—one for each stage of the grain’s lifecycle; the Inca worshipped Zaramama, goddess of maiz. Maiz is also a symbol of modern day political and food sovereignty in the region. Sin maiz no hay pais—without corn there is no country, is a common refrain from Chile to Mexico as free trade disrupts traditional food production and consumption systems. This grain is also personal, familial. It’s not an over romanticization to say that Ecuador’s 25 different maiz types have been passed down generationally since pre-Colombian times.
Making Chicha de Jora and Terroir
After two weeks, Concepción digs up the cocoon and opens the leaves. She smiles widely. The maiz has produced a germ: a hura in Kichwa, a word that has morphed into jora in Spanish, Concepcion’s brother, Segundo, tells me. Concepción dries the germinated maiz in the sun for about five days, grinds it into a fine wort, then boils it in a large pot for several hours. Fuerez stirs the mix until no residue floats to the top and most of the water has evaporated. She and her kids add panela (unrefined cane sugar), cinnamon, cloves and fresh lemon verbena, lemon balm and lemongrass. On a different day Concepción may have added fruit, a bit of pineapple or tomate de arbol to sweeten the chicha pot, a common practice in Ecuador and Peru.
From Central America to Chile, women, who traditionally make chicha de jora, may also use several different types of corn, and/or a mix of annual cereals and grains—wheat, barley, quinoa, fava, amaranth—from the family harvest in their particular chicha de jora recipe. This is the appeal of chicha de jora: you taste the terroir, or the particular soil and environment, ingredients and location in which it is produced. Each batch reflects the distinct ecosystem and personality of where it was made and by whom. This is because, with rare exceptions such as Santa Chicha in Ecuador and La Patria in Peru, chicha de jora is still artisanal, homemade by rural Indigenous and mestizo families whose livelihoods are based mainly on farming.
They craft this alcoholic drink on special occasions like Carnaval and the pre-Christian agricultural festivals that mark each solstice and equinox. It’s also prepared for major family celebrations like weddings and baptisms when a pig roast is the typical menu item, my friend Gladys tells me from Ecuador. “I have the best memories of drinking chicha de jora at my mom’s house in the country at the pig roasts. My mom said the roast always tastes better with chicha de jora, so it quenches my thirst and takes me back to the memories of a house full of food and overflowing happiness.” Yes, city and suburban folks do still make the laborious chicha de jora, but always with the ingredients, knowledge and memories garnered from the countryside.
Peru lore likes to give the Incas credit for creating the first batch of chicha de jora. Yet, their contemporary, albeit smaller tribes such as the Kitu, Purua and Cañari in present-day Ecuador were fermenting maiz as far back as 700 A.D., far before the Incan short-lived invasion into Central Ecuador in the 1400s. Further, there’s evidence of chicha vessels in the Andean region that date back to 5000 B.C.
So, What’s it Like?
Concepción and her family strain the cooked wort and pour it into a large clay jug to ferment for two days, allowing it to register a low alcohol content, maybe one or two percent. The flavor takes on the added herbs, fruit and panela, but the underlying texture is tangy, acidic like a nice apple cider with a similar color. This is commonly referred to simply as chicha and anyone can drink this, even kids. Peru’s famous version is chicha morada, made from blue maiz and plenty of fruits. On other occasions, however, the chicha de jora will be left for at least two weeks until it arrives at an intense ferment. In Ecuador this can be anywhere from five to 12 percent ABV, which increases significantly if a bit of sugarcane moonshine is added at the time of serving. Across Ecuador, it is considered a man’s role to serve his family’s homemade chicha freely from a large vessel to all participants during the country’s three-day Carnival festivities and towns’ annual saint day celebrations.
There’s generally no head on chicha de jora, but the texture is thicker than a lager, IPA or cider, and a taste completely distinct from any of these ferments. The mild maiz, local herbs, and unrefined cane sugar are present, but neither is the end product too sweet.
Where to Try Chicha
When the covid clears, the best way to try chicha de jora is by participating in a major festival, like Inti Raymi or Carnaval in Otavalo, Cañar, or Guamote in Ecuador where chicha is widely shared. Josue Moreno from Sereno Moreno in Quito tells me their white (4.5%ABV) and blue maiz (6%ABV) brews are made “100% with maiz, fruit, herbs and spices, without hops or malt.” Santa Chicha is another option, but is only sold in select stores in Quito. BarBarian in Lima, Peru makes what it calls a “modern version of chicha” with corn, quinoa, barley and honey. In the United States, Dos Luces Brewery is really the only brewery that has chicha de jora available year round. Cofounders Judd Belstock and Sam Alcaine produce several enticing chichas de jora, including a traditionally Peruvian style blue corn brew called Chicha Inti. They also serve Lulo Chicha, made with the slightly bitter lulo fruit, called naranjilla in Ecuador.
In addition, Dos Luces produces pulque, a maguey ferment traditional to Mexico. All their beverages are available mainly at their Colorado brewery and a few other establishments around the state.
Avery Brewing, also in Colorado, came out with a special, one-time chicha, Pachamama. Similarly, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery has released a Peru-influenced chicha a few times since it first debuted in 2009. They even masticated some of the germinated blue maiz before the wort was boiled and fermented, a technique often employed in Peru and Bolivia.
For a non-alcoholic chicha, Inca’s Food makes chicha and chicha morada, available online and in certain U.S. supermarkets. Or, you can try your hand at making chicha. There are loads of chicha morada recipes on the internet and plenty of places to order the ingredients. Salud!