How do you maintain a vast nation connected by foot traffic? Alcohol.
May 1, 2019 7:55 PM   Subscribe

The Wari civilization ( flourished in Peru between c. 450 and c. 1000 CE., before the Inca. Their superior management of the land also helped them resist the 30-year drought period which during the end of the 6th century CE contributed to the decline of the neighbouring Nazca and Moche civilizations. They held together their territory with military might, and alcoholic festivals. Archaeologists have been trying to recreate that Schinus molle-based recipe from their brewery-busting bash (Science Friday, 2016; audio with brief text summary), after studying Schinus Molle L. (Anacardiaceae) Chicha Production in the Central Andes (BioOne Complete, 2004; paywalled).

More recently, laser ablation mass spectrometry has been used to further evaluate pottery fragments for past contents to get the recipe just right, as reported in the article Archaeometric Approaches to Defining Sustainable Governance: Wari Brewing Traditions and the Building of Political Relationships in Ancient Peru (Sustainability, 2019; open access). The sustainable aspect is the fact that the Peruvian peppertree (Wikipedia) berries are a more drought-tolerant crop than corn, allowing for alcohol production even in dry years [via Ars Technica].

Here's a bit more from the Chicago Reader on the sour beer recently made in the style of the Wari's chicha, as mentioned in the Science Friday article: The Field Museum and Off Color Brewing have made a beer using 'fancy science shit' and a thousand-year-old recipe (Beer Advocate's page on the "Wari" brew). Dogfish Head also makes (or made) a semi-authentic Chicha.

And for more on this general topic: A Marked Preference: Chicha de molle and Huari State Consumption Practices, a scholarly article by Nawpa Pacha, on
posted by filthy light thief (5 comments total) 31 users marked this as a favorite
I didn't know till recently that the great civilizations of the Andes waxed and waned radically, most likely due to the effects of El NiƱo.

Hugh Thomson's Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru is an excellent 101-style introduction to precolonial Andean civilizations. It also introduces some fascinating Andeanists past and present. The book occasionally engages in some "othering," as is to be expected from someone of European descent, but on the whole it's a very readable survey. Most of all, the material is like nothing else I've ever read.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 4:14 AM on May 2 [2 favorites]

From the Chicago Reader piece:
Nor did they have pasteurization, which meant that they only had about five days to consume the 500-gallon batches they brewed before the chicha went bad.
posted by XMLicious at 4:26 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]

That seems.. odd. The same article says the beer was probably between 7 and 10 percent ABV; wouldn't that alcohol keep it from going bad? Once the alcohol level is that high, it surprises me that "going bad" is much of a possibility; I would think it could last for months? Obviously the only solution here is to get some purple corn and try this myself
posted by Greg Nog at 6:01 AM on May 2

If you want to do so, you're sort of in luck. Donna Nash described most of the steps to brew your some version of your own chicha in the Science Friday segment, and it goes a little something like this:
  1. Get dried corn, peel from the cobs (dried corn is sold on the cobs in Peru, possibly elsewhere, too)
  2. Soak the corn for 2 days
  3. Wrap in a blanket and let the seeds germinate
  4. Moisten the kernels twice a day for 5 days, allowing the kernels to sprout (which releases certain enzymes to help with fermentation)
  5. Re-dry kernels, then ground them into flour
  6. Fill clay pots with water, bring to a boil (to be really authentic, use adobe bricks, wood and llama dung)
  7. Mix corn flour with a bit of boiling water, to the consistency of thick pancake batter, and pour into a boiling pot of water (this is what she said, but it's unclear why you'd make a thick mix to then dilute)
  8. [And let it sit? The host jumped back in at this point, and I feel like Donna was going to say more]
The odd thing is that this process does not include those pink pepperberries, which is the whole point of the Wari's brew. Pepperberries are resilient to drought, where corn is not. But I haven't been able to find any better recipe.
posted by filthy light thief at 7:22 AM on May 2 [1 favorite]

wouldn't that alcohol keep it from going bad? Once the alcohol level is that high, it surprises me that "going bad" is much of a possibility

Yeah, I don't understand the remark about pasteurization. The linked Sustainability paper shows ample evidence that the mash was boiled during production, so it would have been basically sterile at that moment. That's as close as most beer gets to pasteurization. After that it's a matter of putting the basically sterile liquid into sterile containers, then relying on alcohol and preservatives (i.e. hops) to keep anything untoward from growing.

But without hops or refrigeration, plenty of unwholesome or at least unpalatable things can grow in 7-10% ABV beer. Unhopped ale (as was typical in Europe until the 13th century and England until the 15th-16th) typically starts to go sour in 1-2 weeks depending on storage conditions and then gets progressively grosser after that. For that reason, making ale was a weekly task, similar to making bread. The 5 day shelf life estimate seems reasonable, although I do wonder what kind of vinegar it would make if you let it go.
posted by jedicus at 1:21 PM on May 2 [2 favorites]

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