The other ancient South American beer

Aug 4 2017

Anthropology prof gives Peruvian molle beer the spotlight on International Beer Day


Dr. Lidio Valdez Cardenas grew up in the Peruvian central highlands where he says that learning to make “chicha”—homemade beer that uses maize or berries from the molle tree—was like learning to make your own breakfast. The anthropology prof’s interest in the fermented beverage was always more personal than professional, however, until he made an interesting archaeological discovery in 2001 at what he originally believed was an ancient Wari burial site.

IMAGE_STORY_Lidio_site_3“We found a very large cut stone and thought it must be the lid of a burial chamber, and that there must be someone very important buried inside,” he explains.

But instead of royalty, Lidio and his team uncovered a network of large cut stones with regularly spaced, foot-long depressions, a series of half-moon–shaped stones and large broken ceramic vessels. It appeared that the slabs and stones were used to grind maize, and the large vessels to boil, cool and ferment beer. But why so much infrastructure?

“One slab would have been enough for a family,” says Lidio. “It's hard to conclude 100 per cent, but this looked like a factory that someone—perhaps the state—used to produce beer on a large scale about 800 to 850 A.D., about seven centuries before the Inca state emerged.”

As Lidio dug a bit deeper into the roots of South American beer production, he realized that maize beer was very well researched—especially by North American academics. But other, cheaper-to-produce and more popular beers—like the molle chicha he grew up with—weren’t included in the literature. 

“ In early colonial times, the people of the Andes thought it was some kind of punishment to drink water... You can’t offer people water. It must be beer.” Lidio Valdez Cardenas 

So Lidio set out to fix that, writing a paper to document molle beer production and the implications for identifying the production of that particular type of beer in archaeological contexts.

“There is a long history of beer making in that region of Peru,” says Lidio. “In early colonial times, the people of the Andes thought it was some kind of punishment to drink water. In Canada, we would ask people visiting our homes if they want water, but not there. You can’t offer people water. It must be beer.”

IMAGE_STORY_Lidio_site_1Things are changing, however, says Lidio. Chicha isn’t as easy to come by these days because people are opting for commercially produced beers. Even so, chances are that Lidio will make at least one batch of chicha while he’s in Peru this summer to set the groundwork for a three-year archaeological project.

Funded by a SSHRC Insight Grant, Lidio’s new research won’t be centred on beer, but rather on uncovering the Inca administrative centre of Tambo Viejo in the town of Acari in southern Peru. The town is growing, explains Lidio, and because it is surrounded by desert, the ancient site is one of the only potential places for expansion.

“There is a good chance that in our lifetime this big Inca site might disappear,” says Lidio. “We want to make sure we can learn as much as possible from it before that happens, and show the town that there is something here we should protect.”

Lidio will be mapping the site this summer in preparation for eight students—four from MacEwan and four from a university in Peru—to join him on a dig in the summer of 2018. And with any luck, those Canadian students will have the chance to experience some traditional Peruvian chicha while they’re there.

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 Chicha basics

Because the raw materials for molle chicha aren’t available in Edmonton, it’s been a couple of years since Lidio made a batch. But that most recent brew was a memorable one. After gathering the molle berries, Lidio filled several large bottles to ferment. He was taking photos to document and share the process, and had his camera ready when two days later he decided to check on its progress.

“As I was opening the bottle, the beer exploded in my face,” he laughs. “It had fermented in just two days.”

The timeline for enjoying molle beer is a tight one, he explains. “You can’t drink it too soon because freshly made beer is so sweet it can trigger headaches. But you can’t keep it for long either—after about four days, the beer starts to become sour and after five days it’s too sour to drink.”

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