Chicha, the Beer that Made the Incas Famous
Chicha, a kind of beer made from malted corn, has been brewed continuously in much of South America since Inca times, in the fifteenth century. It's traditionally made by women and only served in humble chicharias (private homes or simple shops) rather than bars or restaurants.
In Cusco and the Sacred Valley a chicharia announces itself by hanging a red or blue bag on a broomstick or some other kind of wooden pole. When I was staying in Ollantaytambo I noticed a chicharia right on the main plaza and decided to go in for an adventure. I entered a courtyard, and at the left I saw an entrance to a little place where a bunch of old people in tradtional local garb were sitting. "Ay chicha aqui?" I asked.
"Si, si," someone said and motioned me in. I was served a big (maybe 20-oz.) glass of the cloudy yellow brew and told the cost was 50 centimos (about 17 cents). I sat down and started drinking my chicha.
The flavor of chicha is tart. I've seen it described as cider-like. The flavor reminded me a bit of a coarser version of a Belgian witbier. I noticed the other drinkers swirling their glasses around. This is to keep the corn sediment dispersed throughout the drink, so it doesn't settle completely to the bottom of the glass. Chicha is fairly low in alcohol (average 2%), so people drink many large glasses to get a buzz on.
An old lady, who may have been the co-proprietress, asked me, "De donde es?"
She seemed impressed. She looked at the others. "Nueva York!" she said.
This woman did most of the talking. My Spanish isn't very good, and I had a hard time understanding her through her semi-toothless abuela diction. I probably got about 30% and just nodded a lot. At one point I said (in Spanish), "In New York we don't have chicha. Only beer."
"Do you have corn in New York?" she asked.
"Yes," I said, "but only to eat. Not to drink."
For more about chicha, see Bill Ridgely's excellent article.