Concocting Modern-Day Chicha De Molle
Towering 2,000 feet above its surroundings in the southern Peruvian Andes, the Cerro Baúl mesa stands alone in a sun-baked, arid mountain zone. It was here that the Wari culture, a mighty empire that predated the Incas, built a colony—and a massive brewery.
Anthropologists Donna Nash and Ryan Williams, a husband-and-wife team who have excavated in the area, reckon that the brewery was capable of pumping out 500-gallon batches of pepperberry-flavored corn beer, or chicha de molle.
The Wari eventually abandoned the site, but before they did, they held an elaborate ceremony, drinking, feasting, burning buildings, and smashing their clay beer cups. Nash and Williams are now piecing together the remains of that final celebration to recreate the Wari’s ancient recipe for chicha.
Ryan Williams was one of the lead researchers on the recent Cerro Baúl excavations. He’s an Associate Curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois.
Donna Nash is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro, North Carolina.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. A bit later in the hour, we’re going to talk about the encryption debate and not just about the Apple case.
It was a big debate in the 90s about the clipper chip. Remember that? It was the attempt to put a backdoor into a lot of electronic devices. Well, we’re going to see how far we’ve come since then.
But first, if I throw a big bash, birthday party maybe. The next day you wake up, head throbbing, afraid of what sort of mess you’re going to find when you stumble out into the kitchen. Empty bottles, cups everywhere, dirty dishes, overflowing trash. Maybe a few broken glasses.
Well, I want you to imagine you coming across that same scene, but way up on the top of a mountain in the Peruvian Andes, and the party ended, well, over 1,000 years ago. Can you still find any of that stuff? Well, my next guests have dug around the remains of that ancient celebration, now an archeological site, and in doing so, they have uncovered an unusual recipe for the local home brew of the day. Donna Nash is an associate professor of Anthropology at the University of North Carolina in Greensboro. She joins us from WCMC in North Carolina. Welcome to Science Friday.
DONNA NASH: Hi.
IRA FLATOW: Hi there. Ryan Williams is one of the lead researchers on the recent Cerro Baul excavations in Peru and associate curator of Anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago. Welcome to Science Friday.
RYAN WILLIAMS: Hi, Ira.
IRA FLATOW: I want you home brewers aficionados of ancients time here you are you. Do you want to know what the recipe for that brew is? Give us a call. Our number is 844-724-8255. 844-SCITALK, or you can tweet us @SCIFRI.
And we also have an infographic and pictures of the site up on our website at sciencefriday.com/peru. Let me begin with talking about this ancient brew. Ryan, give us a little idea– an introduction to the culture that we’re talking about. Who were the Wari people?
RYAN WILLIAMS: Well, the Wari were one of the earliest expansive states in the Andes. They emerged in the central highlands of Peru some time before 600 AD. And at the height of their reign, they actually held sway over an area 800 miles along the Andes. That’s kind of the same distance as between New York City and Jacksonville, Florida today.
So that’s a really big expanse of land that they have covered. And of course, and counted all these different tribal groups and ethnic groups of different peoples that were incorporated into their realm. And the beer story is one that plays a lot in terms of understanding how they did that.
IRA FLATOW: And Donna, give us an idea of where Cerro Baul is located. I was looking on a map– it’s at the top of this really forbidding-looking mesa. I mean, unusual place to put a big brewery, isn’t it?
DONNA NASH: It is, but the Wari, as an empire, like to do expensive and elaborate things, and building a citadel on top of a mesa is one example of the kind of expense they went to as part of their empire. And they’re really trying to you know I was going to say they were really [AUDIO OUT] their neighbors by putting a brewery on top of this isolated mountain with no natural source of water, no food. They were trying to show off.
IRA FLATOW: They were? How much did they actually make of the brewed stuff?
DONNA NASH: Well, based on the remains we found, a single batch could be about 500 gallons of beer at once.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Did they make it for everyday use or was it for special parties or what did they do with all that stuff they were making?
DONNA NASH: Well, It does look as though they probably were drinking some amount of beer– we call it chicha on a daily basis. However, this size of batch was probably reserved for special occasions. Perhaps calendar events, celebrations associated with the solstices or equinoxes or other events. Marriages, weddings, funerals, and also special meetings. This site is on a frontier, and so they would have had to regularly negotiate with their powerful neighbors to the south, the Tiwanaku.
IRA FLATOW: Ryan, I should mention, this is not a true beer, right, as we would be drinking today? It’s called something like chica?
RYAN WILLIAMS: Chicha–
IRA FLATOW: Chicha?
RYAN WILLIAMS: Chicha is the word that we use to describe fermented grains or fruit products or other things that were found in the Native Americas. In this case, we have some evidence that the chicha was made from the Peruvian pepper berry, which is the Schinus molle plant, which has this very unique small seed. You may even have experienced seeing a Peruvian pepper in some of the– it’s an adulterated pepper that sometimes comes in those multicolored peppercorns.
And corn. Corn is one of the most famous types of chicha. You can get corn chicha pretty much anywhere in Peru today if you want to go and try it. But they’ve mashed the corn and they create a brew out of that or out of a number of other different products. The Wari seemed to be especially enamored with this Peruvian pepper berry chicha, though, because we find tons and tons of dregs of these pepper berries that have been booted out of the brewing process, the discards, and they’re all over the place around the brewery.
IRA FLATOW: Donna, you actually led a team of local Peruvian women in recreating the beer, using–
DONNA NASH: Yes.
IRA FLATOW: Clay pots and trying to make it is the same way they did?
DONNA NASH: Well, one of our goals was to have residues in the fabric of ceramic vessels so that we could compare that chemical residue with the actual archeological vessels we have recovered from the brewery. But we also wanted to see all the steps in the process. And so together with a few students from UNCG as well as some local women, we collected corn, we picked the molle berries ourselves, and we went through the different steps in the process, which takes almost a month if you do it the traditional way.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And when you recreated it, did it match the kind of residue that you found on the site?
DONNA NASH: It looks as though we’re pretty close.
RYAN WILLIAMS: Yeah, we’ve actually done some early chemical residue tests on some of the archeological ceramics, and we’re matching that to the ceramics, the ethnographic stuff that Donna has experimented with, and we do find some biochemical markers. Our colleagues Ruth Ann Armitage at Eastern Michigan University, and Josh Hank at University of Illinois at Chicago have done some archeological chemistry work with this, and it looks like we may have those biomarkers showing that the Peruvian pepper berry was part of the brew, part of the liquid that was held in both jars.
IRA FLATOW: Can you give us a recipe for all our home brewers who might like to make this at home? Can you give it a try?
RYAN WILLIAMS: We can try to give it a try here. Maybe I’ll have Donna do that, since she’s the one that did the experimental brew for us to begin with.
DONNA NASH: Well, the very first thing you want to do is get dried corn. In Peru, they actually sell dried corn still on the cobs. So the first step we had to kind of peel all those kernels off. And then you soak the corn in water for two days. And after you do that, you have to wrap it in a blanket and let the seeds germinate.
And what we also had to do was kind of moisten the kernels twice a day, every day for five days. This allows the corn kernels to sprout, and that sprout is really important because it releases certain enzymes that facilitates fermentation later down the road. Once it sprouted, we laid it all out to dry. And once it was dry, then all that corn was ground into a flour. Once you have that flour, then you’re ready for brewing day.
And basically what the ladies did was they took the clay pots, filled them with water, brought that to a boil. And we were trying to recreate the situation on Cerro Baul as much as possible, so we created fires using adobe bricks, and we used wood and camelid dung– llama dung to feed the fires. And once the water came to a boil, they mixed that corn flour with a little bit of water, basically to the consistency of thick pancake batter, and they pour that into the boiling pot of water.
IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Go ahead. Keep going. This is not an easy thing to do at home.
DONNA NASH: No, it takes a lot.
IRA FLATOW: Especially getting the dung part, I think.
DONNA NASH: It took us all day to do. Well, luckily for us, llamas pick a spot. They all go in the same spot. That actually wasn’t that difficult to collect.
IRA FLATOW: You guys collaborated with a brewery in Chicago, right? The Off Color Brewing, to make a sort of recreation of this chicha for the modern day palette. Tell us about that. How does it taste?
RYAN WILLIAMS: It is. It’s pretty good. It’s got a little bit of a sour taste to it. It does use the purple corn and the Peruvian pepper berries, which have been imported from Peru. But it’s also a beer, so it has hops and a barley malt.
So it’s inspired, not a recreation of this exact recipe. But it’s for sale right now in places around Chicago, and you can go try it on tap at the Field Museum’s bistro, if you’re so inclined. And we have a great fun. We took over about a year to develop that project with Off Color, and we’re really happy that it came out and people can actually now have a taste of Wari.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Do you have any idea why they abandoned this mesa? What happened to the Wari empire? Any–
RYAN WILLIAMS: Well, we do know what happened to the brewery around 1,000 AD when the Wari abandoned the site. All the elaborate drinking vessels that they had created were smashed into burning flames. They burnt down the entire brewery and then made little offering deposits, kind of ritually closing it so no one else could use it.
Why they left is a big mystery still. There are some people who argue that drought played a role in the end of the middle horizon empires that Wari and the Tiwanaku. There are others who claim that it was kind of internal factionalism. But we do know that they left with a big bang when they abandoned the brewery on the mountaintop.
IRA FLATOW: So there’s still a lot to be learned about the Wari people. Mysteries remaining about them?
RYAN WILLIAMS: Absolutely, absolutely. And we continue our excavations at the site. We are planning to go back in May and learn something new about the ancient peoples and how they managed to thrive in such a great empire for so long.
IRA FLATOW: Wow. Quite fascinating. You excited too, Donna?
DONNA NASH: Yes. We’ll be working on a village nearby the site because not only do we want to learn about the people who are making the beer, but we want to learn about the agriculturalists and the herders and all the people that supplied the resources that went into it.
IRA FLATOW: Thank you both very much. Quite fascinating. Donna Nash, associate professor of anthropology, University in North Carolina in Greensboro. And Ryan Williams, who is part of that excavation. Associate curator of anthropology at the Field Museum in Chicago.