American archaeologists have discovered the oldest known brewery in the Andes, an ancient complex in the mountaintop city of Cerro Baul where priests turned pepper tree berries into a fiery brew called “chicha” that was used for ritual feasting and other purposes.
Cerro Baul, 8,000 feet above sea level and 250 miles south of Cuzco in Peru, was built by the Wari empire, which predated the Incas by at least four centuries. The mountaintop retreat provided a home for the empire’s elite rulers from about A.D. 600 to 1000, when it was abruptly abandoned.
The brewery was destroyed in what researchers believe was a ceremonial fire that, ironically, preserved it in relatively good condition for the team from Chicago’s Field Museum and the University of Florida to discover.
The team unearthed more than 20 large (10- to 15-gallon) preparation vats in which a slurry of local grains, fruit and water was boiled over a fire of llama and guinea pig dung. The resultant sugary mash was then transferred to fermenting jars, where it was converted to chicha in about five to seven days.
“It was an elaborate brewery that produced massive amounts of chicha,” said Patrick Ryan Williams of the Field Museum. “This was not a home-brewing operation.”
The process is similar to that used by later societies to make beer from barley and hops, but the taste of the brew was quite different. Project botanists are attempting to re-create the drink.