It was the great actor and raconteur, Peter Ustinov, who advised that there is only one phrase you need to know in any language: my friend is paying – mi amigo esta pagando/a. And it’s particularly useful when enjoying a drink or two in one of Peru’s great bars. So, what’s your poison, tipple or chela (colloquial for beer)? If it’s pisco or wine – please look away now – for my purpose here is to take a long – hard look – or should I say swig – at Peru’s beer scene. Head out to one of Miraflores or Barranco’s nightspots and you’ll find a good choice of ales and lagers, increasingly popular craft beers, and of course chicha morada, the Peruvian purple corn beverage.
What is beer?
But first, what exactly is beer? Well, for one thing, it’s been around for a very long time. The Roman historian Pliny told us that in the 1st Century the Saxons and Celts of England were found drinking beer, which may explain why the Julius Caesar encountered little resistance!
Beer is an alcoholic beverage produced by mixing raw materials such as malt, barley, hops and yeast with water which is then boiled and fermented. While you get the next round in, let me tell you that there are basically two methods of fermentation: traditional top-fermenting when the yeast rises to the surface of the brewing vessel and is then skimmed off to produce ale; and from the mid-15th Century, bottom-fermenting – mostly carried out in the winter months – when the yeast settles at the bottom to produce lager, the German word for store which refers to the storing of bottom-fermented beer in a cold container for drinking in the warm summer months. For those of you who like terminology: Pilsner is actually a type of lager, named after the Czech city of Plzen and containing spicier, hoppier flavours because of the different yeast used. Store that one away for your next pub quiz.
Peruvian beers, unique ingredients
Malt and barley formed the basis of traditional European beers but in Peru the popular base ingredients are quinoa e.g., Cusquena Quinoa; wheat e.g., Wheat Cusco; and malted barley e.g., Red Cusquena. There is also the popular black or dark beer called cerveza negra. The other favourite ingredient is corn, in particular the purple variety that goes into chicha morada. But more of that later. Increasingly beer is now flavoured with fruit, for example, Cerveza Cumbres, a tropical fruit beer which contains passion fruit and aguaymanto, a cape gooseberry or goldenberry, with a hint of lime peel.
Pilsen Callao, Cusqueña, and Cristal are the three most popular beers in Peru. In terms of quality, most Peruvians go for either Pilsen Callao or Cusqueña, with Cristal sometimes thrown into the mix. But beer is very much a matter of individual taste.
Since about 2012, Peru has also seen the emergence of craft or artisanal breweries, often small, independent outfits producing a range of beers in polished metal vats ‘at the back’ with customer seating at the front. My favourite watering hole is the Barranco Beer Company located at Avenida Grau 308 in Barranco which is part brewery, part good pub eatery, and part an ideal venue to watch November’s World Cup …sorry Peru. There are now more than twenty professional craft breweries in the country, including Nuevo Mundo and Barbarian in Lima, Sierra Andina in Huaraz, and Cervecería Amazónica.
Beer and Peruvian customs
Beer drinking is also about law. In terms of the law, the minimum legal drinking age is 18, according to Law 28681. Another notable drinking law is the Ley Seca – literally the ‘dry law’ – a regulation used during national elections. This bans the sale of alcohol for a few days before and during elections, presumably to promote clear-headedness and general order throughout the country.
But beer is also about custom and practice – and I can assure you I’ve been putting in a lot of practice. In terms of custom, a notable aspect of beer drinking in Peru is the use of one glass among the gathered group, which is then passed from person to person, a very cultural interpretation of the proverbial ‘round’. Another custom is for beer drinkers to sprinkle a small amount of beer on the ground before they start drinking as an offering to Pacahamama, mother earth. I confess I’ve been present at the spilling of much beer onto the pub floor but never to mother earth!
How much of this marvellous amber nectar is drunk in Peru? Well, according to Faostat, beer consumption per capita reached 45.1 litres in 2019 in Peru. This is 0.200% more than in the previous year. Historically, beer consumption per capita in Peru reached an all-time high of 45.1 litres in 2019 and an all-time low of 14.0 litres in 1961.
Finally, what about chicha morada, Peru’s very own indigenous beer? This recipe, provided by Scott Mansfield, takes about a week to make, from sprouting to brewing to fermentation. The recipe, here, includes a simple process for making chicha – no spit required! Note: chicha morada is also prepared without fermentation, which you will find in many restaurants in Peru.
- 2 cups dried maíz morada or purple corn, available outside Peru in Latin American food stores
- 1 gallon water
- 2 cups sugar (piloncillo or panela is best)
- 4 cinnamon sticks
- 10 cloves
- 1 lemon, peel and juice
- 1 cup pineapple peel (this has the bacteria and wild yeast that will ferment the liquid)
- Place the corn in a large bowl and cover it with water. Leave it to soak for a day.
- Rinse the corn, then spread onto a clean towel so the kernels are one layer deep. Roll up the towel.
- Place the towel in a large pot and add enough water to soak the towel, but not so much that water is standing in the bottom of the pot. Store at room temperature.
- After four days, unroll the towel. Most of the kernels should have sprouted rootlets that are about as long as the corn kernel, which means some of the starch has been converted to sugar. Rinse the kernels.
- Spread the kernels on a baking sheet or on tin foil and dry them in the oven on low heat until crunchy, about an hour.
Brewing the chicha:
- Put the dried corn in a blender and chop until all the kernels are broken. Alternatively, you can use a rolling pin to crush them or chop them with a knife.
- To a hard-bottomed pot, add a gallon of water, the broken corn, sugar, spices, and lemon peel (but not the pineapple peel). Set to warm. You can also do this in a pot on the stove, but use a thermometer to keep the temperature consistently at 150 degrees for an hour. Remove from heat.
- When the liquid has cooled to room temperature, strain out the solids and add the lemon juice and pineapple peel. Put the lid back on the pot and let it rest at room temperature. Reward yourself with a bottle of beer.
- The liquid in the pot should start fermenting in two or three days. After five days, remove the pineapple peel; the chicha should now be cloudy and fermenting slightly but ready to refrigerate and drink. The longer this ferments, the stronger the alcohol level and the more sour the final chicha will be.
- Finally, ask your friends around…
Whether you’re brewing your own or taking advantage of your local artisanal brewery, the hidden ingredient of beer drinking is not the base ingredient or yeast or superfruit, but the one essential component: a group of friends with whom you can celebrate or commiserate.
 Acknowledgement: Scott Mansfield 24/12/2019 @ https://vinepair.com/. In the past it was customary for all present in the brewing of chicha to spit into the brewing vessel, a custom now very much in the past.