Thursday, September 24, 2009

Corn and Spit, and Memories

Via KC Hophead, I learned that Dogfish Head Brewery is producing Chicha.

Chicha is a corn-based beer created when people chew corn, spit it out, let it dry, then mix it with water, boil it, let it ferment, and then drink it. I know, I know, it sounds more like a fraternity hazing ritual than a real beverage, but it's popular in the Andes.

A few years ago, I was in Bolivia on a service trip, and I really wanted to taste chicha. It seemed wrong to visit a country and not partake of one of the core experiences. Leonardo, our guide, was having nothing of it, though, because he told us the chicha parlors were dangerous, disorderly places where drunk Bolivians might want to take on a conspicuous, non-Spanish-speaking, non-Quechuan-speaking American. Given the near-incident that involved brandy, a drunken man, the "Girls of the Mountain" and Abba, I can't claim that he was being completely unreasonable.

Chicha was served in little huts and shacks on the side of the roads, and advertised by small white flags on long poles to announce that fresh chicha was available. When I saw a flag flying near the place we were staying, I told the guide that I was going to pay a visit, with or without him. I reasoned that for almost 2 weeks, I had been the largest person within eyesight; even if some chicha-soaked rowdy wanted a piece of me, I felt confident I could extricate myself and anyone who wanted to be in my posse.

Leonardo and Robin accompanied me to the local chicha shack at around 4 in the afternoon.

I don't know how rowdy the places get at night, but we were the only customers there. The proprietess was a tiny - I mean maybe 4 or 4 and a half feet tall - wrinkled old woman who looked like she would be whipped in a cage-match with Mother Theresa. There was also a chicken running around the place, scratching around on the dirt floor. There seemed to be no electricity, and the woman dipped a pitcher of chicha out of a repurposed industrial barrel, and brought it to us with a drinking gourd. It cost 12 cents for a pitcher, and, apparently, you could negotiate discounts if you were drinking multiple pitchers.

You don't just drink chicha. Before partaking, you pour a little from the gourd onto the dirt floor, as a respectful offering to Pachamama, the goddess of the good earth. I forgot to spill once, and earned a scowl from the old woman.

As for taste, to be honest, taste was such a tiny part of the entire experience that I neglected to taste with my entire attention. I was surprised how much it tasted like one of the wild-yeast-fermented non-fruited lambics of Belgium, thought it was a bit sweeter. It was only mildly carbonated, and the gourd was not an ideal vessel for careful observation of color, but I would say it was light-colored, kind of like a yeasty Belgian Wit. I don't think it was highly alcoholic, though it certainly was not a weak beverage; it seemed to be at about the same strength as a typical beer, or perhaps slightly weaker.

It is a strange experience to taste something without knowledge of what it is "supposed" to taste like. Given my knowledge of how the brew was traditionally produced, the scant rafts of foam floating on top were a bit of a hurdle to enjoyment, though my intellect knew they were carbonation and not remnants from the little old lady's brewing process.

On the day we departed Bolivia, Leonardo presented me with two of the only bottled examples of chicha that I saw. They were in brown plastic liter bottles, and labeled "Chernobyl Chicha". I stuffed them into my luggage and got them back to the States without having to explain them to anyone, for which I was grateful. By the time I drank them, they were more cidery and lacked the liveliness of the chicha I drank with a chicken at my feet.

Our best food and drink experiences have more to do with experience than taste.

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Anonymous Nuke said...

Dude, great story! It doesn't necessarily excite me to try corn-spit beer but, that is a kick ass drinking story.

9/24/2009 9:16 AM  
Blogger KC Hop Head said...

Great story. I keep a top 5 beer list and a couple of them wouldn't be in most top 5 lists because of the environment and experience in which I drank them in.

9/25/2009 8:03 AM  

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