The cultivation of maize, the golden crop of the Americas, had a profound impact in the rise and development of pre-Columbian civilizations. The dietary and cultural preeminence of this staple crop has not diminished in Peru, even 500 years after the Spanish conquest and the eventual demise of the Inca empire.

Chicha de jora, a millenary brew obtained from the fermentation of Peruvian corn or choclo, continues to be prepared artisanally following age-old recipes and methods, especially in the highlands of the Sacred Valley. It is the drink of choice for all types of gatherings and celebrations and a testament to the resiliency of Andean customs and traditions.

The corn harvest as well as the production of chicha have since ancient times been the exclusive task of women, a duty performed under the gaze of Mama Sara, the goddess of maize.

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The Myth of Mama Sara

In the days of the Inca Empire lived a beautiful young woman, fervently devoted to Inti, the sun god. Her name was Mama Sara, and her highest aspiration was to enter the Aqllawasi where a few chosen women, the Virgins of the Sun, lived cloistered lives in service to this most powerful of Incan deities.

The one obstacle standing in the way of Mama Sara’s spiritual quest was Kuro, a high priest, who had other ideas for her. Kuro wanted to marry Mama Sara, but his courtship inspired in her only fear and rejection. Her parents, however, were flattered by Kuru's predilection for their daughter and gave their approval. Feeling she could not escape this unwanted suitor and in despair, Mama Sara pled for Inti to come to her aid.

As she voiced her prayers and invocations, she started feeling a warm and sweet sensation all over her body. Entranced, Mama Sara raised her arms which had begun stretching towards the sun and mutating into long green leaves. Her legs grew strong roots that burrowed deep into the ground. Her slender body became thinner still, and then the transformation was complete. Mama Sara was now a tall, hardy, and radiant cornstalk, the goddess of maize.

In the
Sacred Field
of Maize

Our own spiritual quest brought my wife Lorena and I to an 18th century farmhouse in the Sacred Valley. The house, like most colonial constructions in the region, had been built on top of the foundations of an ancient Inca stone structure. Behind the farmhouse, a huge rock face ascends to the Huchuy Qosqo, an Inca citadel. The farm itself is administered by an indigenous commune that grows maize.

Walking through the cornfields on a sunny October afternoon, we came across a group of farm hands tending the crops. Two women amongst them invited us to to take a chicha break.

Intrigued, we followed them to where the larger group was getting settled under the shade of a leafy grove. Putting down their spades and hoes, these women—and a few men—sat down to relax, chatter, playfully banter and, just as people in the region have been doing for millennia, share their chicha de jora.

Pouring from large decanters into a cup, they offered us the first serving. For untrained palettes like ours, chicha tasted surprisingly flavorful and sweet, with a tanginess that reminded us of kombucha. The drink has a high nutritional value and an enjoyable, mildly intoxicating effect.

In between cups of chicha, these women were eager to share stories that had been passed on from generation to generation since time immemorial.

The Birth
of Chicha de Jora

During the reign of Tupac Yupanqui, a major rainstorm pierced the roof of one of the royal silos in the city of Cuzco where corn was stored after the harvest had been completed. When the silo was opened, they found out the grains had absorbed great amounts of water.

To avoid wasting tonnes of maize, Yupanqui ordered that it be quickly distributed to the population.

Most people did not consume this soggy cereal and looked at it with great disdain. Only after a few days, someone decided to try out the liquid that had accumulated at the bottom of the vat. Surprised by this strange substance’s agreeable flavour, he drank more.

As he was drinking, he realized that he was being overcome by a very pleasant sensation. He drank more and kept on drinking until he passed out. The next day, he shared his discovery with his closest acquaintances, and soon the whole town was drinking it. From that day on, chicha’s popularity grew and quickly spread to every corner of the empire.

Walking the cobblestoned streets of Ollantaytambo, an ancient Inca town continuously inhabited since the days of the empire, something caught my eye. Back in Cusco, a few days before, I had noticed these same strange contraptions at the entrance to otherwise nondescript buildings.

This particular device consisted of a very long stick topped by a ball made out of bright red plastic bags. In other cases, at the end of the stick I had seen red pieces of fabric or a red bucket. As I was to find out, these are the distinctive markings of a chicha speakeasy, a chicheria.

A chicherias is part social club, part brewery and part watering hole; it’s a place for family gatherings, community events, or simply afterwork drinks. Patrons at the chicheria all drink from the same cup, usually a tall half-liter glass, underscoring their deep sense of community as well as their connection to the land and ancestral heritage.

Germinated maize in a bed of local plants.
Crafting Chicha

Chicha de jora is prepared by first collecting the maize, washing it, drying it, and manually threshing it. The maize is soaked in water inside a clay pot called tinaja, then germinated in a bed of local plants, such as chilca, sauco, or aliso, that are overlapped to form a protective surface for the grain. It is covered with yet more layers of leaves and flattened with heavy stones. This process takes eight to fifteen days.

Traditionally, the soaked and germinated maize was chewed and spat back into the vat. Digestive enzymes help convert starches into the sugars needed for fermentation to take place, a practice that has largely been discontinued. With or without the chewing and spitting, the germinated kernels are then dried again for seven days.

(LEFT) Kernels drying after germination / (RIGHT) Three stages of corn

(LEFT) Boiling to extract wort / (RIGHT) Tinajon

This malted corn is then ground with a batán, a flat stone that crushes the grain and presses it into a heavy cylindrical stone. The wort is then extracted through boiling. The dry, grounded jora is cooked in an open wood fire among other ingredients that can be added to enhance taste, such as toasted grains, chancaca (unrefined sugar cane), orange peel, plantain peel, or herbs.

After about two hours, the boiled wort is removed from the fire and is ready to be set in earthenware vats to ferment.

This process can take between a week to a month, depending on the desired strength.

Ground malted corn

Chicha de jora does not have a long shelf life and is always prepared fresh on site. The potency of the brew depends on fermentation time and its intended usage.

Peru is a modern, vibrant, and diverse nation with a rich variety of food and drink, including European imports. But it would be a sure bet that in the highlands, folks will continue to flock to chicherias for generations to come. And women will continue to work the ancestral cornfields, share their chicha, and pass on their stories and recipes—all under the benevolent and devoted regard of the goddess of maize.

Lorena Sánchez began her career behind the lens in her native Bogotá, where she specialized in street portraiture and the underground music scene. After moving to New York City ten years ago, she completed her photography studies at the School of Visual Arts (SVA). Passionate for travel, Lorena’s eye has been focusing on photographing out-of-the-grid communities and collaborative societies. These include series on Colombia’s LLanero cow herders and the California Desert outcast community of Slab City.

Jorge Luis Rodriguez is a TV news producer based in New York City, working for United Nations Television. His work has taken him to many of the world’s hotspots, where he has covered issues ranging from international peace and security to natural disasters. He spent six months in West Africa documenting the international response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2015. During his career, he has interviewed dozens of international newsmakers, including political figures, scientists and business leaders, as well as many artists and celebrities. In 2018 he authored and published the graphic novel “Partagás, Los Últimos Días de la Dictadura.”