Chicha: Bitter brew of history

One Bogota barrio keeps the chichi-making tradition alive.
One Bogota barrio keeps the chichi-making tradition alive.

If the mortals brewed it, then the Gods consumed it. That, in theory, could sum up the relationship Latin American tribal leaders had with a bitter brew, which over time became the stuff of legend and a strange concoction peddled on the streets of Bogotá.

The Colombian capital has its share of secrets and ‘Chicha’ is one of them. It’s not easy to find, especially one with a time-tested recipe. Beyond the sweetness of the grain, the fermentation process, there’s the popular folklore of a drink which predates the conquest and has been handed down from generation to generation, despite attempts to have it relegated to the scrap heap of liquid history.

In the back alleys, which lead to the stones plaza upon which Bogotá was founded, and near the Chorro de Quevedo fountain, several chicherías operate; name given to not only Chicha vendors, but also the places where the drink is served.

Chicha was the ceremonial drink, which intoxicated the indigenous peoples who inhabited the early settlement of Bacatá, and which evolved into Santa Fé de Bogotá centuries later. Even the colonizing Spaniards, celebrating some feast during their time in Andes, would have fallen for the Chicha’s strange spirit.

The craft of making Chicha changed little over the years, and always involved grinding the maize into a sticky cake, usually between the teeth of women, and with plenty of spit for the fermentation to begin. The art of ancient sweet beer included a clay pot for the keeping of the ground corn and the drink became standard issue refreshment for farmers toiling in the fields.

Chicha became the national drink of the new Republic, and occupied this position until unfortunate events almost razed Bogotá to the ground with the widespread rioting which followed the assasination of Liberal populist leader, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, shot as he stepped out of an office building in downtown Bogotá. For the 40-year chicha drinker José Patiño, a certain disillusionment is associated with the artisanal brew. “Chicha was banned when they assassinated Gaitán. The authorities blamed chicha for the violence of the 9th of Abril 1948.”

But even before the tragic events of the Bogotazo, big business was trying to muscle-in on Chicha’s revered ranking. The Bavaria Brewery, founded by the German immigrant Leo S. Kopp in 1889 had, after a half century of operations, grown into a powerful business and leading employer of working class Bogotanos. The company began to place advertisements in the local press, promoting beer as the better brew of the moment, and one which doesn’t require spit nor the grinding of gums.

Bavaria was set to take control of all drinks fermented, and run a monopoly on maize. Chicha quickly became suspect, and discredited in the media as the drink of the disenfranchised, vagrants, the smelly underbelly of Bogotá. Those who drank Chicha were more likely to fall into vice, commit crimes and gamble away their money, in a drunken stupor. The propaganda campaign worked. Chicha was seen as anti-hygenic, and loathed by the whiskey drinking upper classes.

National issues began to take center stage, such as expanding health coverage and education to the poor. Colombia juggled with its democracy, eventually caving in with its two party system to allow, the military under Gen. Rojas Pinilla to take control of the nation. Chicha was relegated to the rural markets, and banned in the capital. In fact, everything that could be wrong with the underclasses was blamed on Chicha. The brew became “an obstacle to progress.”

And going as far back as 1859, during the first Conservative government of the Granadine Confederation, President Mariano Ospina Rodríguez, issued a decree in which any substance, which could intoxicate the masses, and whose origins were dubious, has to be stopped. The statesmanmost likely had Chicha on his mind.

Although Chicha hasn’t made a comeback, and will most likely remain in the shadows of other brews, a yearly festival takes place in Bogotá which celebrates (under controlled circunstances) the ritual and traditions of the Muisca’s drink. Since 1995, the Festival de la Chicha, has been educating Bogotanos as to the many uses this ancient maize can offer, even its possible future in gastronomy. The 17th edition of the festival was held during May this year.

The festival draws crowds to La Perseverancia (fondly known as ‘La Perse’), a traditional working class neighbourhood which gained notoriety during the Bogotazo as a flash point of liberal resistance. Ten years ago, Juan Carrazco, began to discover the roots of his barrio which were linked to the production of Chicha. “Proud to be ranked amongst the farmers,” Carrazco has kept the oral traditions surrounding Chicha alive, as well as the potency of a drink he still considers sacred.

Doña Lilia is the owner of a small La Perseverancia store describes how Chicha is produced nowadays. “You grind the maize on a stone and put it in a large pot with black panela (raw cane sugar). The mix is covered for 15 days and boiling water is added to the pot. Over eight days, the concoction becomes a brew. Then it is ready to be served.”

Despite the often negative publicity surrounding Chicha, many Bogotanos believe it to be an essential part of their cultural heritage and an artisanal drink which thanks to the perseverance of one city barrio, may prove to bring out the happiness in more than a few.


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