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Field Museum Researchers Remade A 1,000-Year-Old Peruvian Beer After Analyzing Ceramic Artifacts

An ale inspired by the ancient beer will be released in Chicago stores and bars this summer.

Chicha would have been served in ceramic drinking vessels (left). It was drunk at Cerro Baul, a city in the Wari Empire.
Field Museum/Provided
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MUSEUM CAMPUS — Researchers from the Field Museum recreated a millennia-old beer so they could understand how the brew helped keep a South American empire together.

Two decades ago, the researchers — Ryan Williams and Donna Nash — found the ancient brewery where the beer, or chicha, was made. The brewery is a remnant of the Wari Empire, which stretched across Peru between the years 600 and 1100. As it turns out, chicha played an important role in maintaining the Wari Empire’s stability, according to the researchers’ newly released study.

Hoping to learn more about chicha, the researchers analyzed ceramic vessels from the brewery. (Here’s where the study gets really, really cool.)

The researchers shot a laser at part of a beer vessel, which allowed them to get a speck of the vessel’s material, according to the Field Museum. They then heated that speck until it was as hot as the surface of the sun to break down the molecules that formed the ceramic.

That information helped the researchers see what elements made up the vessel, where the clay to make it came from and what chicha was made of.

“We’re counting atoms in the pores of the ceramics or trying to reconstruct and count the masses of molecules that were in the original drink from a thousand years ago that got embedded into the empty spaces between grains of clay in the ceramic vessels, and that’s what’s telling us the new information about what the beer was made of and where the ceramic vessels were produced,” Williams said, according to the Field Museum. “It’s really new information at the molecular level that is giving archaeologists this new insight into the past.”

After that, they started brewing.

The researchers worked with Peruvian brewers and the project was led by Nash. Their research showed chicha was made from pepper berries, which can still grow during droughts, ensuring the empire had a steady supply of beer.

It took the team five days to sprout corn needed for the chicha and then three days to dry it before they could grind it, Williams told Block Club. Another day was spent on boiling, straining and starting to ferment the corn- and molle-based chicha.

Fermentation took five days and then the chicha was ready to be served, Williams said.

The team brewed three types of chicha: corn, pepper berry and mixed.

“The pepper berry was sweet, light and refreshing,” Williams said.

The recreation wasn’t just done to see what chicha tasted like, though; it helped the researchers better understand the Wari.

“The experimental process was conducted in order to obtain controlled ceramic samples to compare the archaeological samples to that represented known production processes of certain types of chicha,” Williams said. “They were also interested in defining how all the ingredients in chicha production are represented once the process is over, from fuel to plant ingredients, to compare with archaeological evidence.”

Among the team’s findings: Chicha was light and sour and was only good for about a week, meaning it couldn’t travel, according to the Field. That meant people had to come to Cerro Baúl — the Wari city where the brewery was found — to enjoy chicha during festivals.

The festivals would draw 100-200 political elites, according to the researchers. They’d drink chicha from 3-foot-tall ceramic vessels that were designed to look like gods and political leaders.

“We think these institutions of brewing and then serving the beer really formed a unity among these populations, it kept people together,” Williams said. “People would have come into this site, in these festive moments, in order to recreate and reaffirm their affiliation with these Wari lords and maybe bring tribute and pledge loyalty to the Wari state.”

There’s a way for Chicagoans to get a hint of what chicha was like, too: The Field Museum worked with Off Color Brewing to develop a beer based on Nash’s chicha. The beer, called Wari Ale, is a pink ale made with pepper berries.

Wari Ale isn’t an exact replica of chicha, but it is a “chicha-inspired ale,” Williams said. It will be released in Chicago stores and bars in June.

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