Colombia: Chicha, Fashionable Survivor

(IPS) – Chicha, a traditional homemade brew produced all the way from Mexico to Chile since the days of the Inca, has largely been a rural drink over the centuries. But it is enjoying a new popularity in bars and restaurants in Bogotá and other Colombian cities, as a hip alternative to mass-produced beer.

Chicha, either in its traditional version or modernised with artificial colours and flavours or mixed with beer or other liquors, is all the rage among university students in places like La Candelaria, a historic neighborhood in downtown Bogotá.

"Since colonial times (1550-1810), chicha has had its enemies," Gloria Cecilia Delgado, 55, who spends hours preparing the drink with the formula that she learned from her grandmother and perfected thanks to advice from an indigenous man who visited her little shop around five years ago, told IPS.

But chicha, which packs a strong punch, has always been around, despite periods of prohibition, such as the one decreed in 1820 by independence leader Simón Bolívar when some 50 soldiers died and dozens of others were hospitalised after drinking chicha. (It later came out that the poisoning was deliberate, as part of a plot.)

At any rate, Bolívar’s troops continued to drink the liquor.

So did indigenous people and peasants in every region of the country, from the chilly central highlands to the hot, humid rainforest and tropical plains in the south and east.

Chicha, used since time immemorial in Amerindian rites and festivities, is usually made from corn, but is also produced using cassava or fruit like pineapple or "chontaduro" (palm fruit).

"Chicha doesn’t get you blind raging drunk like its enemies say," states Delgado, a staunch defender of the fermented drink’s nutritional qualities.

Some kinds of chicha are even non-alcoholic.

But Delgado clarifies that chicha has different degrees of fermentation, and the strongest kind "has the effect of aguardiente," a strong anise-flavoured liquor derived from sugar cane.

Justifying their numerous bans on chicha, the authorities argued that it "degenerated" society and made people "depraved," as stated in the book "La ciudad en cuarentena", by Oscar Iván Calvo and Marta Saade.

The argument was that in the "chicherías", basically the equivalent of a local beer joint, peons, craftsmen, Amerindians and people of mixed-race heritage got together to socialise and complain about their excessively long workdays, low pay and poor treatment.

"The elites feared the existence of recreational spaces where the popular social classes, discontented with their poverty, came together," say Calvo and Saade.

In 1905, a campaign against chicha was launched in the schools. But that did not keep it from being produced locally, and in 1921 a new prohibition decree was issued, which some say was a result of the growth of the beer and soft drink industries.

After the start, in 1948, of a decade known simply as "The Violence" in Colombia, triggered by the assassination of popular Liberal Party leader Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, who had a strong following among workers and the poor, chicha was banned once again.

That measure remained in place all the way up to 1991, when the current constitution, which recognises the right to engage in traditional cultural practices, was adopted.

But prohibition was never really successful. The Chicha Festival has been held every October since 1987 in the La Perseverancia neighbourhood in central Bogotá, and in La Candelaria since just a few years after that.

"In La Perseverancia, in Germania – which takes its name from the first beer company, which was installed there – and here in La Candelaria, to mention just three neighbourhoods, people are always drinking chicha," said Delgado. "Which is just how it should be. Why do we have to forget our ancestors?"

"If they had invented whisky, then we would be making whisky," she said with conviction, before boasting that her chicha is well-known, and takes eight days to make.

She said she cooks the corn in an aluminum pot, but still stirs the mixture in a ceramic container, as her grandmother – and later, the indigenous adviser – recommended. One serving costs the equivalent of 50 cents of a dollar.

One of the tricks, she said, is that no one else can help prepare the chicha because the person’s mood, and especially "the love they put into it," has an influence on the flavour.

Delgado still serves the liquor in "totumo" fruit gourds, a traditional indigenous bowl also used to drink "guarapo," a liquor made from sugar cane.

Her shop is located at the entryway to the Chorro de Quevedo, a plaza in the heart of the La Candelaria district.

The area is surrounded by private universities, and draws not only students – who are now connoisseurs of chicha, "without trading in their beer or other drinks," said Delgado – but large numbers of tourists as well.

But around six months ago, chicha began to take on different colours and flavours. Diego Ibáñez, a young man who runs another small shop, decided to add red, green or purple food colouring "that doesn’t change the flavour."

In some batches, however, he also changes the natural flavour by adding "two drops of totuma, anis, raspberry or mint," as well as brown sugar to sweeten it, he told IPS.

He also said he sells chicha in "jirafas", plastic tube-like pitchers, whose price ranges from six to nine dollars, depending on the size. "That makes it more economical for students," said Ibáñez.

"All of the latinos are familiar with chicha, because it is made everywhere, using different products and methods. But the gringos (people from the U.S.) or Europeans aren’t familiar with it, so they sip it cautiously, drinking just one glass," said Delgado. "But if they come back, they drink two or three glasses, without any problem."

Ibáñez said young people often mix it with other spirits because "getting drunk holds a certain fascination after so many years of prohibition."