More than a thousand years ago the Wari people built a brewery on a remote mountaintop in southern Peru where they brewed enormous batches of chicha, a corn-based beer that they consumed in copious quantities. When the empire’s reign came to an end around 1100 AD, the Wari set fire to the brewery and smashed their ceramic drinking vessels into the ashes of the burning building. Field Museum scientists discovered the remains of the brewery in 2004, and based on analysis of residues from the drinking vessels, learned that the beer was brewed with berries from the Peruvian pepper plant (also called molle berries). This week, Chicagoans will get their first chance to taste a modern version of that ancient beer: Field Museum scientists recently collaborated with brewers from Off Color to create a Wari-inspired beer brewed with Peruvian purple corn and molle berries, which will be released Thursday at a Field Museum event called Hop to It.
The Wari civilization was one of the first empires of the Andes, predating the Incan empire by several hundred years—and according to Ryan Williams, associate curator of anthropology at the Field Museum, “beer was a pretty important part of their imperial strategy.” At Cerro Baul, the mesa on which the brewery was located, the Wari built a city with temples, palaces, and feasting halls, where they would fete lords from ethnic groups they were trying to incorporate into their empire. “The lords would undergo this ritual intoxication, and as part of that would swear their loyalties to the Wari state,” Williams says.
According to Williams, some of the drinking vessels—the ones that would have been given to the most honored lords—were upwards of half a gallon in size, and the beer was probably somewhere between 7 and 10 percent alcohol by volume. “These were some pretty serious parties they were having,” he says.
The chicha, which Williams says was brewed mostly by high-ranking women, wouldn’t have fit our modern definition of beer since the Wari didn’t have hops, wheat, or barley. Nor did they have pasteurization, which meant that they only had about five days to consume the 500-gallon batches they brewed before the chicha went bad.
The Wari-inspired beer that Off Color has created will last much longer than five days; it has the shelf life of any regular beer (which is to say that letting it sit around for months may not improve the flavor, but it won’t make you sick). I asked brewer John Laffler what makes the preservation possible, and he answered with one word: “sanitation.” Breweries these days are much better at controlling spontaneous fermentation and eliminating bacteria that would make the beer go bad.
The other thing that preserves beer, of course, is hops. Off Color did use hops in its Wari Ale, but even that was a learning process. Because the beer is a vibrant pinkish purple, Laffler wanted to package it in clear bottles to show off the color—but that meant he couldn’t use regular hops, which will skunk when exposed to light. Advanced hop products, which are hop extracts that won’t skunk, provided the solution, but Laffler had never worked with them before. “This is fancy science shit, no one in craft brewing really uses it,” he says. Miller High Life, on the other hand, does, so Laffler called up some friends who work there and they gave him suggestions on how to use it.
The molle berries, unlike the hops, turned out to be less intimidating than Laffler expected. “I was like, I don’t know what these are, I doubt we’re going to be able to get a sufficient quantity of this strange berry. Is it poisonous? Do I have to go through an FDA registration process? They’re like, ‘No, you probably know them as pink peppercorns.’ I can buy that from Terra Spice! I need to order coriander anyway.”
The purple corn Off Color used, on the other hand, had to be imported from Peru. “Corn itself has changed over the last thousand years, so it’s not historically accurate, but you do the best you can with modern ingredients,” Laffler says. Baker Miller ground the corn for them, and then the brewers had to separate out the germ, which has oil that would turn the beer rancid (another first for Laffler). Unlike the Wari’s chicha, which was brewed only with corn, Wari Ale is about 30 percent corn; the rest is barley.
Several years ago, Williams was involved in creating an ethnographic reconstruction of the Wari beer—essentially, trying to create an exact replica of the chicha they would have made. “So I’ve actually tasted what we think the real chicha de molle would have tasted like,” he says. Last year, after returning from a research trip to Cerro Baul, he tried Off Color’s first batch of Wari Ale. “I said, this is really close to what we replicated,” he says. “The flavor is not exactly the same as the chicha we made, but it has that same kind of light, delicate flavor, and there’s a uniqueness to it that you can only get from corn and pepper berries.”
Laffler let me taste some Wari Ale from the tank last week, pre-carbonation, and it’s indeed light and delicate. Tart, fruity, and just a bit funky, it’s got some nice notes of berry and lemon—the latter, Laffler says, comes from the lactobacillus culture they added. The corn flavor comes in at the end, followed by a tingling, courtesy of the pink peppercorns, that increases as you drink. At just 3.8 percent ABV, it barely even tastes like it contains alcohol, and goes down as easy as lemonade.
While Laffler is happy with how the beer turned out, once the 60 barrels (about 1,800 gallons) he’s brewed are gone, he’s not planning to make it again. He and his brewers are already on to the next project, another Field Museum collaboration during which they’ll create a beer based on a recipe from ancient China. They’re still kicking around ideas, Laffler says, but the brew will probably involve wild grapes, honey, and rice.
After Wari Ale is released at the Field Museum on Thursday, it will be available at Off Color’s bottle shop on Friday, and arrive at distributors next week. “It’ll be at Binny’s, Whole Foods, fancy liquor stores, and your better beer bar,” Laffler says.
Hop to It, Thu 3/3, 6-9 PM, Field Museum, 1400 S. Lake Shore Dr, fieldmuseum.org, 312-922-9410, $35 ($30 for museum members), 21+