Old Family Recipe — Really, Really Old

UF anthropologists collaborate to recreate an ancient Peruvian beer.

By Rachel Wayne
Although resurrecting dinosaurs isn’t possible, there is still hope for beer. Over the past two decades, archaeologists from the University of Florida have collaborated with Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History on a 1,400-year-old Peruvian site. In 2004, the team excavated an ancient mountaintop brewery—a major ceremonial site of the Wari, predecessors to the Inca. The Wari, who thrived between 100 and 600 CE, brewed a distinctive beer from maize. Now, the Field Museum, with assistance from Off Color Brewing, has brewed the Wari recipe to produce a vivid pink beer.

Chicha de jora, or corn beer, is still common throughout South America, and in each region involves unique rituals and roles in its preparation. The Wari added molle berries from a native Peruvian evergreen tree called Schinus molle. The molle berries were thought to have healing properties and brought a delightful sweetness to the beer.

In many societies, there was a distinctive subculture surrounding brewers. For the Wari, the purpose of brewing was more than simple production of libations; the brewery, atop a remote mesa 2,000 feet high, was a demonstration of power against the rival empire, the Tiwanaku, and a gathering place for the Wari’s allies. “This is the only place where two empires were making face-to-face contact — it’s both defensible and very impressive,” explains Mike Moseley, distinguished professor of anthropology at UF, in an article published in Explore Magazine in 2005.

In 1981, Moseley co-founded a research consortium to map and excavate the mesa, called Cerro Baúl, while serving as curator of the Field Museum. The archaeological collaboration between the Field Museum and UF began in 1997 and focused on the Wari site at Cerro Baúl (“trunk hill,” so named for the treasure kept there). The Wari (not to be confused with contemporary Wari’) began to thrive in the sixth century, occupying most of modern-day Peru. They turned Cerro Baúl into their citadel, complete with sophisticated terracing, irrigation systems, roads, and, of course, the brewery.

The rooms could produce 1,500–2,000 liters, or 396–528 gallons, of chicha. That’s enough to give a pint each to 3,000–4,000 people.

UF and the Field Museum excavated two rooms of the brewery that covered 200 square meters of the site. The fermenting room could hold up to 20 55-liter vessels that held the wort over fires. The Cerro Baúl brewery is the earliest known brewery of its size, but was likely larger and encompassed gathering places for the festivals. Examination of ceramics found at the site showed traces of molle berries. The rooms could produce 1,500–2,000 liters, or 396–528 gallons, of chicha. That’s enough to give a pint each to 3,000–4,000 people. As such, the beer was brewed for festivals that affirmed ally relationships with neighboring empires. Because the drinking cups recovered at the site held a liter, or about two pints, of liquid, the brewery was likely larger to meet demand.
Moseley, with professor of anthropology Susan deFrance, also excavated ancient shawl pins from the brewery floor. The discovery indicated that elite women were the brewers, and thus, women held significant political power in the Wari empire.

Cerro Baúl appears to have been ritually abandoned around 1000 CE. The Wari’s exodus included a ceremonial dumping of chicha-related artifacts, including shawl pins and chicha cups. Evidence points to socioeconomic struggles in the face of prolonged drought that forced the Wari to leave. They returned on an unknown date, but were conquered by the Inca in 1475 CE. However, because the Wari sealed off many parts of the citadel upon departure, much of Cerro Baúl remains well-preserved — an exciting venue for archaeological discovery about this early Peruvian empire.