The Amerindian beers and the psychoactive plants.Article 18 of 18


The mystery of the Amerindian brewery remains in North America.


The general picture that emerges has not changed much since the first research in the 19th century. Archaeology has set back the appearance of beer in North America by several centuries before colonisation. Beer is attested in the southwest in what is now Arizona, Texas, New Mexico and California. Prior to European contact, Native Americans brewed beer from corn, carob (mesquite) seeds, and probably sweet potato according to Spanish sources. These brewing traditions are thought to have originated in Mexico or the Caribbean islands with the spread of maize, beans and squash (the Three Sisters), to which sweet potato and cassava were added at an unknown date in the south of the subcontinent. Collected starchy plants such as Sagittaria latifolia may have played a role in the emergence of Amerindian brewing traditions from Florida to Canada. Texts provide some evidence but the archaeological evidences are lacking.

Post-colonisation ethnological descriptions confirm that fermented beverages (beers, wines, meads) are common in the South West or South East, and seem to be much rarer elsewhere. They make it possible to reconstruct the main Amerindian brewing methods. Some of them are documented on firm ground (Zuňi, Southwestern peoples), others must be taken with caution:





Insalivation of a raw (carob) or cooked (maize, tubers) paste, or raw starchy roots.

Carob pods beers

Atole brewed by Zuňi, Pueblos, Yuma, Pimas, Maricopas, Tumas, Apaches

Maize beers

Zuňi, Pueblos, Hopi

Sweet potato or cassava beer?


Beer from Sagittaria latifolia ?

Canada, Mississippi

Beer from unidentified starchy roots

Amerindians Tlingit in Alaska

Amylolytic ferment or beer-starter

he’palokia made with roots of Euphorbia serpyllifolia


Cooked paste from beans and/or carob pods ?

Southwest. Apaches.

Malting of raw grains

Native maize beers, or wheat beers (later)

tiswin or túlapai brewed by the Apaches

Acidic brewing

Raw maize cooked for several hours in water with ash added (nixtamalisation). Half sour broth, half maize beer

Oafka, sofkee, osafke brewed by Creeks and Cherokees in modern times.

túlapai brewed without malting by Apaches

Raw wheat grains, toasted, ground and fermented in water

pissioina brewed by Yuma


Green maize cobs matured in stagnant water

indohy made by Hurons


One brewing method is missing: the use of amylolytic plants. This brewing technique is more or less attested if we include the Hawaiian people and its traditional beers brewed with the ti plant (see Amerindians in the Great Northwest). However, this Hawaiian brewing tradition belongs more to the history of the Pacific than to the North American brewing landscape, despite the recent annexation of the 50th state.

The implementation of 5 different brewing methods attests to a long history and presence of beer on North American soil. In view of the number of additional plants used alongside starch sources for brewing beer, the American Southwest was certainly a lively field for experimenting with brewing methods before and after colonisation, a kind of laboratory in the hands of Amerindian women.  In 1936, Castetter and Opler provided, for the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apaches alone, an inventory of these brewing practices, the ones that survived the drastic changes in their way of life from the 1870s onwards, i.e. 3 to 4 generations of female brewers earlier. This inventory gives an idea of the diversity of Apache fermented beverages and brewing techniques when they roamed the sierras freely.

However, the descriptions of Amerindian fermented beverages given by ancient documents are so sketchy that most technical details escape us. The rare ethnographic documents from the 19th century tirelessly describe the havoc caused by adulterated alcohol exchanged for furs, overshadowing the possible indigenous fermented beverages. When they are briefly described, for example that of the Hurons of Lake Ontario, it is to say that their repulsive odour radically separates them from the settlers' beer. The Russian settlers who came to the Alaskan coast with their own technique to brew kwas did the same with certain tribes in the 19th century.

Fermented soups made from maize, starchy roots (cassava, sweet potato), beans or carob seeds may have been prepared wherever one agriculture or one tuber horticulture was carried out. But these fermented soups did not play the role of drinks and, above all, did not fuel religious ceremonies, ritualised consumption or collective festivals, except in the south-west. The search for altered states of consciousness used other means: tobacco and psychotropic plants. This may be one of the reasons for the limited role of fermented beverages among the Amerindian peoples of the North, in stark contrast to those of Central and South America (see Tobaco and Psychotropic plants).

A century after Havard, North American scholars reiterate the problematic absence of fermented beverages in pre-contact North America, especially among the Appalachian and Mississippi peoples who were among the most advanced societies in North America between 800 and 1600:

First contact with Europeans occurred in 1513 when Juan Ponce de Leon discovered Florida. There is only limited evidence that alcoholic beverages existed prior to White contact, but there was no lack for ingredients; the south-eastern tribes agricultural life style was an ideal setting for the production of alcohol. There is also conjecture that Indians from Mesoamerica may have made early contact with tribes along the Mississippi Valley; this could have occurred by sailing across the Gulf of Mexico (Josephy, 1991). If this had taken place, Mesoamerican Indians may have exchanged their knowledge of producing alcohol...” (Abbot 1996, 7).



The ancient Amerindian beers do not conform to the brewing techniques of the Europeans for the same period (10th to 20th centuries), with the exception of the malted beers of the South West. They have neither the appearance, nor the taste, nor even the use of Western beers at the time of the first contacts (16th century). Hence, the Native American beers have remained unnoticed and have left little trace in the documents relating to the colonisation of North America.

Native American beers existed from the south up to a northern boundary hard to trace for lack of data. This line, which can extend from Connecticut to the Dakotas, seems to match the limit of the great forests of the Canadian plateau and the Great Lakes, perhaps further south given the ancient deforestation of the Great Plains. The historical reality of this boundary is nevertheless problematic. The case of the Huron is emblematic. They lived west of Lake Ontario in the 17th century and prepared fermented corn on the cob, which bore no resemblance to the image Europeans had of a beer and did not describe it as such.

The scarcity of written testimonies and the virtual absence of archaeological research do not allow us to sketch a historical picture of Amerindian cultures before and after colonisation. American laboratories are at the forefront of research to detect and identify traces of archaic fermented beverages throughout the world, except in their own territory, with a few rare exceptions (Ancient Pueblos). The pottery of the Mississippi cultures has not yet been analysed in this respect.

There is no iconography about the traditional Native American fermented beverages from the 19th or 20th century, but an overabundance of pictures-clichés portraying the Indian drunk with distilled alcohol bartered or sold by whites. The only exception is the carob beer made by the Chemehuevi girls (Carob Beer, supra). No illustration about the beer among Pueblos, Zuňi, Apaches, Muskogee, Cherokee, Seminoles (see Edward Sheriff Curtis' collection). A stark contrast to the documentation available for Latin America.

The question of whether tobacco and psychotropic plants have taken the place of fermented beverages in Amerindian customs is therefore unfounded. The often-conflicting contacts between Amerindians and settlers gave rise to numerous meetings of a political nature (peace, war, momentary alliance). Sharing tobacco has become an emblematic image of the Amerindians, overshadowing all others. Yet the Creek and Cherokee in the 19th century readily shared a maize beer, which was a liquid, fermented version of the famous sagamite that most ancient and modern accounts present as a simple corn porridge.

To sum up, the protohistory of beer in North America is as currently out of reach. Archaeology is the way to find out a few shreds of it, in this part of the world as in others. But 'Indian Affairs' is still a major ideological issue for the American domestic politics. Funding scientific research into the Native American past is not a matter of course. If this obstacle is one day overcome, the excavations and archaeological analyses could yield some nice surprises. In the meantime, it cannot be argued that the northern Amerindians are an exception in the worldwide protohistory of beer brewing.


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The Amerindian beers and the psychoactive plants.Article 18 of 18