Maize beer brewing in the pre-inca Andean kingdoms.



Domesticated maize varieties have been part of the diet of the northern Andes since the Chavín Culture (1300~200 BC), but in a modest proportion. It does not seem that maize is used to brew beer, at least not for the main rites organised by priests who use the hallucinogenic effects of the "san Pedro" cactus rather than those of alcoholic drunkenness. For the following intermediate period (200 BC to ~700 AD), evidence exists. The excavations in Callejon de Huaylas have uncovered large jars and sieve shards interpreted as a maize beer brewing equipment, which the remains were found on site[1] .

The contemporary cultures Moche/Mochica (100~700), Nazca (200~600) and Recuay (200~750) leave no doubt about the importance of beer. In the North, the later Chimu Culture (1000~1470) puts maize, sweet potato and beans at the heart of its terraced irrigated agriculture. In the southern region of Lake Titicaca, the Tiwanaku empire (700~1200) is based on highly hierarchical social structures. Beer has a central place here, as well as in northern Peru for the contemporaneous empire of the Wari.


Rather than describing the beer brewing in these diverse Andean cultures (the subject of future articles), we summarize the research conducted by Justin Jennings[2] .

He sought to quantify the brewing of maize beer in the Andes during pre-Columbian times, its material and human resources in the context of the so-called beer parties. These collective drinking parties are organised to celebrate an agrarian rite (new year, sowing, harvest), a village festival (birth, marriage, death), or by a chief who has requested/organised collective work on his behalf for which he "offers as much beer as he can". His generosity and the reputation he gains from it will later enable him to solicit his community again.


Jennings develops two working hypotheses:

  • the brewing of the chicha (a maize beer) currently observed is sufficiently uniform with the old methods, those of the Wari for example, later of the Incas, to allow an extrapolation. Since the 15th century, the texts, mainly the Spanish sources, describe brewing as a feminine activity whose processes would have changed little[3].

  • the drinking patterns have changed little in the specific context of the communal beer parties, in particular the volumes of beer drunk per person and the density of these maize beers[4].


Jennings does not just calculate grain/beer ratios, which has been done before him for Egyptian, Mesopotamian or Andean antiquity. He goes back to the fundamental constraints of the beer brewing. This leads us to the maize fields needed to brew the annual volumes. From there, Jennings sheds light on the technical and social constraints from which a group or a leader takes advantage to offer beer in exchange for a share of political power.


The technical ratios proposed by Jennings are as follows:

  • 1 kg maize = 1.4 litres of thick domestic chicha, or 6.4 litres of clear and diluted "public" chicha (sold on a market or offered to a wider group).

  • Beer party consumption: 9-12 litres of beer per man and 6-9 litres per woman. The chosen range is 6 l - 12 l of chicha on average / guest in a beer party.

  • Maize productivity 1618 kg/ha (Peru) to 1295 kg/ha (Bolivia), an average of 1456 kg/ha.


Jennings calculates the investment in maize that brewing involves for a growing number of beer party guests. This investment takes two forms: the amount of maize (supplied or loaned) and the amount of field area needed to grow it (Table 1).


Number of guests Brewed Maize (kg) Surface of maize (ha)
Thick chicha (1.4 litres of chicha brewed per kg maize)
  6 litres of chicha/guest 12 litres of chicha/guest 6 litres of chicha/guest 12 litres of chicha/guest
25 109 218 0.08 0.15
50 218 435 0.15 0.30
100 435 870 0.30 0.60
200 870 1.740 0.60 1.20
500 2.175 4.350 1.50 3.00
Light chicha (6.5 litres of chicha brewed per kg maize)
  6 litres of chicha/guest 12 litres of chicha/guest 6 litres of chicha/guest 12 litres of chicha/guest
25 23 47 0.02 0.03
50 47 93 0.03 0.06
100 93 186 0.06 0.13
200 186 373 0.13 0.26
500 466 932 0.32 0.64

Table 1 : Maize brewed (kg) and grown (ha) for a chicha party (after Jennings 2005, 250).



Organising a single festival in the year seems at first sight to be possible for each household which has an average cultivated area of 3½ ha (a modern value difficult to corroborate with the division of land under the Wari or Inca empire).


The exceptional brews for beer parties are in addition to the daily domestic brewing. It is estimated that a household of 2.2 adults consumes, at a rate of 2.5 l of chicha / adult / day, about 5.5 l / day, i.e. a maize equivalent of 4*365 = 1460 kg/year (thick chicha) or 0.85*365 = 311 kg/year (light chicha). The respective cultivated maize areas are ˜ 1 ha or 0.21 ha. The addition of the two types of brewing (daily brewing + 1 annual beer party) does not upset the balance of the domestic economy. Only in a few exceptional cases do the quantities of maize required exceed the critical threshold of 3.5 ha: a communal feast where 500 guests each drink 12 litres of thick chicha (red in Table 1)!


Things get worse if you take into account the technical requirements and the nature of the beer. Maize beer doesn't keep well, usually for 7 days before becoming sour. So it is necessary to concentrate the brewing of 600 to 1200 litres of beer, for example, over a few days (assumption 100 guests, bolded in Table 1). Modern terracotta brewing vats contain between 80 and 170 litres. The largest Inca vat discovered to date contained 364 litres. The Wari vats are only slightly smaller (Jennings 252). If you are reasoning with 100 guests, i.e. between 600 and 1200 litres of chicha to be served, you will need 6 vats of 170 litres a least (600/170) or 15 vats of 80 litres at most (1200/80).


In the very likely hypothesis of ready-to-use brewing ingredients (crushed malted maize, maize semolina, dry balls of insalivated maize), the technical constraint focuses on the rotation of the brewing vats and various indispensable containers. The ingredients must be soaked, heated, the worts separated, boiled and fermented in jars of about ten litres, which will also be used to carry and serve the beer. Water and fuel (wood, dried dung) must be collected in the same place. In addition to the necessary arsenal of large earthenware pots, each brew is operated and monitored by at least one woman brewer. This organisation of parallel work mobilises many experienced people. Some decanting and filtering operations require the assistance of 2 to 3 people.


A final constraint exists. A family rewards the collective work in their fields by organising a "work beer party". But the most laborious agricultural tasks (clearing, digging, harvesting) are done at about the same time. Families compete with each other. Those who work on the harvests of other families have to think about their own harvests. The most influential families will come first and gather the largest workforce.

Number of women brewers according to guests and vats capacity
Number of guests Number of female brewers
  6 litres of chicha/guest 12 litres of chicha/guest)
Brewing with 80-litres vats
25 2 4
50 4 8
100 8 15
200 15 30
500 38 75
Brewing with 170-litres vats
25 1 2
50 2 4
100 4 7
200 7 14
500 18 35

Table 2 : Number of women brewers by volume to be brewed (based on Jennings 2005, 251).


The technical constraints bring social inequalities to the fore. The family that has the most extensive social network or can mobilise the largest number of women brewers will be able to organise the most important beer-parties. They gain the prestige that gives them access to political power, at least within their local communities.

This social mechanism does not claim to explain the entire social structure and political organisation of Andean empires. At the regional level, access to power requires stronger complementary logics of accumulation, especially a territorial control. A central imperial power is based on a military force and a coercive political organisation.

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[1] Gero Joan 1990, Pottery, Power, and . . . Parties!, Archaeology 43(2):52–55. Gero Joan 1992, Feasts and females: Gender ideology and political meals in the Andes, Norwegian Archaeological Review 25(1):15-30. Gero Joan 2001, Field Knots and Ceramic Beaus. Interpreting Gender in the Peruvian Early Intermediate Period, in Gender in Pre-Hispanic America (ed. Cecelia F. Klein): 15-55.

-> Joan Gero. Feasts and females Gender ideology and political meals in the Andes

[2] Jennings Justin 2005,La Chichera y El Patrón: Chicha and the Energetics of Feasting in the Prehistoric Andes, Archaeological Papers of the American Anthropological Association, 14:241–259.

-> Justin Jennings. La Chichera y el Patron. Chicha and the Energetics of Feasting in the Prehistoric Andes

[3] In fact, the traditional brewing techniques of the Andes have been modified by the arrival of the Spanish and the consequent upheaval of the social autochtonous structures. The consumption of European settlers and their grain economy favoured maize beers (equivalent to wheat in the eyes of the colonists), to the detriment of potato, quinoa or cañihua beers brewed by the Amerindian peoples of the altiplano, or the cassava and sweet potato beers brewed by the inhabitants of the Amazonian foothills. But this reserve does not call into question Jennings' calculations and conclusions.

[4] Another reservation similar to the previous one. Brewing methods before the arrival of the Spaniards were not based solely on the malting of maize of quinoa grains, or the insalivating of cooked maize or manioc loaves. Other brewing techniques were known, such as the amylolytic ferments and the acidic brewing. The ratio " kg maize / vol. beer brewed " could paradoxically be better using these later brewing methods than with the malting taken by Jennings as a technical reference. Some types of beer were stronger, which can influence the drinking patterns and alter the average volume of beer drunk per person during a beer communal party.

14/11/2020  Christian Berger