Sunday, September 18, 2011

Chilean Chicha

We sat down by the fire and they immediately placed before us two good looking pitchers of chicha. My portion was clear, sweet and spicy, and the chief toasted me with it, saying that I should eat and drink…  Francisco Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán. 1673 (all translations mine) 
This drink is highly appreciated in Chile and rich families as well as the poor consume great quantities while it retains its sweetness.  Claudio Gay, 1841 
The Independence Day fiestas are coming soon and there will be no Chilean tables that don’t include a good meat empanada and a glass of chicha. September, 2011[1]

From before the Spanish conquest to today chicha has been the most Chilean of drinks.  Whether the sweet strawberry chicha that the young soldier Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán enjoyed,  the stronger muday or corn chicha the Mapuche warriors drank, the apple chicha of Chiloé, or the grape chicha of central Chile, it has brought refreshment and cheer to Chileans for centuries, perhaps for millennia.

Chicha came to the attention of the European voyagers early.  On the fifth of August, 1498, Columbus came ashore in Venezuela and, according to the letter he wrote to the King, the Indians “…brought …. wine of many kinds white and red, but not of grapes. It must be of several kinds, one of one fruit and one of another and likewise one must be of maize, which is a seed which makes a spike like a cob…”

To the Spanish, all were “chicha,” a term which seems to have been part of several indigenous American languages. It was first documented in written Spanish in 1521, when a visitor to Panama noted that it was short for “chichah co-pah”, where “chichah” meant maize and “co-pah” drink.[2]  It came to be used generically for the fermented drinks of the Indians, replacing the native terms like the azúa of the Incas and the muday of the Mapuche of Chile.

Mapuche Chicha

Among the Mapuche, indigenous people of south central Chile, chicha made from grains or fruits was an integral part of social life. Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán writes about a gathering he attended in the 1620s:

To the chiefs they gave splendid food, various dishes of fish, shellfish, fowl, partridges, bacon, sausages, pastries, buñuelos, tomatoes, rolls of beans and maize, and other things, providing for each band according to the people it contained, one hundred or two hundred measures of chicha, because more commonly only twenty or thirty bands came together for ordinary drinking parties and feasts, but in this one there were more than fifty, with a daily consumption of more than four thousand jugs of chicha. And that was not a lot, because there were twelve or fourteen thousand souls at that feast, Indian men and women, girls [chinas] and boys.[3]
Jesuit Diego de Rosales, who was a missionary among the Mapuche in the 17th century explains:
Chicha, which is like beer or our wine, is the joy of all get-togethers or parties and is the usual drink, because there are Indians who never drink water, but only chicha in their houses, and if it is lacking it there is an argument with the women that often ends in blows.  …They make chicha of all kinds, from grains like maize, wheat, barley, and from fruit like apples, pears, quince, strawberries, piñones [seeds of Araucaria araucana] murtilla [Chilean Guava, Ugni molinae) and other native fruit: they grind the grain, add yeast, heat it and when it is just right it is finished.

Mapuches making apple chicha -  Edmond Reuel Smith 1855[4]

When they have to make a lot of [maize] chicha for a large party, the women get together at night and in a circle with their milling stones they spend the whole night singing a funny song in which they keep time with the movements of their milling.  The old women and the little girls who don’t have the strength to mill (which takes a lot of strength) work in making yeast, which they do with the flour they are making, chewing it and putting it into some pitchers, and there is an old woman who grinds the yeast. This yeast and the ground flour they put in large pans of water that are on the fire, and this is the chicha at its beginning, which if kept for many days becomes sour and is strong like strong spicy vinegar. [5]
This method of making maize chicha, which Rosales describes above, was common throughout maize growing areas of central and South America.  It involves masticating ground coked maize, drying it, and then mixing it with more ground maize and water.  This was then brought to a boil and allowed to ferment.  By masticating the maize, enzymes in the saliva convert some of the starch into sugar, which is then available to yeasts for fermentation into alcohol. It is not “yeast” as Rosales thought, but is an alternative to malting (sprouting) grain, which accomplishes the same purpose. (No mastication was required for fruit chichas.)

Colonial Chilean chicha

Soon after the Spanish arrived in Chile, planting grapes was a high priority as wine was essential for religious observances and was an integral part of Spanish diet.  Vines arrived in Mexico as early as 1520, in Peru by 1540, and Chile the first vineyard was plated by Juan Jufré, first alcalde (mayor) of Santiago, probably around 1550 and wine production began shortly afterward.[6] 

But chicha isn’t exactly wine, it’s wine in the process of fermentation, and the origins of grape chicha, as distinct from wine, are unclear.  Chilean historian Eugenio Pereira Salas sees it as a “new drink” which, in the 18th century was replacing wine, as the drink of the common people. It is first mentioned in 1760, when seen as responsible for death and disgraceful behavior caused by the “the boundless appetite of the common people who make it and who have given it the name chichita.”[7]

Pereria Salas sees chicha as a descendant of Mapuche muday, which is quite reasonable, but he notes that in Spain it would be known as “sagardúa,” from the Basque word for cider. In fact similar partially fermented wines are produced throughout Europe, under names that translate as “feather wine,” “new wine,” “young wine,” and in southern Spain as “mosto,” though none seem to be cooked before fermentation and it do not keep as long as chicha.

Claudio Gay, writing in the 1840s, explains how it Chilean chicha, now called (chicha cocida or chicha baya) was made:
It is preferably prepared from the juice of the sweetest grapes. This juice is given a light coking, frequently not reaching a boil, and after cooling, it is placed in sealed barrels. Form that point fermentation proceeds, producing a great deal of carbon dioxide which puts the barrel in risk if a pinhole is not carefully opened for the gas to escape. This pinhole is closed with a plug that is removed every two hours during the fermentation. The chicha thus produced is decanted into barrels for consumption. After six to eight days it can be drunk, and many people prefer it as it is then foamy and spicy, but it causes many burps and for this reason it is usually drunk only a month or two later. It doesn’t last long and by October it begins to oxidize and is used for distillation [into aguardiente].[8]

Chicha cruda, uncooked chicha, or chacolí was (and still is) also be made by simply allowing grape juice to ferment, but it must be drunk within a few days before it begins to turn to vinegar.

By the time Englishwoman Maria Grahm was in Chile, in the 1840s…
The liquor commonly drank by the lower classes is chicha, the regular descendant of that intoxicating chicha which the Spaniards found the South American savages possessed of the art of making, by chewing various berries and grains, spitting them into a large vessel, and allowing them to ferment. But the great and increasing demand for chicha has introduced a cleanlier way of making it ; and it is now in fact little other than harsh cider, the greater part being produced from apples, and flavored with the various berries which formerly supplied the whole of the Indian chicha.[9]
The chicha deliveryman[10]

Chilean chicha today

While there is bottled chicha in the supermarkets around the time of Chilean Independence day, September 18, most Chilean chicha is sold from barrels in fondas (booths) at independence day celebrations, picadas (cafes/bars), or at the rural chicharias where it is made.  This year we bought ours from the Valladares, artisanal producers in the town of Curacaví, 50 km or so from Santiago.

Their production techniques are virtually the same as those reported by Gay in the 1840s.  The grape juice is heated for several hours at a low temperature and when cool, sealed into tinajas, large earthenware jars, for fermentation.  They didn’t mention allowing the carbon dioxide to escape—perhaps the seal on the tinajas isn’t so tight as to build up destructive pressure. Then when the chicha has reached the point they wish, sweet but with good acidity and a bit of alcohol, it is decanted into barrels. 

Tinajas of chicha

Two strengths were available when we went, one quite sweet and the other less so and a bit more piquant.  We bought some of each, the piquant to drink then (they said that it wouldn’t last until the 18th), and the sweet to save for the 18th, about 10 days later.  It was about 1,500 pesos ($3.15) a liter.  They have chicha available year round.

Chicha de Curacaví

Chicha de Curacaví, chicha balla y curaora 
Chicha de Curacaví. Que ponis los pasos lentos
Chicha de Curacaví a mi no me los ponis
Cicha de Curacaví por que te pasó pa' entro
Chicha de Curacaví chicha valla y curaora

Se acabó la chichita alla va, lla va, tambien la
Se curó la cantora alla va, lla va, todos pa' fuera
Se acabó la chichita alla va, lla va, tambien la vela.
Todos pa' fuera ay si alla va, lla va, chicha en botella 
A la mujer celosa alla va, lla va, palos con ella.[11]

Which is, more or less, the following:

Chicha de Curacaví, cream colored and intoxicating
Chicha de Curacaví, that makes you step slowly
Chicha de Curacaví, but that doesn’t happen to me
Cicha de Curacaví because I put it inside me
Chicha de Curacaví, cream colored and intoxicating.

The chicha is all gone, there it goes, the candle is out too
The singer got drunk, there it goes, everyone goes out side
Everyone goes outside, there they go, chicha in a bottle
The jealous woman, there she goes, give her a whack.

And here’s a video with the music.

[1] Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, Francisco, 1608-1680. 2001. El cautiverio feliz, Tomo dos; edición crítica de Mario Ferreccio Podestá y Raïssa Kordić  Riquelme. Santiago de Chile: Seminario de Filología Hispánica, Facultad de Filosofía y Humanidades, Universidad de Chile, p. 86. on line at; Gay, Claudia 1862 Agricultura Vol 2, p. 193. Chile: Museo de Historia Natural de Santiago online at; and Fierro, Verónica.  En fiestas patrias: ministerio de agricultura elegirá las mejores empanadas y chicha de todo chile.  Sept. 11, 2011.
[2] Pardo, O. 2004. Las chichas en el chile precolombino. (basado en una trabajo presentado en el xii congreso ítalo-latinoamericano de etnomedicina "nuno álvares pereira" (Río de Janeiro, Brasil, 8-12 de Septiembre 2003). Chloris Chilensis año 7 nº 2. Url:
[3] Núñez de Pineda y Bascuñán, Op Cit. p. 207.
[4] Smith, Edmund Reuel. 1855. The Araucanians; or, Notes of a Tour among the Indian tribes of Southern Chile.  New York:  Harper & brothers. p. 278 On line at  
[5] Rosales, Diego de. 1877 (1674) Historia general de el Reyno de Chile: Flandes Indiano. Valpariso: Imprenta del Mercurio. Vol. I p. 155. on line at
[6] Pozo, José del.  1998. Historia del vino chileno desde 1850 hasta hoy. Santiago: Editorial Universitaria. P. 28.  On line at
[7] Pereira Salas, Eugenio.  1977. Apuntes para la historia de la cocina chilena.  Santiago : Universitaria. p. 65 On line at
[8] Gay, Caludio. Op. cit. p.
[9] Graham, Maria. 1824. Journal of a Residence in Chile, During the Year 1822.  London: Longman, Hurst, etc. p. 127. On line at
[10] Drawing by unknown author from Álbud de tioso chilenos de mediados del siglo diecinueve, Sociedad de Bibliófilo Chilenos, Santiago, 1987 as reproduced in Pozo, Jose, Op. cit. p. 39


  1. Esto es algo que no tomo desde que me vine a EEUU, mi abuelo solía hacer en su casa, me encanta, anoto eldato en curacaví.
    Feliz 18 Jim!

  2. Lastima que no hay chicha - ni nada parecida - en Texas. Pero hay Lone Star :-)


  3. que bueno este post de la chicha, y la historia que entretenida, saludos Jim, gloria

  4. Ojala encontrara alguien que trajera chicha a Nueva York.

  5. Hola, no sabía que existía la chicha chilena, hay alguna diferencia en la preparación con la chicha peruana?

    1. Romina,

      Si, son bebidas diferentes. Antes de la conquista los mapuches hicieron "chichas" de varios frutas, y de maíz.. como la chicha peruana, y después los españoles llamaron a "chicha' dos cosas: la sidra de manzana que todavía se hace en Chiloe, y chicha de uva, como la chicha de Curacaví. Para mas, Chicha en Wikipedia;


Sorry, no more anonymous posts. I was getting too much spam. Email me (see my profile) if you would like to comment and have no account. Jim