Drink the World: Peru

My head punished me for every single drop the following morning when if felt like someone was sat on my chest stabbing me in the eyes with knitting needles, but it was worth every second.
03/20/2014 03:09 pm ET Updated May 20, 2014

Peru is a land built on alcohol. Quite literally. Stretching from the Amazon to the Andes and then on to the Pacific, it was home to the Incan empire who worshipped the sun through the drinking of beer, much like Boston in summer.

This beer known as chicha is a vicious, sour, straw coloured brew and difficult to find. There are no tourist chicha bars or probably ever will be, and for very good reason. You have to search out the Chicheria; a converted lounge, or back room, bare floored with guinea pigs roaming free, which my guide Yuri described as the buffet. There are no overt signs to mark them, you just wander, remaining vigilant for a pole or broomstick angling above a darkened doorway, topped with a ball of red plastic-bags, or occasionally a bouquet of wilting flowers, though we discovered flowers also mark a place where someone died. But the nice, elderly widow escorted us down the street to an actual Chicheria and wished us well.

Chicha comes served in glasses the size of buckets called caporal's, scooped from a plastic tub that looked like it formerly held detergent and served with a film of brown scum on top. I admit I stared at my first glass, which looked like it could kill me, except nothing organic could surely ever survive in the stuff. It was breathtakingly strong despite Yuri assuring me it was just 3-4%. I can only presume they work on a different system to the rest of the world.

The fermentation of chicha was originally saliva activated; small gangs of women, sat around a tub, partially chewing the maize before spitting it into the middle. Yuri assured me this hardly ever happens anymore, but by this point he lacked credibility. In a room with a moveable menu I found it best not to linger too long on western preconceptions of hygiene, and definitely not on the barkeeps wizened knuckles as she dipped the glass deep into the tub and then went back to stroking a guinea pig. For my second glass I switched to Fruitillada, a Cusco specialty; chicha macerated with fresh strawberries, which was delicious; still sour but the regular varieties evil tempered by the fruit.

As the night progressed the chicheria filled as did my glass, with at least one Guinea pig departing for the rodent afterlife, my presence a source of endless amusement and conversation but never in a bad way. Talk turned to sport and politics, a heated, animated discussion, with a lot of hand movements. Food was served, not the luckless guinea pig thankfully, that still remains a celebration dish in Peru, but a simple, communal comida of beans, corn and large pieces of cheese served with picante salsa as I matched my basic Spanish with the rooms non existent English and somewhere in between managed to communicate just fine. Later the band arrived, the singer actually crooning about beer, a popular subject in local music and we played Sapo, the frog game, a combination of darts and mini basketball played against a wooden frame shaped vaguely like a frog, the rules bizarre and baffling but the result hilarious. By the early hours we'd moved on to Te Macho; black tea, cinnamon, sugar, lemon and harsh Andean brandy. My head punished me for every single drop the following morning when if felt like someone was sat on my chest stabbing me in the eyes with knitting needles, but it was worth every second.

If Chicha comes from the Incas, then Pisco is the drink that comes from the Spanish side of the family. Best described as 'potent' it's a form of brandy dating back to the seventeenth century, but with roots that stretch all the way back to the Conquistadores, who, as well as communicable diseases and wholesale slaughter, also brought grape vines to the continent. It's strong, raw even, and will rattle your skull if you let it, but combine it with a little egg white, lime and sugar and its transformed into the magical Pisco Sour, Peru's national drink, a dangerously cheap, ridiculously ubiquitous and deceptively strong cocktail that is absolutely unmissable.

You need a strong stomach for both, but would be mad not to try either.

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