Monday, February 21, 2011

The Third Chicha Post: Corn, Tubers and Stinging Nettles

I've been corresponding a bit with beer writer/historian/raconteur Horst Dornbusch. It started when I took exception to a sentence he wrote in a 2004 Beer Advocate article: "Well, because we have no records of Native American fermented beverages, beer probably did not start flowing in North America until the Europeans arrived."

So I had to ask him: Did you really mean to put it that way?

First I'll stick up for Horst: As he said in an e-mail, he was thinking mainly of the natives encountered by the British and French. And he was thinking about beer, not "wine or wine-like drinks." (But we'll come back to that.) Anyway I'm not after Horst or anyone else. I'm after the commonly perpetuated myth that Europeans introduced alcohol to the Americas.

Native Americans of course were fermenting drinks from corn, manioc, cactus, flowers, fruits and other things, probably for thousands of years before Columbus arrived. Maybe these weren't the same Native Americans that the Pilgrims met in the Northeast, but they were Native Americans by any fair definition. I'm not only talking about Aztecs, Mayans, Incas and their neighbors. Tribes in what is now the southwest U.S. were making beer too.

(I guess it's theoretically possible that none of the peoples in the North and East were fermenting anything from anything, not even for rare rituals, but to me it strains credibility.)

Then there is the second question, as to whether beer was flowing. So what counts as beer?

Does chicha count? Horst agrees with me that it does, but he wasn't thinking of the Southern peoples and concedes he should have been clearer.

But what about a drink made from manioc (a.k.a. yuca)? Is that beer? Horst thinks not. To him beer is "fermented grain extract." Me, I'm willing to include yuca and other tubers, since there is a conversion of starch into sugars before fermentation. But there is room for disagreement there.

But what about cactus? Is pulque a wine? Maybe so.

(What about a drink from stinging nettles? Beer or wine? From the sort of recipes I can find, it appears that sugar is adding all the fermentables and the nettles are basically flavoring. What would that make it? Maybe the wine family? Or maybe nobody cares but the tax man.)

I'm off track. My point is this: Native Americans made beer before the Europeans came.

I'm going to write that again: The Native Americans made beer before the Europeans came.

There. Maybe you can use that to win a bar bet or two.

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