Humans have been trying to get drunk for a long time. The earliest evidence of people drinking fermented wheat or barley-based beverages dates all the way back to ancient Mesopotamia (where Iraq is now) about 7,000 years ago, while the earliest beer recipe was discovered in a 4,000-year-old poem. But on this side of the Atlantic, ancient peoples of what is now Central and South America were brewing up their own version of hooch — made from corn. Historians have found evidence of that going back at least 5,000 years.
These corn-based beverages, known today as chicha and pulque, mostly disappeared over the centuries, but not entirely. You can still find them in some places in Latin America, and starting next year, you'll be able to find them in Denver — at Dos Luces Brewery, which will specialize in making both drinks.
Founded by Denver native Judd Belstock, Dos Luces, at 1236 South Broadway, means "Two Lights" in Spanish. One refers to chicha and the other to pulque. They also tie into a light from Belstock's local community and a light from the international world. And he sees them as a light from the past lighting the way for one in the future.
"My goal isn't to re-create historically accurate chicha" or pulque, Belstock explains. "It's to imagine where they would be today if they had been developing all of this time, like beer." And that's a wide-open endeavor, since the two drinks are almost nonexistent today, at least in the United States.
Belstock, who worked in sales for Boulder Beer for several years, has been testing his recipes in recent months, and last week, he brewed a batch of blue-corn chicha with Andrew Moore at Intrepid Sojourner Beer Company. The beer, along with a fruited version, will both go on tap there on January 1. Belstock is also running an Indiegogo campaign to raise money to help with taproom supplies like glassware and tables.
Chicha is typically a corn-based fermented beverage that originated in what is now Peru and spread from there to other regions in the Andes. It is sometimes made from fruit, as well. In some cultures, the chicha makers chew up the corn and spit it out, their saliva acting to break it down to extract the sugars. A couple of breweries have played around with chicha, including Avery Brewing in Boulder and, most famously, Dogfish Head in Delaware, where founder Sam Calagione makes chicha once a year — and dedicated an episode of the short-lived Discovery Channel show Brew Masters to it.
Pulque, which originated in what is now eastern Mexico, is also based on corn, but it also uses the sap of the enormous maguey plant for fermentable sugars. Once it is fermented, the maguey sap gives pulque a milky-white look and thick texture. Pulque often has sour flavors similar to sour beers. Like cider, chicha and pulque are gluten-free because they aren't made with barley or wheat.
"We want people to change the way they think about beer," Belstock says, explaining that he thinks his customers will come from both sides of Broadway and will be interested in trying something new. With the opening of Dos Luces and of Alternation Brewing just up the road at 1530 South Broadway, this stretch now has four breweries within five blocks in the area that used to be known as Antique Row. Platt Park Brewing and Declaration Brewing are also within a six-block radius.
Belstock will have ten taps in the 3,000-square-foot former antiques store, from which he'll typically pour at least one chicha (at around 5 percent ABV), a fruited or spiced chicha, a pulque (at 6 percent ABV) a fruited or spiced pulque, a non-alcoholic chicha. There will also be three guest taps, for people "who just have to have an IPA," he says.
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To create the appropriate atmosphere, the brewery will have a central plaza in the entrance with a tree growing in it and string lights stretching in all directions. There will be seating nearb, and in the back, where the brewing equipment will be located (including a mash tun closer to what distilleries use than a typical beer mash tun). The drinks will mostly be served out of traditional eight-ounce ceramic tumblers.
Belstock first took an interest in Peru and the rest of Latin America as a child; his father told stories of going there with the Peace Corps, while his mom ran an art gallery that sold pre-Columbian art. After college, while working for Miller, then Coors, then MillerCoors, Belstock met Sam Alcaine, a fermentation scientist who told him about pulque. Alcaine is now a professor at Cornell University and is a consultant and adviser for Dos Luces. Alcaine also helps with recipe development, and Belstock calls him the co-founder.
Belstock believes he is one of only a very few breweries making chicha in the United States, and could possibly be the only pulque producer (based on how difficult it was to import maguey, he says).
But he thinks the time is right to do this now. "I want to do something that no one else is doing," he says. Construction could begin as soon as January, with an opening in April.