Ancient grains sound like some mythical food from long before humans roamed the earth. But in the Sacred Valley of Peru, they are very much a modern agricultural commodity. Foods such as quinoa, tarwi and kiwicha have been cultivated here since the heyday of the Incan empire.
Cervecería del Valle Sagrado (Sacred Valley Brewing) is tapping into that agrarian legacy, enlivening these longstanding native flavors with the adventurousness of craft brewing. The resulting beer is making a splash far beyond the remote region of the country from which it came.
Until the cervecería opened shop in October of 2014, the only fermented beverage available in the Sacred Valley was chicha, a traditional low-ABV alcohol produced from cracked corn kernels. In many rural villages, the kernels are chewed down in the mouth and spat into a big bucket where natural moisture from saliva kick-starts open-air fermentation. Brewery owner Juan Mayorga wanted to provide a liquid honoring the natives but with a slightly more sterile method of production.
“Our chicha pilsner was also a play on a pre-Prohibition style,” says Mayorga. “Back then, brewers were using up to 30 percent corn in the mash. We used 30 percent jora [a local germinated varietal commonly used to make chicha].”
The jora introduces a slight acidity on the palate and nuttiness to the mouthfeel not so typical in lagers. But there’s something a little different about all of the beer coming out of these fermenters. In the three-and-a-half years since opening, Cervecería del Valle has released more than 70 brews, running the gamut of styles—everything from passion fruit IPAs to blueberry sours. The native terroir winds its way into all of them. “If you think about it, all our beers use ancient grains, considering barley is an ancient grain,” says Mayorga of the beer’s primary source of sugar.
There’s nothing ancient about the process, however. Stepping into Mayorga’s brewhouse, with its streamlined equipment, is a scene much more familiar to, say, Portland, Ore., than it is to the remote and rugged terrain of Ollantaytambo, Peru.
Beyond its modern approach to beer making, Cervecería del Valle has introduced this mountainous region to contemporary tasting room culture. Mayorga and his staff maintain a vibrant communal space where locals and international tourists meet over flights of draft pours and frequent live entertainment.
“The last week in August, we are going to be organizing the first ever IPA fest at the brewery, bringing together brewers from around the country to showcase the great diversity of IPAs that exist,” says Mayorga. “The idea is for each brewery to brew a different style of IPA and for two days showcase this great and diverse style here in our own backyard.”
The brewery has already worked quinoa into one of its experimental brews, but Mayorga is set to get even funkier. “We are looking at brewing a beer using locally sourced grains that we will malt ourselves,” he says. “This will be a first for a commercial brewery in Peru, and it’s long overdue.”
Later in the year, world renowned chef Virgilio Martínez will be hosting an invitational food and drink event to celebrate the Amazon. Cervecería del Valle has been tapped to brew the house beer for the gathering. “We’ll be creating some new beers for the event using ingredients from the jungle,” says Mayorga.
It turns out there’s a thirst for ancient grain not just in the beer world but in spirits, as well. Mayorga has partnered with nearby Destilería Andina to create a distillate out of his jora beer, which is now resting in barrels. It will soon hit the shelves as Peru’s first ancient-grain whiskey.
Mayorga and his team of brewers are riding the wave of success from under the shadows of far-flung Amazonian peaks into the heart of Lima, where Cervecería del Valle is eyeing the opening of a gastropub later in 2018. But don’t expect him to pack up and move to the big city himself. “We love what we do here,” he says. “We love beer, and we love playing with new recipes, ingredients and presenting new styles of beers to the Peruvian market. This has been our driving force from day one.”
Although they lean heavily on ancient grains, Cervecería del Valle seems entirely focused on the future. For a nascent scene, craft drinkers can see nothing but brightness on the horizon here.