Chicha: A Banned Drink's Legacy In Colombia
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BANNED foods and drinks have always had a fascinating history. If one were to delve deeper into the circumstances that led to their obliteration from society, it would be discovered that they were mostly unjustified and misplaced. One such Columbian culinary wonder is chicha, an alcoholic beverage that witnessed a tumultuous graph owing to unfair bureaucracy and political propaganda. The decline of chicha in Colombia had nothing to do with its taste; rather, it fell victim to an unyielding marketing campaign unleashed by a German beer conglomerate in collaboration with the Colombian government.


The local brew has a long history in Colombia, dating back to the pre-Columbian era. The Muisca people, who inhabited the central highlands of Colombia, considered chicha a sacred offering easily available to the common public. Its ritualistic consumption, sometimes accompanying human sacrifices, highlights its significance in their culture.

In fact, chicha is prevalent in other parts of Latin America, particularly in regions like the Amazon basin and countries like Honduras. In these areas, the drink is often served as a non-alcoholic alternative and is widely available. 

However, in Colombia, chicha took on a different role and came to symbolise decadence and unruliness. The government, along with certain sectors of society, associated chicha and chicherías with hygiene concerns, moral decay, and crime. This negative perception and the government's efforts to eradicate chicha contributed to its stigmatisation in Colombia.


While modern recipes exhibit regional variations, the fundamental process remains remarkably consistent. Primarily crafted from maize or cassava, this age-old elixir involves a fascinating ritual performed exclusively by women. They delicately chew on the grains for hours when preparing the brew. The enzymes present in their saliva work their magic, converting starch into sugar. When combined with the natural alchemy of wild yeast or bacteria, it eventually transforms into alcohol. The women carefully deposit the resulting liquid into a clay vessel, where it undergoes a fermentation process over several hours. 

For those unacquainted with its allure, the preparatory journey behind chicha may initially seem perplexing — a sentiment echoed by the Spanish colonisers who arrived in Colombia in 1499. Stripping away chicha's sacred significance, the Spaniards relegated it to a beverage of the working class, seeking to supplant it with their preferred drink: a potent and transparent liquor known as ‘aguardiente’. To some degree, they succeeded, as this anise-flavoured spirit now holds court in Colombia’s bars and nightclubs till date.


Nevertheless, chicha's popularity persevered, finding refuge in bustling chicherías (dedicated spaces where gallons of the beloved elixir were served). These establishments were more than mere bars — they were centres of humdrum and homely exchanges, where patrons indulged in animated socialising, enlivened by spirited games of dice and cards. The chicherías went beyond their role as watering holes, offering shelter, sustenance, and provisions to the underprivileged. Fostering a sense of community, it was customary for a generous bowl of chicha to circulate among tablemates, further strengthening the bond between friends and neighbours.

By the late 19th century, Bogotá alone boasted a staggering 800 chicherías, a testament to their proliferation. This expansion can be attributed, in part, to the artisans and farmers who rejected the confines of the traditional 9-to-5 workday, opting instead for a lifestyle seamlessly interweaving work and leisure. Extended midday breaks were dedicated to relaxation and, naturally, savouring the delights of chicha. For these unhurried individuals, time held a distinct value — far from the notion that “time is money”.


In the early 20th century, Colombia found itself mired in a sea of poverty, where basic necessities like education, healthcare, and adequate food were luxuries reserved for the few. Regrettably, the ruling elite and politicians turned a blind eye to these pressing issues, prioritising bureaucratic manoeuvring, preserving their own power and securing state contracts. As a result, chicha became a convenient scapegoat for the widespread fall of society. Chicherías suddenly became synonymous with breeding grounds for public disorder which stood as obstacles to Colombia's aspirations of industrial progress. Tragically, the majority of the impoverished were indigenous communities, unfairly labelled as impediments to modernisation due to prevailing racist ideologies of the time. The ancient heritage of chicha, associated with ‘leisure’, and its unique production method involving chewing and spitting made it an easy target as a symbol of the nation's problems. Chicherías became the adversary.

Despite the widespread crackdown on the drink, obliterating chicha completely proved unsuccessful. Owing to the drink’s widespread popularity, the brew persevered by going underground. 


As Bavaria Brewery made its grand entrance onto the Colombian beer scene, it swiftly garnered attention and rose to a position of dominance. Established in 1889 by German immigrant Leo Kopp, this brewery stood apart from the vibrant chicherías and embodied a beer-drinking culture synonymous with progress. With engineering marvels described as "a perfect example of 19th-century German industrial architecture," Bavaria exuded order and discipline. Meanwhile, chicha, in contrast, was shared communally in bowls, while beer was served in individual, sterile glass bottles. To the post-colonial Colombian government, Bavaria Brewery symbolised European progress and industrial prowess — an ideal they sought to emulate in their quest for a modernised nation.

Although Bavaria effortlessly captivated the bourgeoisie of Colombia, the majority of the population found themselves unable to afford the exotic and costly beer, especially when chicha remained readily available. Chicherías continued to flourish, even in La Perseverancia, the Bogotá neighbourhood founded by Kopp for his brewery employees. However, Kopp had a powerful ally in the Colombian government.

Rather than relinquishing their disdain for chicha, Colombia's political elite embarked on an active crusade against the beverage. Prominent doctors, likely influenced by politicians, embarked on tours of lower-class areas, denouncing chicha as "unhygienic" and a threat to the nation's moral and physical well-being. They even fabricated an ailment known as "chichism," falsely claiming it led to insanity among its victims.

Although the extent of direct collaboration between Kopp and the government remains unclear, it is evident that he reaped the benefits of their shared stance. Bavaria's advertisements left little to the imagination, boldly proclaiming beers with names like "No Mas Chicha," "Consum Bier," and "Hygienic." Accompanied by images of sturdy, healthy women and cherubic children revelling in the pure, life-giving beverage, the message was unmistakable: "No More Chicha."

Doubling down to assert its authority, the government launched a forceful propaganda campaign targeting chicha. Political posters emerged, linking chicha with crime and portraying chicherías as hotbeds of public disorder. One particularly striking poster featured a hand covered in filth gripping a bloodied knife, accompanied by the chilling message, "Chicha begets crime." Another depicted a nun shedding tears over a man imprisoned, boldly proclaiming, "The jails are filled with people who drink chicha." Yet another showcased a brawl between two men inside a chichería, while the toothless indigenous proprietor revelled in laughter.

The government tightened its control over chicherías by imposing exorbitant taxes and arbitrary regulations, making many establishments financially unviable and forcing others to operate clandestinely. An entry in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1921 reported, "The city of Medellin has eradicated the issue by imposing an exorbitant fee for the sale of chicha."


If the chicha culture was already hanging by a thread, its demise arrived suddenly on 9 April, 1948. With the assassination of Jorge Eliecer Gaitán (a liberal presidential candidate revered by the working class), a decade of turmoil and violence, known as La Violencia, was triggered. The violent riots that ensued, resulting in significant destruction across the city, were a response to deeply rooted social issues. However, the government saw an opportunity to act. On 2 June, then-President Ospina Pérez officially signed a law that dealt a severe blow to chicha. The law mandated that all fermented beverages must be manufactured using industrial processes and packaged in individual glass containers. In essence, this law served as an effective ban on the traditional production and distribution of chicha.

Though large-scale factories could not produce the local drink anymore, household brewers continued with their tradition of chicha. Smuggling bottles among known friends and relatives, Columbians ensured chicha lived on, thereby consolidating the drink’s importance in the fabric of Colombian society. Ironically, the local brew was sold and consumed mostly in areas surrounding the Bavaria Brewery. 

The drink made an official comeback almost four decades later when in 1980 the neighbourhood organised a special event where chicha would be sold for an entire day. Even if a section looked upon the endeavour derisively (almost as a sign of retracting a years-long struggle to make Colombia a responsible nation), the event gained ground as a historical marker. 

Till date, the drink has been sold across counters and in mobile carts across Colombia. Since the official ban on the drink is yet to be lifted, one can’t regularise mass production. Hence the key to sourcing quality chicha is to get to know the brewer personally. It's a peculiar outcome — a drink that is affordable, easy to make, and carries thousands of years of history has become scarce. However, when dishes or beverages become symbols of the things that unite or divide us, their fate can take unexpected turns.