Recreating an Ancient Beer of Mesoamerica

DISCOVERY WORLD Milwaukee, Wisconsin

On November 3rd at Discovery World in Milwaukee Wisconsin, we brewed our second ancient ale of the season, a Mayan Maize Ale, as part of the adult education series “Ale Through the Ages: The Anthropology and Archaeology of Brewing” .

Mayan Maize label

The recipe is inspired by what an alcoholic beverage may have tasted like in Central America over 1,000 years ago. Archaeological and Ethnographic evidence suggests that pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica brewed a fermented alcoholic beverage using corn and cacao as the primary ingredients. Spanish chroniclers described how the Yucatan Indians (descendants of the Maya) made a foaming drink from cacao and maize which was very savory and which they used to celebrate their feasts. This most recent ale of the ages is an attempt to recreate what these alcoholic beverages of ancient Mesoamerican may have tasted like.

Maize Cacao fermentation

Corn (Zea mays) or maize (a Spanish derivation of the Tiano word maiz) was first domesticated around 6000 B.P. (Before Present) in the Tehuacán Valley of Mexico. What initially began as a wild grass called teosinte, evolved into one of the most important staple crops on the planet. Today there are thousands of varieties of corn grown worldwide.

Evolution of Zea mays

There are many modern examples of brewing corn beer throughout the Western Hemisphere. Most often it is called Chicha, where the traditional method involves the maize being chewed and then spit into a pot or bowl. Natural enzymes in the mouth aid in converting the starch in the corn into fermentable sugars. This mash is then boiled and let to naturally ferment. Today, the Tarahumara indigenous people of Chihuahua in northern Mexico regularly brew a corn beer called Tesguino, which is consumed in large quantities during ceremonial occasions. While we did not spit in our Mayan Maize Ale, a small batch of authentic chicha was made following the traditional method.

Archaeological Examples of brewing with Maize and Cacao in South and Central America

Recent archaeological excavations by a team from The Field Museum in Chicago and The University of Florida uncovered the remains of a brewing complex on the mountain top site of Cerro Baúl in southern Peru. The complex was built by the Wari culture (AD 600-1000) in which stones supported a row of 12 large pottery jars capable of holding 150 liters of liquid each. It is believed that the brewery was capable of producing hundreds of gallons of corn-based beer per week. Further evidence suggests that women were the primary brewers at the site, based on the presence of at least 10 shawl pins that were found on the floor of the brewery, which was ritually burned down around 1000 years ago.

Cerro Baul Brewery plan

Archaeologists from Cornell University working at the site of Puerto Escondido in northern Honduras have recently found the earliest evidence of drinking fermented cacao. Chemical analyses performed on the pottery sherds, some of which were over 3,000 years old, that recovered from the site contained residues of Theobromine, a conclusive fingerprint that fermented cacao was once served in these jars. It is assumed that this chocolate based beer may have reached 5% alcohol by volume.

Bodega Brown Bottle; Puerto Escondido; cacao jar

November 10th marked the bottling of the Mayan Maize Ale. We added a bit more cocoa powder and and 3/4 cups of corn syrup to the batch prior to bottling. The bottling went extremely efficiently, resulting in a total of some 60 12oz. bottles. It should be ready for consumption by mid December and ought to have a distinct maize flavor with a delicious chocolate body with a hint of serrano pepper on the end. Final Alcohol by volume is anticipated to be around 5.5%.

Mayan Maize bottling

13 responses to “Recreating an Ancient Beer of Mesoamerica

  1. I am very interested in the Mayan Maize Ale. I can’t figure out if this is a beer in production or just an experiment that you did last year. Could you please help me? I would love to sell this in my future store.

    Thank you,

    Lisa Suber

    • Lisa,
      Glad you found this ale of interest for future sale. However, this was a one-of-a-kind batch that was made for educational purposes. There is the potential of going into larger production with this and other ales we’ve brewed here at Discovery World in Milwaukee…if this happens I’ll be sure to let you know!

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  3. Hi, excellent news. I am a young small farmer from Nicaragua that cultive maize, cacao, cofffee and vegetables in my little farm. I am fan to making my own beer and I and interesting to know more about your research and is amazing to know that I can make some proof and experiment to prepare this beer. I have my own domestic equipment to make beer.

    Please let me know more about this and is If I have succees I will send you a bottle.

    Best regards!

    • Miguel,
      Great to hear you found this post interesting. I look forward to hearing how your version turns out. The yeast is a key factor…and for authentic purposes, I’d recommend malting the maize first, either by chewing/spitting it or by sprouting it first and then drying it out. To be really authentic you should use ceramic jars for fermentation. All the best!!

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  5. Can you post your recipe? I live in Ohio which is a big corn / soybean state so I am interested in attempting to brew a batch (5 gallons) of Maize Ale.

    • Seth,
      I’m glad you enjoyed reading about our ancient recreation of Mayan Maize ale. Below are the ingredients you’ll need.
      Hope it turns out well.

      All-Grain Fermentables (5 gallon batch)

      10 lbs: Malted Maize (corn)
      (For an authentic malting method, soak the corn, then chew it and spit the chewed corn into a brew pot. Otherwise, germinate the maize by soaking it it water until it sprouts and then dry it out on trays in an oven, grind it and make a mash at 140F for 1 hour.) Boil for 30 mins.

      Boil Additions
      1 lb.: Cacao Nibs (boil for 30 minutes)
      12 oz. : Honey (boil 5 mins)
      Secondary Fermentation Addition
      1/2 oz. Chili peppers
      2 cups: Cacao Powder

      1 package of liquid Yeast (wyeast)
      (American Ale Yeast)

      • Kevin,
        Thanks. I will probably have to leave the ‘authentic method’ to someone more adventuresome than me! It will be a few months but I will post my results.

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  8. Kevin, Found this while browsing for images of Egyptian brewing vessels.

  9. Joshua Prokopy

    I know it’s been a long time since this was posted, but the recipe looks fascinating. Do you know if flaked corn work in place of malted maize?

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