Chicha, The Fermented Corn Drink From South American Speakeasies

South America's hidden watering holes serve an ancient fermented corn drink

The pursuit of a good drink can lead us into weird situations. Perhaps you've found yourself entering a bar through the back of a phone booth, knocking on a secret apartment door or calling some constantly changing phone number to get a reservation, because you know if it's that hard to get in, the drinks must be worth the hassle, right?

But long before swanky cocktail bars were a thing, there existed an old tradition complete with code-like signs marking the entrance (usually a red plastic bag or a corn husk tied to a bamboo stick), a special beverage that you can't find anywhere else and the feeling that you were in someone's living room (because you were).

Allow us to present the chicharia.

In Cuzco, makeshift red flags signal the entrance to chicharias, where families ferment corn to make the traditional drink | Photos: Jack Zalium

These little cubbyholes tucked all throughout Peru and South America make a drink called chicha, which dates back to the time of the Incas. These are not established bars you can look up on an app. Chicharias can typically be found in a family's home among roaming chickens and guinea pigs. Grandparents make recipes for chicha that are unique to each family and have been passed down for generations.

The drink is a fermented beverage similar in taste to kombucha, but with an ABV closer to beer. It's usually made from corn, but depending on the region, it can also be made from pineapple, chickpeas or even quinoa. Its nonalcoholic sister, chicha morada, is made from purple corn and is unfermented and served more like a juice or soda. Both versions of the drink are brewed by the barrelful in the dark rooms of the chicharias.

Finding the ancient beverage stateside can be as difficult as locating an off-the-beaten-path Peruvian spot that sells it. In NYC, your best bet is to hit up Urubamba in Queens, where you can order the corn beverage by the pitcher alongside traditional ceviches and hominy. For a more modern experience, La Mar in San Francisco puts a fine-dining spin on Peruvian classics and serves chicha as an ingredient in its inventive cocktails.

But for chicha bragging rights, head straight to the source and let the original speakeasies show you how it's done.