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Mash bash. At peak production, this facility would have been lined with large brewing vessels resting over fires.

Beer of Kings

The remains of liter-sized drinking cups have led archaeologists to uncover what may be the oldest large-scale brewery yet found--on a mountaintop in Peru. At the peak of its operation, more than 1000 years ago, the brewery may have cranked out hundreds to thousands of liters of brew at a time.

Since 1997, archaeologists from the Field Museum in Chicago and the University of Florida, Gainesville, have uncovered meeting halls, temples, and housing at Cerro Baúl, a settlement occupied by the pre-Incan Wari people between 600 and 1000 C.E. In one area, pieces of elaborate liter-sized cups hinted that something else lay beneath. Digging down in mid-July, the team discovered what they believe was a fermenting room and a brewing room with stone uprights that could hold 20 vessels at a time over fires. They also found pieces of large, 40- to 55-liter vessels, ash from llama dung fires, and spent pepper tree seeds.

The team, led by the Field Museum's P. Ryan Williams, believes it's a production facility for chicha, a mild beerlike drink made from fruits and grain and spiced with pepper seeds. The two rooms covered about 200 square meters, but traces of walls suggest that the brewery was much larger, says Williams, who believes the Wari elite held great banquets at Cerro Baúl and imbibed copious amounts of the libation. The team announced its preliminary findings in a press release this week.

Chicha is still drunk today. The expedition's botanist reproduced a chicha recipe handed down by an old man in a village a 5-hour walk away, which Williams says has a "spicy, interesting taste." When the Wari abandoned the city sometime around 1000 C.E., they torched the brewery and threw their cups on the fire. As the walls caved in, they protected the structural remains for centuries.

The find represents one of the earliest breweries of that scale ever found, says anthropologist Charles Stanish of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology at the University of California, Los Angeles. It predates the large Incan breweries whose output compared favorably to a small modern microbrewery. The brewery is also notable for its remote location, Stanish says. Major feasts held so far from the Wari capital suggest that the Wari may have interacted more than had been supposed with the nearby Tiwanaku, an independent civilization.

Related Sites
P. Ryan Williams's Cerro Baúl expedition
More about chicha, including recipes