Field Museum resurrects ancient Peruvian beer

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Purple corn and berries help give the beer its distinctive color. | Field Museum photo

A couple of Chicago brewers have re-created a beer first produced more than a millennium ago by a group of cloistered women who worked atop a mountain in the Andes range of Peru.

The first step for John Laffler and David Bleitner, the pair behind Off Color Brewing, was to pick the brain of Field Museum archeologist Ryan Williams, who unearthed an ancient high altitude brewery in 2004.

Their collaboration resulted in a beer named Wari, after the people who first made it, that will debut March 3 at the museum’s Field Bistro and hit shelves at Chicago liquor stores days later.

“They wanted to know everything and asked, ‘How would they have done this? And how would they have done this,'” Williams recalled.

The brewers learned that scientists were able to reverse engineer the ancient beer recipe through a molecular analysis of the vessels used in the brewing process. Peruvian purple corn and pink peppercorn — a berry — were key ingredients.

The brewers had imported Peruvian corn ground by North Side bake shop Baker Miller.

But their zeal for historical accuracy stopped short of wearing women’s clothes and locking themselves in their Logan Square brewing facility during the fermentation process.

The beer itself has a purple and reddish hue and contains citrus and black pepper flavors that combine for a “very biting character,” Laffler said.

“It’s one of those things where it looks good on paper and you cross your fingers that it tastes good and fortunately this one turned out pretty well,” he said.

Beer served an important role in the Wari empire, which preceded the Incan, Williams said.

“Beer was one of the great ways they were able to bring the masses together and keep people loyal to the state in some respect,” Williams said. “Because people knew that if they rebelled they would lose the ability to attend these great status-ranking parties. An analogy might be like a White House dinner. You want to be invited back, so you will continue to be faithful to the power structure.”

It’s not Off Color’s first time partnering with the Field Museum. In 2013 they produced “Tooth and Claw,” a pilsner style beer inspired by the T-Rex skeleton lovingly known as Sue.

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