photo by Joel Jacobs
NOT LONG AGO, Alan Eames and his wife Anne Latchis were summoned by their son Adrian's teacher. She explained that a vivid imagination is a fine thing in a child, unless it runs riot and warps itself into harmful fantasy. And Adrian, she continued, was gripped by the delusion that his father was "the Beer King," a quixotic wanderer who studied beer with Amazonian Indians and actually drank beer for a living. The teacher looked sober and sympathetic. "But you see," said Eames, savoring the moment like a mouthful of good ale, "it's all true. "
And it is, as attested by one of his several tattoos—the words BEER KING framing a barrel wreathed with hops, an image picked up from an eighteenth-century brewer’s catalog. In fact, Eames, who claims to know more about the history and social significance of beer than anyone in the world, has devoted his life to hunting down the world’s forgotten and endangered beers and beer lore, and preserving a record of them for future generations, whatever the cost, locale, or hazard to his person and his intestinal tract.
In the late 1980s, for example, he traveled to Brazil half a dozen times in search of "the lost black beer of the Amazon." He voyaged up the big river and its tributaries and found a rainbow of beers—white, blue, yellow, green. Finally, three days upriver from Manaus, he found a black beer brewed by bare-breasted Indian women in grass skirts, watched by men in feather ornaments, Western shorts, and digital watches. "Delightful hosts," he says. He painstakingly duplicated the recipe, substituting roasted hops and barley for chewed-and-roasted manioc. The result is a delicious black lager called Xingu, brewed in rural Brazil for Amazon, Inc., a five-woman company run by Latchis, whose purpose is to preserve or revive obscure beers and develop them for export.
In his next project for Amazon, Eames studied hieroglyphics so he could read about beer after wriggling into Egyptian tombs. "We visited about 50 tombs," he says. "We'd crawl 20 or 30 feet down these tunnels—very claustrophobic stuff—into rooms full of hieroglyphics about beer offerings." His mission was to track down the ingredients, and even the size and composition of the fermentation vessels, used to make "the lost beer of the pharaohs." Hekt, a bittersweet dark red ale, is scheduled to reach America sometime in 1993, just 6,000 years late.
Such exploits have led newspapers throughout the country to dub Eames "the Indiana Jones of Beer." He relishes the moniker, having exactly the sort of B-movie imagination that alarmed Adrian's teacher. In some ways Eames the Beer King is a hero willed into existence by the potent imagination of Eames the Dreamer, who likes to describe himself, only half mockingly, in third-person purple prose like "The Beer King directed his steely gaze upriver, toward the dark waters where the crocodiles lurked." On the other hand, Eames is a hypochondriac and a fretter who sweats on airplanes, has never had a driver's license, often loses his bearings, and quickly gets homesick for his wife and two kids. (His second son is Andrew Lucas Eames; check the initials.) But it's his job, his mission, so he swallows his fears to get his beers.
"I don't like to travel," the adventurer sighs, directing his steely gaze toward the big bag of anti-you-name-it pharmaceuticals that never leaves his sight on trips. "But you don't get to be Beer King by sitting on your ass in a pub in London."
WHICH IS WHY Alan Eames recently found himself on a crude bench in an adobe hut in Ollantaytambo, an old Inca village on the Urubamba River in the Peruvian Andes. Bowels rumbling, curiosity ablaze, Eames hefted an immense glass filled with murky fermenting liquid and intoned, "Lomotil meets chicha."
An Indian corn beer, chicha was the reason for this expedition. Andean tribes have been making it for centuries. It was sacred to the Incas, vital in the daily rituals that honored the sun god and dead ancestors, part of every celebration, festival, and funeral. In the myths of most cultures, beer was a divine gift bestowed by a goddess, and women were entrusted with the crucial responsibility of brewing. Thus it was with the Incas: the main duties of the royal concubines were to make the king's meals and his chicha. In fact, making chicha was the woman's job in every Inca household. Andean villages such as Ollantaytambo are some of the last places in the world where women retain this ancient role. They still make chicha under the auspices of a pre-Columbian goddess, Mamasara, and are also careful to thank Pachamama, the earth goddess, by pouring small offerings of beer onto the ground. (Most chicha drinkers do the same thing before every glassful.) Chicha opens a window onto the past, and Eames had come to look through it before progress slammed it shut.
Eusebia Ortiz de Orue, the chichera whose three-day-old beer we were drinking in her smoke-blackened cooking shed, was known for good chicha. She used a generous proportion of grain to water, and boiled the beer thoroughly to make it less gassy. People who watered their beer were despised, she said. "It's always been serious," said Eames. "If you were caught watering your beer in ancient Egypt, you were crucified on the door of your tavern and left to rot."
Ortiz also added bits of charcoal to the brewing beer "to absorb evil spirits," a custom that Eames said was practical as well as religious, since it clarified the beer. Her chicha was lukewarm, cloudy, khaki-colored, and a bit sour, with a light head that subsided soon after Ortiz poured it from a hollow gourd. Halfway through his liter-sized tumbler, Eames said its tartness and astringency reminded him of Belgian Lambic wheat beers.
Within 15 minutes after Ortiz announced that she had beer for sale by putting out her chicha stick—a long pole topped with flowers and herbs, or sometimes with red plastic folded to look like a bouquet—eight women had already settled in her cooking shed like secretaries at happy hour, chatting in Quechua with giant glasses in hand. Two men preferred to drink in the courtyard among the children, roosters, chickens, and guinea pigs. A bloody haunch of fresh beef hung from a rafter. Within half an hour, all of Ortiz's chicha was gone, at 50 cents a liter. But because it was carnaval, a time of heavy drinking, chicha sticks were sprouting all over the village. "When people drink chicha," said Ortiz, "they dance and sing and fight and fall all over each other." She would start another batch that night.
We had seen the beginnings of the process the night before, after arriving from Cuzco. Petra Schepens of the South American Explorer's Club in Lima had placed us in the care of Alex Robertson, a 25-year-old British expatriate whose company, Expediciones Manu, ran adventure trips into the Andes and Manu National Park out of Cuzco. Since it was the off-season and he was always up for anything anyway, Robertson took us to Ollantaytambo and introduced us to Adela Arenas, the manager of a hostal called El Aubergue. She was from the village and knew everyone, and she quickly determined who was currently making chicha, beginning with her mother, Ortiz.
The soaring mountains that encircled the village were blotting out the last of the daylight as we entered Ortiz's hut on the edge of a large cornfield. A few flickering candles and a cooking fire threw weird shadows onto the walls. A pot of water and coarsely-ground corn was boiling on the fire. An earlier batch of this mixture was dripping from a steaming reed basket into a clay pot. This germinal brew would be invaded overnight by airborne yeasts, and fermentation would begin. The next day it would be reheated and poured back over the mash for added flavor and a second fermentation.
Back outside, two loose bulls shadowed us down the dark dirt road, occasionally pawing the ground and making short feints in our direction. "Beer King Gored on Chicha Trail," said Eames, scuttling briskly sideways. (I was reminded of a ceremony that once took place in the mountain villages. The Indians would capture a condor and tie it to the back of a bull. The terrified condor would slash at the bull with its beak, and the tormented beast would chase the Indians, who were drunk on chicha, around the plaza. When both animals were exhausted the villagers would untie the condor and force chicha down its throat. If the drunken condor was able to fly back into the mountains, it was celebrated as a good omen.)
We visited two more homes, entering through trapezoidal doorways in stone walls cut by Inca masons. The scene was always the same—women stirred and poured and tended the chicha mash, in smoky cooking sheds lit by firelight. In the third shed, a wizened grandmother held a baby in one arm and bent the other to drink her chicha. "Puro maíz," she said lifting her glass in a smiling, toothless toast to the excellence of natural ingredients.
Eames was nearly dancing with excitement. "This is my life," he blurted. "They're using a reed basket to refine particulate matter from the wort. The shape of that basket and of the fermentation vessels, with pointed bottoms so you can stick them into the ground—this is all thousands of years old. It's exactly the same in Egypt and the Sudan. It's the same the world over. It's what we do as a species. We brew."
Exhausted by euphoria, Eames went straight to bed at El Aubergue. Robertson and I grabbed a few Cusqueña beers and headed for El Aubergue's sauna, ingeniously situated over part of a mountain stream so beer could cool while people steamed. Robertson described the quirks of expat life and the various tropical diseases his flesh had been heir to. Every now and then we sacrificed a little beer on the hot altar of the sauna god, then breathed in steam that smelled like freshly baked bread. And of course we talked about El Rey de Cerveza, upstairs dreaming about chicha and bulls and worlds linked by beer, where Incas trade toasts with pharaohs.
THE BEER KING was raised in Templeton, Massachusetts by strict teetotalers, but the family mansion had once been a tavern and the ghosts evidently remained influential. He had his first beer at 15, a Ballantine India Pale Ale, still his favorite American beer. "A sacrament," he moans.
By 18 he was compiling literary anecdotes about beer—they eventually became his book, A Beer Drinker’s Companion: 5,000 Years of Quotes and Anecdotes About Beer—and dreaming of ways to make his living through this passion. He opened the first imported beer store in Massachusetts, with 500 beers from 67 countries. Next he built 3 Dollar Deweys, his legendary saloon in Portland, Maine. People said he was crazy. There were no barstools or private tables, no TV, jukebox, or video games, no live bands on weekends. Even more astounding, there was no Bud, no Miller, and certainly no light beer ("The ultimate perversion of the brewer's art," says Eames). Narrow tables ran the length of the room, which threw strangers together, compelling them to talk. At the time, all this was revolutionary.
After three years behind the bar he sold the original Deweys and built another one in Brattleboro, Vermont, where he now lives. But a saloon had become too small a pulpit for his missionary spirit, so in 1987 he sold the place, became a consultant, went on a 16-city lecture tour for Guinness, and started writing about the history of beer for trade magazines. He also took his first trips to Brazil.
Eames, now 45, places himself in the nineteenth-century British tradition of the scholar-explorer—eccentric, obsessed, and devoted to work in the field as well as in the library. He has identified (and tasted) 117 styles of beer. He claims to have the finest library on beer in America, with 600 books and manuscripts in several languages, plus file cabinets filled with thousands of historical press clippings. "He's done the research," says Greg Gallagher, who hired Eames as a consultant on Ziegelhof, a non-alcoholic beer that he imports from Switzerland, "but he's also out there in the saloons with the people. He's the blood and guts of the tradition."
When he conducts beer tastings around the country or lectures at the New England School of Medicine or Brown University’s anthropology department, Eames begins with his tattoos covered—a bat, a squid, a huge octopus that drips down his left shoulder, done by a famous tattooist in a São Paulo slum, the aforementioned barrel, and an upright bear holding a stein, an ancient symbol for ale. "I begin in a dignified manner," he says, "but it turns into a tent revival, because when I lecture I'm half Fulton J. Sheen and half Jimmy Swaggart, and there's also a lot of P. T. Barnum in me. I get them so excited the whole room is waving their hands with questions."
Not that he requires a large audience. "I remember once he gave a talk in my office," says Guy DeStefano, who has known Eames for 15 years and owns Boston Beer Brands, an importing and distribution company. "Just me and him, drinking beers, and he started talking about beer as mankind's first stimulant, and how mankind needs stimulants for transcendental purposes, and how the Egyptians would pray to their gods for beer. And as he's telling me this he gets right down on his knees, really emoting, like Shakespeare. By the time he finished I thought I was having communion instead of a beer. When it comes to beer, he's a poet, an artist. He gives beer a soul, and nobody else does that."
"Alan is one of the greatest natural salesman and raconteurs I've ever met," says David Geary, whom Eames inspired to start Maine's first microbrewery. "He's absolutely full of shit sometimes, but his personality and imagination and intelligence, and his capacity for dreaming—I've never met anyone like him. He's a showman, but he teaches and informs, and at bottom is his deep and abiding love of beer and what it has meant to the human race. He never talks about getting loaded, or pickup trucks and yahoos. It's always the beauty of beer, the significance of it."
Eames deplores both the modern-day Carry Nations who see only evil in the bottle, and the "beer fascists" who chat with raised pinkies about zymurgy and chocolate raspberry overtones. "The point isn't the units of bitterness or the best breweries in Belgium," he says, hands slashing the air. "It's that anyone who ever walked upright has loved beer, celebrated it, told tales over it, hatched plots over it, courted over it. It's been terribly important to human history. To drink beer is to be human. That's why my mission in life is to preserve and protect the image of beer."
EAMES HAD BEEN WANTING to go to Peru for nearly a year, but lacked the means until the Hudepohl-Schoenling brewery in Cincinnati, for whom he often consults, agreed to underwrite his research. Eames, his friend Joel Jacobs, former editor of World of Beer magazine, and I boarded an AeroPeru flight in Miami not long after terrorists in Lima had bombed the airport, a statue of JFK, a North American cultural center, a Kentucky Fried Chicken, a Pizza Hut, and the U. S. Embassy (twice). Soon after we arrived, the State Department began advising people to avoid Peru, and then a cholera epidemic began its deadly sweep through the country. The chief threats to travelers, though, were theft and robbery, by-products of an inflation rate that hit 7,600 percent in 1990. “Smile,” said a sign in one Lima cab, “It Kills Time Between Disasters.”
But nothing can deflect the Beer King from his appointed rounds. So here he was, happy and nervous, keeping an eye peeled for unfamiliar beers and worrying about his sore throat, his aching teeth, his rumbling guts. He called South America "the dark continent, as far as beer goes, because nobody knows what's down here." Michael Jackson's massive The New World Guide to Beer skims through Latin America in two pages, most of it on Mexico. So Eames was an explorer, a pathfinder, fearlessly plunging into unknown fermented waters.
"We must go in," he said, striding resolutely through the doorway of the Bar Cordano, a grandly decrepit place across from the Lima train station. With Eames leading the way, we explored Malta Cusqueña and Malta Polar, which brought the afternoon's discoveries up to four—a decent day's work. Next Eames wanted to see the church and monastary of San Francisco. In the monk's dining room there was a huge 17th-century painting of the Last Supper. Our guide pointed out its Peruvian idiosyncrasies—the round table, the kids and dogs running around, the main dish of guinea pig, and . . .
"And they're drinking chicha, right?" Eames interrupted. "This has never been mentioned. The only Last Supper with chicha that's ever written about is in Cuzco." He looked solemn. "I believe fate leads me to these things."
A few steps away from the church, Eames took a sudden left into another timeworn bar. "I have a feeling there's a beer in here we've never seen," he said over his shoulder. He was right, and soon the mesa was littered with vanquished bottles of Arequipeña Malta. On the way out of the bar we noticed a hand-lettered sign: "Chicha Haciendo de Puro Maíz." Eames's eyes glowed. "Men, we are in a chichería." We about-faced and marched back to the table. The waiter needed both hands to carry the immense pitcher. The chicha tasted like hard cider, tart and refreshing. We plugged away at the seemingly bottomless pitcher, led always by the Beer King, whose rantings about the ignorance and commercialism of the beer industry slowly subsided, like the head on a mug of Guinness. He was silent on the taxi ride home, murmuring only, “Mamasara has me by the back of the neck."
The next night we decided to wash Lima's dust and fumes from our throats in an expat pub called the Brenchley Arms. A wary bartender inspected us from a window before buzzing us through the pub's wrought iron fence. Caution was in order, he told us later, because the war in Iraq had provoked a rash of anti-Yank bombings. His name was Mike Ella, Englishman and owner. Eames gave Ella a copy of A Beer Drinker's Companion, which began a slow trip down the bar. "This is what I dream about," said Eames, "people sitting in a bar reading my book."
An older British gent turned from the book to Eames with a wistful smile and said, "I'd forgotten about shandygaff." (Half beer, half lemonade or lemon soda.) Eames spoke of other odd beer combinations and their origins, such as champagne velvet—equal parts Guinness Stout and champagne, invented in honor of Prince Albert, Queen Victoria's husband, to signify the melding of nobility (champagne) and everyman (stout); and "the mother-in-law"—equal proportions of old and bitter ales, origins obvious.
Suddenly the lights flickered and someone announced, "They're going!" Moments later the pub was pitch dark. The regulars hardly noticed and never stopped talking. Ella lit some candles. "Probably another bomb at a power station," he said, shrugging. "They'll get it fixed in about 30 minutes; they've gotten good at it."
The flight to Cuzco, usually about an hour, took three days. We almost got out on the first day, after a five-hour delay, but the pilot made a U-turn on the runway after deciding that the plane was momentarily unfit to cross the Andes. Our drill for three days: get up at 4:00 A.M. to reach the airport by 5:00 for a 6:30 flight; squirm for five or six hours in chairs designed to mortify human flesh; learn that the flight had been cancelled; return to hotel, exhausted. After two days of this Jacobs surrendered to disgust and flew home, his snores almost drowned by the jet's engines. Eames and I forged ahead to Cuzco (11,000 feet), where he immediately took to bed, groaning with altitude sickness despite the Diamox he'd popped en route. "Well," he wheezed several hours later, pulling himself up onto an elbow, "I guess I'll smoke a cigarette and see if it kills me."
He survived yet again, and the next day we were in Ollataytambo, where lomotil met chicha and Eames looked through a window to the past.
FROM OLLAYTAYTAMBO we headed back down the magnificent Urubamba Valley with Robertson and David Espejo Chavez, a Quechua who guides adventure trips in the Andes. We stopped in the small town of Calca because Espejo knew of a woman there renowned for frutillada, a special chicha lagered with fruit, primarily strawberries. Thanks to Eames’s beer karma, strawberries were in season, and the bouquet of bougainvillea above her door told us she was open for business.
Her frutillada was pink and altogether gulpable. "World-class," murmured the Beer King, who had been spending a lot of time on the throne, but forced himself to keep drinking through sheer professionalism. The chichera, her hair in long gray braids, kept the evil spirits out of her beer by covering it with a cloth sprinkled with pieces of carbon. She wouldn't divulge her exact recipe, but said frutillada could include anise, apples, mint, chamomile, celery tops, fennel, quince, beets, raisins, and bottled malt beer in addition to strawberries. And if you put the beer underground for a few days, she added, Pachamama improved its flavor.
Espejo ate a spoonful of the onion-and-pepper mixture always handy in chicherías. His eyes popped with satisfaction at the burn. He passed the dish to an old Indian in a dirty poncho. "Once he gets two or three glasses of chicha in him," said Espejo, "he will have energy to walk back home in the mountains. He can walk and walk, no problem."
Next Espejo took us to a tiny commercial chichería. The owner put cloves in her peppery frutillada, and sprinkled the top with powdered cilantro and cinammon. "To add flavor and to keep you from looking like a barrel"—bloated with gas. She was a mestizo and had never heard of protecting the beer with carbon. "What evil spirits?" she asked.
We went on to the carnaval celebration at Coya and settled on the church steps in the main square with beer and boiled corn-on-the-cob. Traditional dancers were swirling and dipping to the music of flutes, panpipes, and drums. Espejo said this was the most traditional of all the celebrations in the Urumbamba Valley, yet the bandstand was draped with five huge banners advertising the sponsor, Pepsi—"the taste of a new generation," said the emcee before introducing dancers from the mountain villages.
We repaired to a food stall made of fragrant eucalyptus branches. Over beer and crispy roast guinea pig—served whole, with curled paws and rodential rictus—Eames mentioned that in Mongolia a bride and groom are pronounced married once they flick chung beer in three directions. Espejo said that the oldest Indians still dip their fingers into their chicha three times, and flick it towards the sky, then pour some out to Pachamama. (Garcilaso de la Vega, son of an Inca princess and a conquistador, wrote in the early 1600s that the Incas, before drinking chicha, "would wet the tips of their fingers in the first cup and, looking devoutly at the sky, would toss up the drop with a flip of the finger, offering it to the Sun as a thanksgiving for what he had given them to drink, at the same time kissing the air two or three times.")
Eames, gingerly tasting a morsel of guinea pig, recounted the Egyptian myth of beer's creation and declaimed hieroglyphic love poems written by smitten Egyptians: "Your eyes are like black beer, your skin is like beer foam." He spoke of pillaging Vikings made fearless by countless tankards of their greatest invention, ale, and recounted the saga of their fabulous beerhall in the sky, Valhalla, where the udders of the she-goat Heidrun gushed endless streams of ale. He traced the beery etymologies of words and phrases such as snit, swipe, hiccup, bridal, beserk, and mind your Ps and Qs. "Now that I've listened to you," said Ejspejo, "I like beer even more."
Near Pisac, on the winding road back to Cuzco, Espejo directed us up a steep dirt road. Where we stopped, Inca terraces spilled toward the valley at sheer angles, turning the mountain into a green ziggurat. A rocky footpath curled up towards some ruins, past looted Inca graves. The path was steep, the air was thin, and the Beer King gasped that his heart might burst at any second. Nevertheless he found the breath to sing several verses of an old paean to barley broth, and we all joined in like happy dwarves marching to work: "Oh, beer, beer, beer, beer . . ."
Despite this brief rally, though, the Beer King was winding down now, weakened by the chicha trots, which he worried was cholera. But he eventually escaped both death and Lima.
The closer we got to Miami, the happier Eames looked. His forehead smoothed, his mouth relaxed. "Like I told you, I don't care for travel," he said. "People have the notion that I'm running around the world banging them down. Forget it. I do these things because I'm compelled to. It's my job." His forehead re-furrowed. "I'll probably be in Suriname within a year," he went on, looking wan but resolute, a hero lashing himself onward. "The Maroons there still make some very interesting beer, and somebody has to document it."
Haunted by that thought and all the work yet to be done, the Beer King directed his steely gaze at the gin-and-tonic before him, and dispatched it with one swift movement of his mighty elbow.
©Steve Kemper. All rights reserved. Cannot be reproduced without consent of the author.