It’s popularly thought that the peoples of the New World knew nothing of alcohol before the arrival of corrupting Europeans. That may have been true of North America, but it most certainly was not true of South America. There the locals had been fermenting cassava mash into beer for thousands of years before white men arrived. It isn’t difficult to see how they stumbled across the process. Just as Eurasian peoples discovered that a slurry of mashed wheat turns into something mind-altering when left to sit around for several days or weeks, indigenous peoples from Brazil to Guyana, Suriname and Ecuador found that something altogether different is created when nature is allowed to have its way with a bowl of half-processed cassava slush. For indeed as those who’ve read previous posts on the subject know, any concentrated carbohydrate can be used to make beer — which can then be further distilled into hard liquor.
As far as I know the pre-Columbian peoples of South American never took the process that far, however they did develop a sophisticated process of beer-making, by which cassava was boiled and mashed, then strained and poured into large pots to ripen. The “culture” was created by the women who did the mashing. As they mashed they’d chew some of the cooked tuber, then spit it back into the pot, thus introducing a fair amount of bacteria to the brew. Sounds unorthodox (and more than a little disgusting), but as the fermentation proceeded and the alcohol levels rose, any dangerous bacteria would be killed off (ideally, anyway). Indigenous peoples used the beverage (known variously as nihamanci or kaschiri) as a safe alternative to river water, and for inducing trances during shamanistic rituals. Coincidentally I use beer in the very same way, though a lot less often than I used to, since Mrs. Pastry tends not to speak to me afterward.