If you’ve never seen it, never been around it, and it’s not in your own ancestry, the first thing you think of when you hear about spit fermented alcohol is probably “gross.”
You’re not alone.
Anyone who’s read about spit fermented alcohol or watched a documentary on it likely has a visceral gut reaction to this delicacy from the wilds of South America.
But before you pass judgment, be sure you know all there is to know about spit fermented alcohol. You never know; you might change your mind.
What Is Spit Fermented Alcohol?
Spit fermented drinks are thousands of years old and are a deeply ingrained part of many cultures around the world. The most well-known today are the kuchikamizake from Japan and the chicha and masato from Peru.
Kuchikamizake, which literally means “mouth-chewed sake,” is made from rice that is boiled, chewed up, and spit into a large bin. The spit and rice combo is then left for days to ferment. Other ingredients are added for flavor and spice, and now you have a beverage for your family gathering.
Chicha is produced much the same way, only in this case the main ingredient is a purple Peruvian corn called choclo. Once again, the corn is cooked, chewed up, and spit out, and left to ferment.
Masato follows all of the same steps but with the famed and native yuca root from Peru. This drink is perhaps the most interesting and dangerous among the three as eating yuca incorrectly can actually make a person terribly ill. It can even be deadly. Thus, it is a deeply ingrained cultural process to peel and boil the yucca to sit in the mouths of the preparers before being spat out for fermentation.
What Do Spit Fermented Alcohol Drinks Have in Common?
Women, of course.
Just like with beer, it was and has been traditionally a female process to grow and harvest the food, and then to prepare, chew, and spit out the grain or root for the fermented drink.
Indeed, in Japan, the nobility once demanded that their kuchikamizake be made only by beautiful young virgins.
Spit fermented alcohol across civilizations also has myriad cultural implications. A high-quality drink is aged for many days, includes various fruits and spices, and has a rich and fruity flavor to it. Lower quality drinks are sourer thanks to the inclusion of Lactobacillus and the absence of added ingredients.
While women have largely been left out of many of these civilizations’ histories, they hold a great deal of power as they are the ones choosing to prepare high- or low-quality beverages, how to serve them, and in what order to serve them to their men.
A man in trouble with his wife may find himself the last to be served and in an ugly, crumbling dish, letting the whole tribe know this marriage is in conflict.
Can You Make Alcohol with Spit?
So now you’re wondering if spit creates alcohol; after all, these drinks are all alcoholic, most hovering around the 6% ABV range.
The answer is, sadly, no.
What the spit does is convert the starch in the main ingredient – corn, rice, or yucca – to sugar.
You see, these grains and rice are all high in starch, much like the barley or wheat we use for beer.
Whereas grapes have all their own natural sugars, and so can simply be crushed and fermented, barley and wheat are high in starch, so brewers will roast the grain before boiling and steeping it to convert the starch to sugar.
The same process is undergone with rice for sake. It must be cooked and milled before steaming and fermenting.
Well, somehow, and no one is quite sure how, ancient cultures picked up on the power of human saliva to essentially do the same thing.
Human saliva has enzymes in it that break starches and carbohydrates down and convert them to sugar. So the act of chewing and holding the grain or root in your mouth will convert the starches to sugar. Then, when you spit it into a container, the chewed ingredient and your spit are ready for fermentation.
In the old days, the spit ingredient was simply left out with a light cover on it to prevent any bugs or other solid contaminants from getting into it, and yeast, and often bacteria, would eagerly get into the spit “juice” and get to work converting it an alcoholic beverage.
As with all other fermented beverages made in this way, the production of alcohol will cleanse the drink of toxins or anything else that could harm a human, and in the vast majority of cases these drinks are perfectly safe.
Should You Drink It?
So should you drink it?
It’s really up to you.
One health concern is that Hepatitis B has been known to transmit from drinking Chicha or Masato for those who do not have their shots in order. Alcohol, apparently, will not clear out Hepatitis B. So be mindful of that.
In terms of body fluids and saliva, however, all reports seem to say that you cannot tell that you are drinking human saliva. Indeed, in the case of masato, the drink tastes like a fruit cocktail.
It is also critical to be mindful of the fact that it is pretty much cultural suicide to refuse the drink if it is offered to you by a tribe you happen to be visiting.
So, either don’t visit anyone who might offer you this drink, or prepare to offend.
In the end, like with everything, you will most likely make your decision, in the moment, based on your gut.
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