Is Native American beer (tiswin) beer? By German law, beer can only consist of barley, water, hops, and yeast. There are thousands of variations on that basic recipe. The type of barley, roasting the barley, the type of hops, when to add the hops, how much hops, the strain of yeast, etc. All of these things fundamentally change the flavor and appearance of the beer, but they don’t change what beer is. Even when ingredients are added, such as fruit, the basic building blocks remain the same. Barley and hops are not native to North America, though. They were introduced in the 1600s by European colonizers. So, what did Native Americans drink and was it beer?
Native American Beer
If you subscribe to the European definition of beer, what Native Americans drank wasn’t beer. However, if you consider beer to be brewed grain plus a bittering agent, Native Americans drank a wide assortment of beers.
Plains and southwestern Native Americans drank a beverage called tiswin. Every area, and probably every town, had a variation on tiswin. However, the basic recipe is corn, water, and yeast. Corn is more difficult to brew with than barley, though. Barley is a diastatic grain, which means that its starches easily convert to sugar. The sugar is then eaten by yeast and transformed into alcohol. Corn is not diastatic; its starch is stable. Today, to make moonshine, moonshiners will mix some barley with their corn in order to convert the corn starch. Or, they’ll just add bags of white sugar. In the past, the preferred method was amylase enzyme.
The amylase enzyme converts starches to sugars. Fortunately, humans produce plenty of it. Unfortunately, it’s in saliva. The most common way to extract sugar from corn was chewing up the corn kernels and then spitting them out.
Typically, women would sit around chewing and spitting corn kernels for hours; this is common for chicha, a Central and South American corn beer. The kernels would then be mixed with water and allowed to sit. Yeast is a wild organism that is small enough to float on the wind. So, if you just leave a sugary drink near an open window, it will likely pick up some wild yeasts. The yeast will then ferment the drink. You might pick up some bad bacteria along the way too. So you might want to be careful. You can go here if you’re interested in brewing with wild yeast.
Yeast multiply as they ferment a liquid; so, you end up with a thick sludge at the bottom of the brewing container that contains thousands of yeast. Tiswin (not chicha), was usually made by germinating the corn and then grinding it up. The germination process releases the sugars. The brewers would then add the sugary corn and water to an old tiswin brewing container. The yeast that were already present would then ferment a new drink. Some current brewers, especially homebrewers, like to wash and reuse yeast.
After a few days, the tiswin would be ready to drink. It was fairly low in alcohol, two or three percent, and had to be drunk before it would spoil. The low alcohol content meant it wasn’t preserved very well. Also, it wasn’t hopped.
Hops serve two basic functions in beer: they add bitter flavors, and they preserve the beer. Hops were not prevalent in the United States, so an alternative was used. This alternative was called gruit. Gruit is a blend of several different herbs that would add bitterness to the beer as well as slow down the spoiling process. Some tiswin had gruit, but typically, it didn’t.
I’ve only had a Native American corn beer one time. So, my experience isn’t indicative of tiswin widely, but I can say I wasn’t much of a fan. I drank it room temperature in a hot teepee, so maybe it’s not a fair taste test. From my memory, the beer tasted like flat Bud Light.
I’ve brewed my own tiswin four times so far. I used amylase enzyme from a factory (not from spit) to convert the starches. I added centennial and chinook hops (popular with IPAs) and used a popular beer brewing yeast. The results were drinkable. Corn is lighter in flavor, weight, and color than barley. So, the beer came out thin and pale, but it tasted like beer. Better yet, it tasted like tiswin. It tasted completely American.