Bolivia coca beer helps ease altitude sickness


A Bolivian brewer has come up with an innovative solution for quenching thirst and coping with altitude sickness: coca beer, based on the same leaf from which cocaine is derived.

Coca has only recently acquired its nefarious reputation: For millenniums, people living along the Andes mountains have chewed on the plant’s leaves. The juice has a mild stimulant effect, easing stomach pain and helping people from the lowlands cope with altitude sickness, known locally as “soroche.”

Visitors to high-altitude cities such as La Paz, located 3,600 meters above sea level, often rest and drink coca tea to deal with soroche. Now there is another option.

“As good Germans, we love beer,” said Hamburg native Malina as she sipped a bottle of coca beer along with her traveling companion, Timo. The two students, in their late 20s, are traveling across South America. “This coca beer is good because here in La Paz, it helps us handle altitude sickness,” she said.

She compared the taste to Hefeweizen, a full-bodied unfiltered wheat beer from Bavaria.

The beer in question is called Ch’ama, or “strength,” in the Aymara language of Lake Titicaca area natives. It is made from malt, yeast, hops and soaked coca leaves, with no additives or preservatives.

It is in demand among tourists “who want to try something new,” said Alejandra Orihuela, owner of a bar named K’umara — “healthy” in Aymara.

She said a group of German and American tourists liked it so much they came by several times a day for their coca beer, “as if it were breakfast and lunch.”

Coca beer has been produced since 2011 by Cerveceria Vicos, a brewery based in the city of Sucre, south-central Bolivia.

“This is a highly fermented white beer with 5 percent alcohol content — unfiltered, unpasteurized — and has the moderate aroma, color and flavor of coca leaf and hops,” said Cerveceria Vicos owner and manager Victor Escobar, who claims the beverage is an “energizing” tonic.

To produce Ch’ama coca beer, the company first soaks coca leaves in water, then adds malted barley and hops until the mix reaches its proper consistency. After a 20-day fermentation process, the concoction is bottled.

Cerveceria Vicos is a small brewery, producing 1,000 liters of coca beer a day. Retail prices vary, but Ch’ama retails for up to $3.60 per bottle. It is sold in Bolivia and towns just across the borders with Peru and Chile.

Cocaine is also produced by soaking coca leaves, but instead of water, drug dealers use kerosene, gasoline and chemicals including hydrochloric acid and ammonia. A solution from the leaves is then filtered, refined and crystallized.

Bolivia opposes the use of cocaine, but deplores the demonization of the coca plant. President Evo Morales, a former head of the country’s coca growers union, is a strong supporter of finding legal ways of using the plant and of rehabilitating its reputation.