Travel always affords experiences to learn about a culture through its food and drink, but some simply can't resist bringing a taste of their travels back home with them. Such was the case for Alireza Saifi, founder of and brewer at Andean Brewing Company in Blauvelt, New York.
Saifi, a born- and bred- New Yorker, became intrigued by the Andean maca root during a trip to Peru, where he sampled some unusual-tasting local home brews. The flavor profile tempted him with possibilities. Why not experiment with maca in his own brewery? Between the general craft brew boom and the ever-growing interest in “exotic” ingredients thanks to an increasingly globalized world, a beer made with maca would make for a compelling story, not to mention a uniquel ale.
When Saifi returned Stateside, he launched Kuka, his maca-based beer. According to the brewery's website, “In [the] native Andean language, Aymaran, 'kuka,' means 'food for workers and travelers,' a reference to the bounty provided by gods.... Maca is a main source of food and one of the very few plants that can be cultivated in the harsh climate of the Andes. And for thousands of years, Maca has provided the natives with the means to survive for generations.”
That's approximately 3,000 years. People in the Andes have long eaten maca baked and in soups, and have fermented the root for homemade chicha. Though Saifi was probably the first American to brew beer with maca, he certainly wasn't the first American to import it. Maca has long been a popular supplement, sold in pill, liquid, and powder form, and often marketed as an aphrodisiac; in fact, it's been labeled as “Peruvian ginseng” to make its “enhancement” characteristics more prominent.
For the American palate, the maca-brewed beer is something of an acquired taste. The flavor most people pick up on is turnip, with a hint of bitter butterscotch. Beer lovers on the rating site Beer Advocate give the Kuka Belgian Pale Ale a score of 76, with most reviewers giving the beer a three on a scale of one to five, where five is the top rating. The Belgian Pale Ale is one of nearly ten maca-based beers Andean Brewing Company has been turning out for sale at retailers and at a handful of breweries and eateries around New York's Hudson Valley region. Others include an Imperial Stout, which is also brewed with chocolate, coffee beans, and piñon, and a Banana Nut Brown Ale, which blends maca with real bananas.
At a retail price of $10 for a 12-ounce bottle, trying Kuka Beer is an expensive tasting experiment, but one that is likely to appeal to seekers of novel flavors. For travelers who want to try Kuka Beer where it's made, the Andean Brewing Company opened its tasting room in the fall of 2013. The tasting room is open on Thursday and Friday evenings and tours of the brewery are held on the second and fourth Saturday of each month.