When the sun crosses the horizon and enters the valley of Cuzco these mornings, it competes with a brown mass of chilly air. As its population grows, Cuzco’s winter air is increasingly dirty. But people here, besides sneezing in the morning, have other ideas. They say that the plume of steam the local brewery lets off cleans the air of the upper, colonial and Inca part of town.
The steam from beer cleaning the air is a fascinating idea, especially given the importance of beer in Cuzco’s social life.
Cuzco is certainly not alone in facing increasing air pollution as a result of growth. This haze probably results less from any industrial development–since Cuzco’s main industry is tourism, or from fields being opened and burned as happens in other areas. Instead it probably develops from the massive increase in the number of cars, trucks, and busses circulating in this narrow valley.
Almost everywhere, the earth’s cities sit under a growing haze. Certainly this is true in nearby La Paz, Bolivia, as well as most cities in the developed world. But the mountain valley that is so beautiful, with its trees and fields above and around the city’s buildings makes the problem worse.
As a result, the other factor is probably the cold air that sinks into the valley at night making a kind of inversion locking the pollution in during the winter.
Although the smog may result mostly from vehicular traffic, industry cannot be completely uninvolved. So it is important to note that the largest industry in Cuzco is the Cervecería Cusqueña, the local brewery, which despite local pride is owned by the multinational Bacchus company.
But the brewery is far more than an industry. It produces a product that fills many cusqueños with pride given the awards their local beer has won in international events.
In addition people drink the local beer often. When friends get together they often share glasses of Cusqueña beer. After soccer matches they pass around a bottle of beer, each one filling a glass and drinking before passing the glass, or more often plastic cup, to the next person. When families get together to celebrate birthdays and other events, or often just being together, the beer bottle and cup pass among them.
When people pay each other a visit, they often do so with bottles of beer in hand as an offering to the hosts. Those bottles are soon opened and the golden and effervescent liquid not only symbolizes the visit but it literally brings people together in the heightened reality from beer in the body.
People generally pour the first splash of their cup of beer to the earth, to share with the Pachamama, this almsot holy liquid. Beer, like a prayer, connects them with the land, their past, and the cosmos as a result.
Because of all this, when I first heard that steam from the brewery could clean the air, I was not surprised. It made sense. Beer is just so important here for so many social and ritual events where it can be seen as something which brings people together and makes society work.
If just bringing out the beer bottles can change the nature of people’s hanging out such that it becomes almost sanctified, then of course beer could also have the effect of changing the dirty air that afflicts the city in winter.
I was told that the steam comes from processing the barley and from very clean, natural water, and so is “pure”. As a result it seems to create a boundary around the old city to keep the smog reduced.
The pureness, makes sense, in the transfer of the characteristics of natural grain and spring water to the massive white plume that rises from the brewery in the morning. But it also makes sense because the massive campus, tanks, and buildings of the brewery lie right on the boundary between the ancient city and its expansion outward into the Watanay River valley.
Cuzco, like most cities, in this age when we rely on fossil fuels for transport and so much more faces a growing problem of an irritating haze that makes eyes red and noses run at the same time it most likely increases the rates of cardiopulmonary problems. It people, as they cope with the annoyance rely on their own culture for understanding and the proposal of possible solutions.
Whether any of this has any scientific value in cleaning Cuzco’s air is an issue I leave to the environmental scientists. Instead, this note just documents and explains the fascinating idea that the massive release of white steam at dawn, a natural and dangerous time of transition, might have a positive effect on the environment by blocking pollution. Cheers.