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Features

How a few brewers are keeping the bubbles winking on craft beer in India

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In the 1780s, a few years after the Company rule began, when Calcutta became its capital and Warren Hastings the first governor-general, a London brewer called Hodgson began shipping out barrels of a strongly hopped beer called October ale for the British stationed in the country.

The beer not only survived an arduous six-month journey over rough seas but became better with ageing.

This was the prototype of a style that would later become famous in the UK as the Indian Pale Ale (IPA) and then be rediscovered by American craft brewers in the 1980s. This style is, in fact, at the forefront of the entire craft beer revolution globally, with hipster beer nerds seeking out variants made by different, individualistic brewers.

In India, largely lager land, the IPA, despite its history, is not a terribly popular beer. However, this spring, there is a new twist to the tale. White Rhino, a small but rapidly growing craft brewery that makes about 50,000 litres of beer (in three variants) in Malanpur, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, is readying to ship out bottles of its hoppy-but-balanced IPA to the UK, a market where it sees potential for India’s fledgling craft beers in bars and restaurants, but not necessarily supermarkets.

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White Rhino’s Ishaan Puri is going to export his IPA, launched late last year, for retail in bars and restaurants in the UK. This is an irreverent reversal of the beer style’s colonial connection.

 

This is arguably the first time that an Indian brewer is attempting to find a foothold for its IPA in the UK, says Ishaan Puri, White Rhino’s founder. While it is possible to see this fledgling attempt as carrying coals to Newcastle, the reversal of the colonial trade is interesting not just symbolically but also because it takes India’s nascent craft beer story forward.

But what really is craft beer? Despite a boom in craft brew pubs (there are around 100) in India and the emergence of players like Bira 91 and White Rhino to great fanfare in metros, there is a fair amount of confusion over its definition. The American Craft Brewers’ Association defines craft beer as anything that is “small, independent (not more than 25% stake held by anyone other than the brewer) and traditional”.

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The accent is on innovating upon traditional styles, and brewmasters specialise in giving twists to tradition.

In India, despite the category growing by leaps and bounds — a far cry from 2008, when there were just two brew pubs — inventiveness and diversity, two hallmarks of craft beer are often overlooked. While there are some credible brewers focused on quality and some evolved customers, who now define themselves as loyalists of Doolally, Toit, Independence or Windmills (all microbreweries in Mumbai, Pune and Bengaluru), a large chunk of the market is fad-led. Many are going for “craft beer like flavoured nimbu paani—sweeter, lighter lagers,” says Puri.

Beer enthusiasts often do not realise the drink’s diversity. Forget Reinheitsgebot — the 500-year-old Bavarian law governing purity of German beers (only water, barley and hops can be used) – not many know about the revered Westmalle tripel (known for its exquisite balance), lambic beers (which taste much like our kanji, and is only produced with natural yeast), dark malty Czech styles or the IPA.

“I am awaiting the growth of discerning customers so that some brew pubs don’t get away with the beer that they now serve,” says Vikram Achanta, CEO of drinks consultancy Tulleho. The market is still underdeveloped, say observers, who add that craft beer’s estimated 20% growth per annum has nothing to do with evolving tastes. Instead, draught could be selling more at microbreweries because of its price. “Many Gurgaon brew pubs, for example, sell a 300 ml glass of draught for Rs 150-175, a premium beer like Foster’s or Heineken is priced at Rs 279-350 and imported ones at Rs 500 a pint,” says Vaibhav Singh of Perch, a Delhi bar.

Low customer knowledge is perhaps just a fallout of how Indians have traditionally drunk beer. “Strong” beer marketed around the idea of machismo still sells the most at vends. Foreign mass brands are thought of as premium lifestyle drinks (Corona, after all, is the premium bestseller in the country). Then, there are taboos, stereotypes and moral policing especially of women. The idea that beer can be a gourmet experience still needs to take root.

A few brewers and pubs are attempting to change this conversation. While Bira 91, the poster child of India’s craft beer story, is looking to enter new markets like the UK, Singapore, Thailand and the UAE and to start producing more from its third brewery in Rajasthan after its latest round of funding last year ($8 million), White Rhino, which debuted to word-of-mouth acclaim, is keeping it strictly small and familyowned for now, but also looking to enter newer markets.

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Kegged beer is always fresher and more flavourful than bottled versions

 

Then there are microbreweries such as Toit, Windmills, Gateway, Arbor and Independence in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Pune, where the focus is on quality. In Maharashtra, where “kegging” (beer produced at microbreweries sold in kegs to other establishments) is allowed, some brew pubs are collaborating with well-known bars and restaurants to do exclusive styles. O Pedro in Mumbai, for instance, has collaborative beers from Pune-based Great State Ale Works. This is a trend we will see more of depending on state laws (not all states allow kegging).

In Delhi, state laws need further amendments to allow microbreweries. However, as regulations change and people get to know their beers, the conversation around craft beer is only going to froth over.

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