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FSSAI restricts yeast count in beer, microbreweries hit across the country

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BENGALURU: More than 170 microbreweries across the country may be hit by a recent notification by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) that restricts the yeast count in beer, a factor that’s central to its appeal. With the rule coming into effect on April 1, microbrewery owners and craft brewers will meet FSSAI officials in Delhi this week to seek clarity, since the stipulated yeast level is significantly lower than that found typically in such brews.

Microbrewery owners are unhappy that they have not been given a separate category in the notification. They also aim to seek clarity on whether FSSAI is interpreting yeast as a contaminant and not as a raw material to manufacture craft beer.

The regulator wants to regulate “yeast and mould” contaminants, which may be unintentionally formed in beer as a result of improper sanitation and faulty storage. But it does not seek to regulate yeast as an integral ingredient and raw material in the beer brewing process, say companies.

“The notification does not appear to be clearly worded and this may lead to confusion. We therefore intend to file a representation with FSSAI in this regard,” said Gaurav Sikka of the Craft Brewers Association of India (CBAI).

Sikka is also the managing director of Bengaluru-based Arbor Brewing Co.

According to the FSSAI gazette notification, regular beer has to be entirely free of yeast while draught beer will be permitted a ceiling of 40 colony-forming units (CFU). The idea is to ensure that microbreweries across India maintain health and safety standards during the brewing and stocking processes.

“Normal beer has to be yeastfree,” said FSSAI CEO Pawan Agarwal. “In case of draught and microbrewery beer, there will be a yeast count ceiling of 40 CFU. The fear is that yeast above the permissible limit may multiply and render the beer unsafe.”

While Agarwal maintains he has not heard from CBAI yet, he’s open to a discussion. “If microbrewery owners feel there is a technical challenge and find it impossible to achieve the result with the ceiling mentioned in the order, they can file a representation and we can look into the matter,” he said.

Microbrewery owners assert that they cannot work with the given count. They give the example of a typical wheat beer that needs 3-4 million CFU. “Internationally, there is no restriction on yeast content and is considered good manufacturing practice. In the UK, it is compulsory for real ale to have a minimum count of 1 lakh units of yeast,” said Lalit Ahlawat, who owns microbreweries like Soi 7, Adda by Striker and Striker Sky Bar in Gurgaon. “If FSSAI enforces these parameters, all microbreweries in India will fail to meet this expectation. CBAI is already in talks (for) a legal remedy if required.”

From two a decade ago, craft microbreweries have proliferated, with most located in Bengaluru, Gurgaon, Mumbai and Pune. This in turn has helped the overall industry grow on the back of a rising number of outlets, increasing affluence and a younger clientele seeking a more varied experience. In addition, it has triggered a wave of newer craft beer brand launches from labels such as Bira, White Rhino and Simba.

“The notification is without a parallel in any other market in the world. We won’t be able to brew some of the most interesting beer styles like Hefeweizen and Belgian witbier because they can only be served unfiltered to stay true to its character,” said Suketu Talekar, cofounder of Pune-based Doolally Craft Beers, adding that the FSSAI order was “absurd and arbitrary”.

Gurgaon-based consultant brewer Ishan Grover, who will be part of the meeting with FSSAI, said the team will present international references to seek clarity. “If this is true, only commercial lagers like Budweiser and Kingfisher will be able to meet this permissible count,” he said.

Local bottled beer will not be affected as it undergoes an expensive and extensive filtration process that eliminates the yeast count completely. But it will keep several imported brands such as Hoegaarden, Leffe and Erdinger off the shelves, said experts.

“Revenue impact will be considerable as most craft beer brands earn at least 50% of sales from wheat beer,” said beer evangelist John Eapen, who’s based in Bengaluru. “It will affect imports from Germany and Belgium.”

The development also comes at a time when most companies including United Breweries, the country’s biggest beer maker, plans to launch craft beer. While 80% of the beer segment is still skewed toward stronger variants, younger adults tend to be more inclined towards craft beer and lighter variants, especially in urban markets.

“Micro-brewpubs fall under the food service and restaurant sector and NRAI is willing to engage with the FSSAI on any concerns which will impair their functioning,” said Rahul Singh, president of National Restaurant Association of India.

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