Aritro Mukherjee, an IT consultant at Salt Lake’s Sector V, is out with friends for a quick weekend afternoon drink. Their poison? Beer. Saathi Agarwal, a partner at a beauty products startup, is also sipping beer at a cosy lounge on a pleasant November afternoon. Beer? In November? The truth is, many Kolkatans have got rid of their seasonal hangover when it comes to beer, and the November nip hasn’t caused any dip in sales.
Kolkata’s GenY is gulping down beer throughout the year, and not only the same old brands. Thanks to the easy availability of globally renowned labels and increasing disposable incomes, drinkers are increasingly appreciating the distinctive quality and taste of the best beers, and there’s a noticeable shift towards the premium segment. “Despite not being a high-volume market, Kolkatans have shown a tremendous affinity to almost all top-level beer brands, like the Delhi and Chandigarh markets,” says Samar Singh Sheikhawat, senior vice-president (marketing), United Breweries Ltd (UBL), which controls over 50% of the beer market in India.
“The ‘premiumization’ of Kolkata’s beer market happened in the last three-four years. As the beer market is a 99% male bastion, the city’s young-urban cosmopolitan males are gulping down premium domestic as well as imported beers like never before,” he adds. According to him, the eastern region is neither sophisticated nor a logistically advantageous market for premium beer-makers. “However, these do not have a big impact on the price points of the premium beers available here,” he adds. An upbeat UBL expects its super-premium beer brands to contribute 15% to its total sales by volume and 25% by value in the next five years.
Gautam Singh, associate director at The Park (bar division), feels the City of Joy is slowly but steadily catching up with the beer culture of Bengaluru or Delhi. He says the influx of international quality beers did the trick. “Even a decade back, only a couple of good top-quality beer brands were available on countertops. The freshness of a draught beer [served from a pressurised cask or keg rather than from a bottle or can] has an immense appeal for youngsters. And it doesn’t die down in winter, which only stays for a month in Kolkata. Around 25% of our total alcoholic beverage sales comes from beer during this period. In summer, it just goes up to 35%,” explains Singh.
Youth connect and Kolkata’s year-long sultry weather boost beer consumption here, feels Snigdha Kumar, area sales manager (institutional beer sales-east), at Kingfisher. “Winter isn’t really an off season for us in Kolkata, as all big festivals — such as Durga Puja, Christmas and New Year are during this period. And flaunting an imported or premium beer bottle is now a style statement inside a bar, lounge or nightclub. Besides Scotch whisky, premium beers are considered an aspirational drink these days,” she explains. “Besides floating customers, a bigger section of first-time drinkers are also picking beer. Premium beer forms around 25% of the total Kingfisher lager beer sales in Kolkata. We are witnessing as much as a 50%-60% year-on-year jump in beer sales in this megacity,” she adds.
Premium mild beers have been around in India for some time now. But the difference now is that more brewers are making them in India rather than importing them, as the segment is growing ahead of the ‘strong’ category, mainly in metro markets. While Heineken (the costliest India-made beer), Kingfisher Ultra, Carlsberg and Miller rule the premium beer domain, Kingfisher Ultra Max, Budweiser Magnum and Peroni are the most sought-after domestic premium brands in terms of price points. The other two that form the ‘Big Three’ of beer — SABMiller (maker of premium Italian brand Peroni Nastro Azzurro) and Anheuser-Busch InBev, have also begun manufacturing their flagship premium light brands in India. So does Mahou, the numero uno Spanish beer maker. With an eye on more revenue and fresh beer, microbrewery licences are currently given only by a few state governments, including Bengal.
Erik d’Auchamp, CEO, Mahou India, says: “Bengal, especially the Kolkata market, has a very interesting consumer base because of its high growth potential. With an increasingly urbanized and sophisticated consumer group that is looking for choice, the megacity has a good split between off-premise and on-premise consumers. So, it gives consumer a place where he can experience the brand both off and on premise. An active on-premise consumer base here ranges from permit rooms to clubs to high-end accounts. The on-premise beer sales here weigh more than other parts of the country.” Mahou India wants to expand towards the suburbs. “As many as 400 outlets in Bengal currently sell our beer, which we plan to increase over a period of time,” d’Auchamp says. Beer is a social drink and beer enthusiasts in Kolkata have an affinity to quality products, believes Carlsberg India marketing director Mahesh Kanchan. “In Bengal, including Kolkata, Carlsberg India is the leading player in the premium industry. We’ve seen a significant growth and success of our premium beer brands — Carlsberg and Tuborg.”
Premium beers are being embraced because of the quality of beer, the enhanced imagery and also because the relative price index of a premium beer is not too high compared with regular beers. Nationally, the premium segment is growing at a CAGR (compound annual growth rate) of around 30%,” adds Kanchan. In 2014, Carlsberg India registered 42% growth in India, with an 11% volume market share (excluding Tamil Nadu), and is looking to establish and grow beyond this benchmark this year. The entire beer industry in India has been experiencing a growth rate of about 10% in the past decade. A study — Indian Beer Market-2013-17 — released by Niir Project Consultancy Services, says it would reach a size of 452 million cases by 2017 with a 12% growth.
Favourable demographics, rising disposable incomes, urbanization and rising acceptability of drinking have brought the winds of change for the industry, coupled with the mushrooming of beer cafes and microbreweries, the study adds. All India Brewers Association feels the growth in the premium segment is pegged at 20%-25%, with urban centres accounting for a large part of the consumption. Nitish Saraf, the owner-cum-MD of Palazzo, the lounge bar-restaurant in Alipore, feels the growing craving for beer is to do with its ‘straight drink’ tag.
“It’s not so strong or hard a drink. So, it has a certain charm with youngsters. With the availability of imported as well as top-end Indian labels in the market, it has shed its ‘not-so-prestigious-drink’ label,” Saraf adds. To keep its sales momentum up and steady even in winter, some of pubs and lounges are offering lucrative discounts on both premium and draught beer. “The spurt of the day-drinking culture also has also had an added impact on the beer sales in Kolkata,” Saraf explains. Beer is very economical for youngsters too. Happy hours at bars and lounges are actually luring youths to have beer as a ‘meeting up/hanging out’ drink. “With an exposure to foreign brands and Western pub culture, college-goers are gulping down imported and draught beers more than ever,” points out mixologist Irfan Ahmed, who has been privy to drinkers’ choices over the last few decades in Kolkata.
Ahmed says the beer market has indeed gone through a sea change in the city. “The market has grown a lot, now that there’s the choice of picking up big labels at any middle- to high-end restaurant and bar,” he adds. Pratap Daryanani, partner at Oasis, a restaurant on Park Street, feels beer’s low alcohol explains its year-long popularity with the youth. “From impromptu gatherings to cocktail parties, the drink has found its way to every table top,” he says. Indian consumers, however, also look at value for money, and it’s no different when it comes to beer. So, it is primarily a ‘strong beer’ market. Some 85% of the country’s drinkers liked their beer strong in 2014 (alcohol content between 5% and 8%, against less than 5% in mild beers), according to a recent study by the All India Brewers Association. Kingfisher dominates the market, followed by Haywards 5000, Knock Out and Tuborg. UB’s Kingfisher Strong (8% alcohol) is India’s best-selling beer brand.
Imported beers like Corona, Coors Lite and Stella Artois — which have already made inroads into elite pubs, bars and fine-dining restaurants — form just 0.35% of the entire beer market in India. According to an industry estimate, out of 282 million cartons of beer sold in India last year, only one million cartons of imported beer were consumed across the country. And Kolkata is not an exception to this market dynamics.