India. Pint-sized businesses

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“If you’re a foodie you don’t just go to Mc Donald’s. And if you’re a beer lover you don’t just drink industrial lagers, you come to us. We are seeing people demand variety, like in the US,” says Greg Kroitzsh, MD, Barking Deer, a Lower Parel pub. Pankil Shah, a director of Neighbourhood Hospitality, which owns Woodside Inn, which has branches in Colaba and Oshiwara, says that now that craft beer is on par with the big labels in terms of pricing, “We have a lot of repeat customers who come back for the taste of craft.”

Craft beers in small batches have caught on at bars across Mumbai. Adventurous patrons are quaffing ale, stout and ciders made by smaller breweries. The 45-plus microbreweries— a category which first launched in 2009 — in the country offer over 500 varieties of craft beer between them. The 10 companies brewing in Maharashtra alone serve up at least three or four new craft beers every week.

Indian craft beerThe Barking Deer, which served Mumbai its first craft beer 26 months ago, is launching a Republic Day special with its dark rice beer, a follow-up to its popular Christmas ale. In the past five years, Pune-HQed Doolally, India’s first microbrewery, has launched 60 new beers and a Mumbai outlet; this winter, it is introducing a mango cider and a coffee porter. Brewbot is offering a stout and a cider this season. White Owl, 15 months old, has already introduced 16 varieties of beer so far; it is now bringing out a witbier (a Belgian style pale ale that uses more wheat relative to barley) with ‘a light, fluffy body offering a citrus orangey flavour.’ The Gateway Brewing Company now has coffee stout, a creamy combination of traditional stout and single estate coffee sourced from south India.

Of course all the experimentation has its boundaries. As Greg Kroitzsh, MD, Barking Deer says, “Innovation is key, but it’s the approachable beers that do really well in India.” ‘Approachable,’ in India, rules out an extreme sour or an overly bitter taste. Light-bodied wheat beers, which go well with spicy Indian food, do best. For example, in Woodside Inn, wheat beers are 70% of their sales within the craft segment.

To keep the perception of variety going, one strategy brewers use is to rotate beer varieties, with just a few favourites permanently on tap. And they encourage experimentation sampling. Sameer Seth, a partner in Bombay Canteen at Lower Parel, says, “We let people have tasters and samplers and it keeps the buzz going.”

New biz on tap

For the breweries, one could say that their flagons runneth over. Doolally, hopes to open up to four more outlets in the near future, says co-founder Suketu Talekar. “We are close to exhausting our installed capacity of 17,000 litres per month in Pune. We need to scale up to meet the growing demand. In the medium term we are looking to raise funds, but it’s unclear now.” Talekar is not alone. The Gateway Brewing Company, which works on a supply-only model to 65 restaurants in Mumbai, wants to add at least another 10 across the state by the end of this quarter. Another popular north Mumbai-based brewery, Brewbot, is scouting for locations in Bandra and south Mumbai to open new taprooms.

Globally, India’s consumption of beer is one of the lowest: per capita annual consumption is around two litres. The Beeronomics 2015 report predicts that in 2016, India’s consumption will be just a few sips more: a miniscule 2.6 litres. Mehra of Gateway says, “The authorities need to support this industry just like they did with wine and allow it to grow, because unlike the monolithic macro brewers, we actually care about the product and not just the label.”

So far, Maharashtra’s state excise department hasn’t been hospitable. The prohibitive taxation policy is a downer: beer is taxed 1.67 times higher than spirits like whisky and vodka in the state.

According to the All India Brewer’s Association (AIBA), in a case of 7.8 litres of beer, the absolute alcohol content is a mere (point five) 0.5 ml whereas in a case of whisky of 9 litres, the absolute alcohol content is 42.8% meaning 3.85 alcoholic litres. Craft brewers say the alcohol in their products is below usually 5 per cent and never more than seven per cent. Taxing beer, in their perhaps biased view, is like taxing water.

Shobhan Roy, Director General AIBA says, “Beer is not daaru (alcohol). By taxing beer higher than spirits, the government is compelling people to opt for spirits. The growth of beer as a category is being arrested and on a year-on-year basis we are only seeing a 3% national growth and in Maharashtra the sales have been flat.” He adds, “If the industry needs a fillip and the government wants to improve its revenue from beer, then more retailing outlets for just wine and beer need to open which have less duty and this will wean people off spirits as well.”

But what is a craft beer anyway?

The appeal of craft beer is all about the texture, the ‘mouth feel.’ The mass-produced labels you can buy at any wine shop or dive bar have what Brewbot partner Ketan Sinh Gohel calls a “synthetic taste. They have a high glycerin index to increase shelf life. Most craft beers, unless they are of higher gravity, typically expire in 21 days, as there is no preservative or anything artificial in it.”

The ingredients are of huge importance, though views differ on where the best sources are. Javed Murad, founder of White Owl Brewery, for instance, imports all his ingredients. But Rahul Mehra, founder of The Gateway Brewing Company, says “All our malts are sourced locally from Gurgaon and then we roast and treat it ourselves.”

You’re unlikely to find a craft beer using any substitute for malted barley. Mass producers often substitute corn or rice for malt to cut costs, and also use a pasteurisation process to ensure longevity. Mehra says, “There is no skimping on anything. We don’t spend on billboards and gimmicky marketing and treat beer as a mere commodity like some mainstream commercial beers. We put everything we have in the craft and hence the distinct taste.”