Craft brewers across India are pushing the envelope in localising their brews. The result? Beers that explode with native Indian flavours. 

Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Jeffin John is happy. The last of Namma Beeru, a ragi ale that was on tap at Toit Brewpub in the South Indian city of Bangalore, was tapped today. A full batch of 1000 litres has been sold in two weeks, which is as good as it gets at any Indian brewpub. Jeffin, head brewer at Toit, is excited because this portends well for Toit’s forays into brewing with local Indian ingredients, mixing them in the right proportions with hops, malt and water. 

Jeffin is no newcomer to brewing with native Indian ingredients. Earlier, he and his team made the Jamun Gose, injecting the Indian summer fruit jamun into a Gose-style beer. Some coriander and salt were added to the concoction. The result was a brew that delivered a light, juicy, summery freshness on the palate. 

Toit’s excursions into brewing with local ingredients mirror a trend that has picked up in the past few years in India’s craft brewing centers: Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad, Goa and the National Capital Region. Across these places, more and more brewers are boldly foraging amidst India’s native plants, herbs, roots, fruits and spices and seeing how to inject their tastes and aromas into craft beer. Umang Nair, head brewer at Shakesbierre, La Casa, What the Ale?!, and Brew and Barbeque, craft breweries located in Bangalore, says, “India is a treasure trove of herbs, roots, fruits and plants, each with a unique taste and texture. It is interesting to infuse their character into beer. That’s what some brewers are trying to do.” This makes sense, because there is only so much one can do with hops, malt, yeast and water. The fun starts when one starts blending other interesting stuff, giving the beer a distinctive flavour and mouthfeel. In the past, Umang has made an amla (gooseberry) sour using a small variant of gooseberry and a pinch of black salt. 

The possibilities are virtually endless. India’s food topography is so varied that there are subtle changes in the dishes, recipes and food culture every 100 kilometers. Many of these dishes are made with ingredients grown in the vicinity – backyard ingredients, if you will.  And then, there are the herbs and roots whose use is mainly medicinal – like the holy basil, eucalyptus and khus khus (poppy seeds) and so many others. Many of these found their way into Indian food decades or centuries ago. And now, they have caught the fancy of brewers, the gleam in whose eye comes from the prospect of repurposing these raw materials and serving exciting beers with a strong native connect. 

The use of ingredients that are part of the Indian ethos strikes a strong chord with drinkers, especially since some of these have been part of the food and drinks they love. It piques their interest in the beer. Mango, kokum, coriander, ragi (finger millet), jaggery, masala chai (spiced tea), kaapi (coffee), tulsi (holy basil), jamun and watermelon are excellent examples. All these have been imaginatively used by breweries across India to deliver ales, stouts, sours and lagers with a delicious twist. 

Thanks to the decade-old craft beer culture and a greater exposure to beers from abroad, beer drinkers in India’s large cities are now open to trying new ingredients and styles, taking a fresh look at their beloved tipple. 

But such blending has to achieve a harmony of flavours. The native ingredient being added must be paired in the right proportion with beer of the right “base style”, so that its taste melds seamlessly with that of the hops and malt, adding up to something memorable. When this happens, the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. 

Making a great localised beer needs a brewer with two qualifications. One, a wide experience of the Indian food palate and regional food styles to understand how various Indian ingredients taste, what their flavour profile is. And two, a strong imagination, to visualise what flavor and mouthfeel an ingredient will bring to the beer, and what the final tasting notes will likely be. Umang Nair says, “I am trying to learn more about local Indian food. I keep asking my mom about the traditional recipes and ingredients used by my community, trying to see which of those ingredients I can bring into beer.”

Sometimes, the inspiration comes naturally. Arjun Tale, brewer at Arbor Brewing Co. in Bangalore, was born and bred in the town of Akola in Central India. A place where the flowering tree mahua grows in abundance, especially in forest tracts. For centuries, the mahua has been an intrinsic part of the life of adivasis (original forest dwellers), who have used various parts of the tree to make liquor, food and medicines. So, in 2019, when Arjun was wondering what local variant of beer to make, mahua naturally came to mind. A few experiments with recipes later, the Mahua Dubbel was born. With the malty character of a Dubbel and the earthy, boozy nature of the mahua flower, the Mahua Dubbel (8% ABV, IBU around 15) was a hit with Arbor’s patrons. It is now back, and will likely to on tap from the end of this month. 

Given the wide range of plants, herbs, roots and fruits available (India has one of the most widely fragmented regional food systems in the world. Several hundred ethnic cuisines dot the food map of India, each cuisine having a unique set of ingredients and cooking methods. The number of permutations and combinations this gives rise to is truly mind-boggling), brewers have to take calculated risks in brewing with any of these. Which is why, before brewing a commercial batch, they experiment with recipes on a small scale. Mixing and matching different ingredients with various proportions of malt and hops, they figure out what lands best on the palate. Experimental batches that don’t turn out well are chucked. This need for experimentation and nimbleness is why local variants can be easily brought out in craft beer, but not so in industrial-scale brewing.

Covid-19 saw brewing come to a grinding halt in 2020. It was only towards the end of the year that it resumed. But now, the crowds are finding their way back to brewpubs across India, and there is hope that 2021 will be a good year for breweries and tipplers alike. A few brewers I spoke to have lined up plans for interesting localised brews in the coming months, and are looking forward to serve them to patrons. 

It definitely looks like local will become more of a thing in the next year or three. 

Pictures: Ganesh Vancheeswaran