Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran
Did you know that a lot of science, judgement and creativity go into that pint of happiness we call beer? Here is a peep into the life and mind of the person who makes it all happen – the brewmaster.
I love my pint of beer.
While earlier, I used to drink only mass-bottled beers, the emergence of craft beer in India has made me try out different styles of the drink. I have started popping into the brewpubs in town one by one and sampling their brews. On one such foray recently, I wondered what it took to concoct this wonderful drink: how long does it take to make beer? What kind of team is at work in a microbrewery? What is the role of a brewmaster? What challenges and constraints does he work with? How does he stamp his distinctive style on the brew? And so on.
The next thing I knew, I was speaking about this to three master brewers who oversee brewing in different pubs in Bangalore and Hyderabad.
Lalit Vijay’s smile is effervescent, much like the beer he makes for a living. And he has a hearty laugh. The brewmaster at Biergarten Brewery & Kitchen in Bangalore comes across as a well-rounded personality: the right balance of hops and malt, if you get what I mean. Sitting across from him one morning, I ask him if he is enjoying his stint in craft brewing. He smiles broadly, as he says “Definitely! It has been good so far. What I like most about craft brewing is that customer feedback is immediate.”
He is referring to one of the critical differences between industrial-scale brewing and craft brewing. In craft brewing, a typical batch of beer reaches the customer’s hands the day after it is brewed, enabling the capture of quick feedback. While this can give the brewmaster an instant high if customers appreciate the beer, it can also give him important takeaways on what to tweak in the next batch. Sometimes, an entire batch of beer has to be junked, because customers feel it is not upto scratch. Lalit finds this difference stark, because, prior to joining Biergarten, he spent more than 2 decades in industrial brewing – making some of India’s leading beers like Haywards 2000, Kingfisher and Budweiser. He moved into craft brewing just about three years ago. “The thing is, I got bored making bottled beers. I was doing the same thing day in and day out for more than 20 years! I badly wanted a change,” he tells me with a broad smile.
Lalit likens beer to a new-born baby. “We have to be extremely careful; otherwise the baby will catch a cold or pneumonia,” he says with his trademark laugh. For instance, yeast, one of the principal ingredients of beer, can get contaminated in many ways. Also, while some oxygen is necessary for the yeast to help it grow, it (oxygen) has to be completely kept out once fermentation begins.
Coming from an industrial brewing background, Lalit had to contend with a few constraints initially – much like someone leaving an expansive mansion and coming to live in a smaller house. For instance, space is very limited in a microbrewery, and every inch has to be utilised efficiently. Also, the luxury of an elaborate in-house testing facility is not available here. So, the brewmaster has to get some of the ingredients like water tested in a commercial testing lab. Having a large staff is another luxury he cannot afford.
The lean team in a microbrewery often consists of just four levels – Brewmaster, Brewing Manager, Shift Brewer and Operator. While the Brewmaster is in charge of the brewery in every sense, his focus really is on creating beer recipes (think of him as the creative head of the brewery) and quality control.
With the help of the Brewing Manager, he decides what styles of beer to try out, lays down Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and tests every batch of beer as it is being produced. If the beer is not found up to scratch, the two of them have to decide if and how it can be tweaked to bring it up to the mark. The Shift Brewer has a supervisory role, while the team lower down the ranks is focussed on implementing the tasks assigned to them.
Each batch of beer in most microbreweries in India is typically anywhere between 300 and 500 litres in volume (some breweries make batches of 1000 litres, too). If a particular type of beer proves to be popular, a single batch can get exhausted in as little as a week, and the brewery may decide to make it again. This is what happened with some seasonal brews in Bangalore this summer – like the mango and jamun-infused variants.
If you thought beer-making is just a frothy matter, think again. A lot of science goes into making this drink, with a number of variables playing a role. The rate of evaporation during boiling, the temperature setting, the level and timing of oxygenation, the quantity and profile of hops that have been used, the pH level, the water profile (essentially, the quantum of metals and salts like chloride, sulphate and calcium present in the water) and many other variables are at play. Even a minor change in any of them can alter the taste, texture, colour and composition of your drink. Brewmasters don’t like to see a smirk on your face after you take your first sip; so they have to be extra careful.
Which is why they have a fetish for hygiene and adherence to process. Umang Nair, brewmaster at a clutch of breweries in Bangalore – including Simon Says, Brew and Barbeque, La Casa and ShakesBierre – is emphatic when he says, “I always ask interns and other junior members of my brewing team to first learn how to clean the equipment properly. Only after they get this right, do I let them graduate to other tasks.”
For a brewmaster, getting people of the right calibre, training them well and keeping an eye on their work is critical. This is especially so when he is heading brewing operations at more than one pub. Ask George Jacob. Like Umang, he heads brewing operations at a few breweries – including Aurum Brew Works and Float Brewery in Bangalore, and Zero40 Brewing in Hyderabad. George shuttles between Bangalore and Hyderabad, his mind intent on creating beer recipes, quality control of each batch and planning the production schedule in each of the three breweries. It therefore helps that he has a strong team stationed at each brewery, with his colleague Rahul overseeing their performance.
George emphasises the need for a brewmaster to keep his finger on the consumer’s pulse. “Only then we will know which way the wind is blowing. Different types of consumers come to a pub, and each type has its own preference of beer styles. These preferences may even change over time. I should know what beer-lovers want the most and try to serve them that.” Given that wheat beers (like the Hefeweizen) are the overwhelming favourites in India, most breweries keep them on the menu all the time. The other beers available on top may change from time to time. The average Indian craft beer drinker prefers sessionable drinks that have between 4 and 5.5% alcohol by volume (ABV). Slowly though, more people are taking to stronger and more bitter stuff – where the ABV can go up to 8% and the drink is hoppier.
I ask George about his experiments with recipes and styles. Every brewmaster worth his hops loves trying out unconventional recipes in an effort to offer the market something new. And since ‘new’ is an ever-shifting goalpost, brewmasters are constantly thinking of ‘what next’. George says that his experimental brews like barrel-aged raspberry IPA, chilli guava gose and custard apple wheat ale were hits. Umang fondly recalls how his Belgian Saison with rosemary and thyme was lapped up by customers at ShakesBierre. He adds, “So much so, that it is now permanently on the menu.” Since the guidelines forclassic beer styles are pretty much standard around the world, experimenting with recipes allows a brewmaster to stamp his distinctive mark on the brew.
Brewmasters in a city form a close-knit circle, with each one knowing most of the others. Lalit says that in the business of brewing, there is no room for ego. He believes that brewers should frequently exchange notes on techniques, share perspectives on market trends and use one another as sounding boards for their recipe ideas. Umang is another strong votary of fraternising with other brewers and freely sharing knowledge with them.
Sometimes, a brewmaster joins hands with another to bring out what is known as a ‘collab brew’. Collab brews are seen as opportunities to unleash the combined creative juices of the brewers involved.
For a brewmaster to work effectively, the full support of the brewery owner is vital. Lalit evocatively calls it the ‘taal-mel’ (a Hindi expression that means ‘alignment of thought’) between the two people. All the three brewmasters I spoke to credit the respective owners of the breweries for trusting their capability and giving them a free hand.
Craft brewing is nascent in India, but is seeing explosive growth in a few big cities. Many beer-lovers are seeing this as the right time to enter the profession of beer-making – sometimes even ditching their earlier professions. Do a round of the pubs and you will find brewmasters of every stripe. For instance, while Lalit segued into craft brewing from industrial brewing, Umang is an Industrial Engineer-turned-home brewer-turned craft brewer. George, on the other hand, was working in a completely different industry in New Zealand when he got interested in beer-making. After learning the ropes by volunteering at a local brewery, he took a formal course in brewing and came to work in India.
While they may come from varied backgrounds and have different working styles and approaches, two traits unite all good brewmasters – a love for the drink and a passion for brewing. This is what keeps them in the quest for batch after batch of great beer.
Making beer is a labour of love. And because they transmute commonplace ingredients like hops, yeast, malt, water and fruits into a magical potion, brewmasters truly are the modern-day alchemists.
Pictures: Ganesh Vancheeswaran