Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

It was because Ajay Nagarajan bought a “Mr. Beer” home-brewing kit at a 7-Eleven store in Dallas in the USA more than 15 years ago, that Bangaloreans are able to enjoy superb craft beer in a quiet street in the suburban neighbourhood of Whitefield. 

Beer-guzzling sessions during his decade-long stay in Dallas threw up the starkly contrasting worlds of industrial lagers and craft beer. If industrial beers lacked character and depth on the one hand, the dozens of brands of craft beer were the complete opposite; they were bursting with varied flavours, didn’t have any artificial additives and offered a deeply satisfying experience. Ajay was hooked to craft. 

In 2005, he started brewing at home in Dallas. Emboldened by his experiments, his interest deepened into an obsession. He decided that he just wanted to make beer for life. He put himself through several courses at the Siebel Institute of Technology, Chicago. Simultaneously, he interned at local brewpubs in Dallas for a hands-on experience in making the elixir at a commercial level. 

And then, the opportunity to go pro with his obsession came along. India was opening up to craft beer; beer-lovers here were read to “go craft”. Ajay partnered with Kamal Sagar of Total Environment Building Systems. Kamal had a building in Whitefield-Bangalore, next to a premium residential complex. He thought a craft brewery there would go well with the profile of the neighbourhood. And that is how Windmills Craftworks was born. 

Looking back at that time, Ajay says, “I did not have a detailed business plan or any grandiose vision of becoming a beer baron. I just wanted to make great craft beer, beer that I like to drink.”

Since then, it has been a fascinating journey for the entire Windmills team. Sourcing equipment from JVNW, USA, Ajay, with the help of Ed Tringali, Windmills’ first brewmaster, set up the craft brewery in Whitefield. Ed helped draw up the beer menu and provided the recipes for the beers that would be on offer. And Windmills was in business!

Ajay says that Windmills has always stood for authentic, true-to-style beers, and has avoided gimmicks. He and brewmaster Callaway Ryan make beers that they like, and which are true to the spirit of craft beer. Right from the beginning, he says, they did not restrict themselves to just the popular beer styles. “Back then, we were advised by so-called experts to offer just German Lagers and Hefeweizen, because they thought only these styles would be accepted by beer-lovers in Bangalore.” But Windmills wanted to expose beer-lovers to several other wonderful styles, and so, launched IPA, Pilsner and Stout and other styles. 

Ajay believes that craft brewers are iconoclasts, often going against the grain and expressing themselves through their beers. At that time, he believed that the well-travelled IT crowd in Bangalore did have a more sophisticated beer palate than they were being credited with. Having sampled different kinds of craft beer in the USA and Europe (mostly during their work trips), they were looking forward to enjoying those styles here in Bangalore, too. In addition, Bangalore hosted a number of expats from several countries. 

This belief of his proved to be true. While wheat beers have always been a crowd favourite at Windmills, the IPA variants have become popular, too. As have fruited seasonal ales such as Alphonso Mango Pale Ale, Guava Sours, Jackfruit Ale and Coconut Brown Ale. 

Ajay notices a growing interest in Weizenbocks, which blend the taste of wheat beer with a higher ABV and a better mouthfeel. Of late, a few breweries in Bangalore have started offering barrel-aged whiskey stouts, in collaboration with whiskey makers Paul John and Amrut Distilleries. A section of the drinking crowd has received this well. 

Ajay is happy with the fact that the craft beer consumers in Bangalore have journeyed a long way down the path. From a time when they used to ask for just “beer” at brewpubs, they have now evolved to asking for a Weizenbock or a Guava Sour or an IPA by name. 

The Windmills ethos is about enjoying the finer things in life. Right at the beginning, Ajay and Kamal were clear that they were not setting up just another brewpub. They wanted something that was high-brow, yet vibrant and accommodative: a place that people with sophisticated sensibilities would like to come back to. Which is why, they created a brewpub that offers customers intellectual stimulation, apart from pleasing their palate. The idea of demarcating a stage for live music performances, and having hundreds of books in the main seating area came from this vision of the founders. 

The main seating area at Windmills has the vibe of a jazz club cum library. Whenever I go there, I love to spend a few minutes browsing the bookshelves lining the walls, before settling down to enjoy my pints. To me, this is like foreplay, before I get into the main act. By the way, these books provide excellent acoustic insulation, keeping the sound from the live performances and the crowds indoors.

The founders’ vision to ‘’inspire people to make a difference” eggs the 200-strong Windmills staff on to do their best at work, day after day. “Good is not enough. We’ve got to do better than that,” is how Ajay puts it. Windmills is all about delivering a stimulating experience to customers through the best in food, beer, service and music. Their customer loyalty program has more than 3000 members, some of whom visit the brewpub a 100 times a year! 

While Windmills’ second outlet at the Bangalore International Airport is a favourite of the traveller crowd, the next phase of growth for the brand is expected to come from its production brewery slated to come up in Goa and a brewpub scheduled to open in the USA. 

Like at all other F&B establishments in India, business at Windmills has suffered due to the Covid-19 pandemic. But Ajay and team are waiting it out. The fact that craft breweries in Karnataka have now been allowed to sell growlers as a temporary measure, has given them some relief. Ajay and team are looking forward to the day when all the outlets will be allowed to open for dine-in business, again. 

In parting, Ajay says, “Bangalore has, in some ways, paved the way for craft brewers all over the country. Who knows, someday an IPA brewed in India will be called the real India Pale Ale!

___________________________________________________________________

Past forward: Glancing back, even as we move ahead

A series of in-depth profiles of the earliest and the best of India’s brewpubs.

When The Biere Club threw open its doors to business in 2010, it marked the birth of the craft beer movement in the Indian city of Bangalore. The Biere Club was located in a plush locality of the city and boasted swank interiors. Its highlight though, was its microbrewery. It offered the tipplers of India’s pub capital a range of craft beers that were freshly brewed in-premises. And the tipplers lapped them up! For months on end, the perpetually crowded brewpub was the toast of Bangalore’s curious beer drinkers. 

Then came other brewpubs like Toit, Arbor, Windmills and several others. And before we realised it, Bangalore had acquired a truly vibrant craft beer culture – thanks to its numerous breweries and the ever-experimenting crowd of beer-lovers.  

It seems like it all began just yesterday, but the craft movement in Bangalore turns 10 this year. In the past decade, several new breweries have sprung up with their gleaming tanks, while many others have had to close. The market has matured a lot, with the Bangalore beer-lover having access to many more craft beer brands, styles and recipes than ever before. If this city was the pub-capital of India through the nineties and early 2000s, it has retained that title with aplomb, and added the tag of ‘craft beer capital of India’. 

Despite all the changes that the craft beer industry has witnessed, some of the earliest breweries continue to thrive. In a landscape dotted with several average-quality breweries, the pioneers stand out for their stellar brews and for keeping a finger on the pulse of the market. Which is why, we thought it’d be fitting to salute them – the pioneers of the craft beer movement – by profiling them. 

We kick-started this series in March 2020 with a profile of Arbor Brewing Company, which launched in Bangalore in 2012. To read that story, click here.

But this series is not just about Bangalore; it will shine the spotlight on pioneering brewpubs in other cities of India, too. Here’s to those who have been at the vanguard of India’s craft beer movement! Prost

Pictures: Ganesh Vancheeswaran