Toit is a great blend of cozy old-Bangalore vibes and fine craft beer. This is its story.
Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran
When Mukesh Tolani and Sibi Venkataraju shared a desk in Math class in school in the Indian city of Bangalore, little did they know that they’d share ownership of a brewery many years later.
After graduating from college, Sibi went on to work as a technology consultant in Singapore. Meanwhile, Mukesh pursued a career in Chartered Accounting in Bangalore, before giving it up, and moving into the ice cream distribution business. He then joined hands with Glen Williams of Sweet Chariot (a popular patisserie chain) to set up a café in the same city.
In Singapore, Sibi met Arun George, another friend from school. Arun had come to Singapore to study MBA. The two friends spent several evenings in the brewpubs there. They loved the idea of several styles of beer being made on a limited scale and served fresh to customers. And so, they decided to set up a brewpub in Bangalore. “Back in 2006, when we first thought of this idea, it was almost a no-brainer. We knew it would be an instant hit in Bangalore. The city loved pubs and beer, and it seemed like it was just waiting for a brewpub to happen,” is how Sibi sums up their reading of the market at that time. The release of a microbrewery policy by the Indian state of Haryana in 2007-8 was the trigger that made them act upon their idea.
Spurred by this development, Sibi quit his job and came to Bangalore. By then, Arun had already moved back to the same city. They roped in Mukesh and Glen (“so we could have a balance in terms of experience,” says Sibi), and decided to launch Toit. But the toughest part of the journey lay ahead.
They had to spend a year in following up with the Excise Department for the release of the microbrewery policy for the state of Karnataka, where Bangalore is located. When the draft policy was released in March 2010, they quickly bought a lovely second-hand brewery from South Korea. Also, they signed up a suitable space (a repurposed bungalow) for the brewpub in the vibrant area of Indira Nagar. Today, it seems incredible that the founders of Toit ever wondered how they would use up the entire bungalow they had leased, and even thought of hiving off half the bungalow as a co-working space!
Due to the inordinate delay in the release of the final microbrewery policy for Karnataka, the partners launched Toit as a regular pub in March 2011. During those initial months, many customers did come in expecting to find a brewery, but ended up staying back for regular bottled beer. It was 6 months later that the brewery was retrofitted into the space – with an installed capacity of 1,50,000 litres per annum.
Sibi and his partners got Philip Kelm, a top-notch brewery builder and brewer, to set the brewery up for them. In addition, Phil formulated the recipes for their beers and cider, and even brewed at Toit for 6 months. Most of those initial recipes are being followed – and those beers served – to this day. “We got our beer mix right. This included 2 wheat beers, since wheat beers have always been winners in Bangalore,” says Sibi. The first glass of Toit’s own brew was poured in December 2011.
One of the early indications that Toit’s offering had struck a chord with the market came a few months later: one day, they ran out of their entire stock of beers. Since then, they have expanded their brewing capacity twice (today, it stands at 3,65,000 litres per annum).
Notwithstanding its forays into experimental recipes, Toit has always followed a somewhat traditional approach to brewing. The founders wanted to keep away from what Sibi calls the “wild American way of experimenting with their signature beers”. The late Matthew Callaghan, their ex-head brewer, has left his Irish imprint on Toit’s beers.
Jeffin John, lead brewer at Toit-Bangalore (Toit has a brewery in the city of Pune, too), says that each of their regular beers has accummulated a solid base of loyalists. Tinkering with these recipes is fraught with the risk of offending them, he adds with a laugh. This is a heart-warming nugget against the backdrop of a mushrooming of breweries in Bangalore, and at a time when brand loyalty is under increasing pressure across product and service categories.
Ramakrishnan Krishnan (Ram), long-time resident of Bangalore and promoter of the indie music label Unherd.Music, has frequented Toit since its early days (so much so, that he says many staff members there know him by sight). Ram thinks of it as home. “Theirs beers and food have mostly been very good. The place has a cozy vibe. I keep going there because of all this, and because they just let me be,” he says. Another aspect he particularly likes is that the team at Toit plays fair, and doesn’t hesitate to take constructive feedback on their beers, food or service. Over my many trips to this brewpub, this is something I have observed, too.
Alongside classic beer with an Irish/European slant, Toit serves excellent food. The design of the space, the laidback vibes, the friendly, non-judgemental attitude of the staff, and the food are all meant to evoke Bangalore’s pubs of the eighties and nineties. Making the brewpub accessible and affordable to a diverse set of people was another important consideration, Sibi adds.
He thinks it is perfectly natural for Indians to have their distinct preferences for certain styles of beer over others. He puts it down to our palate. Which is why he says it is pointless to try hard to convert them to the American or German idea of a beer. Instead, he says brewers in India should offer the best lagers and wheat beers like Hefeweizen and Belgian Wit, which are the most popular styles in this country.
Though customers may see them only as competitors, it is true that the owners of the first few craft breweries of Bangalore interact closely with one another, and collaborate on several matters (of course, this is true of brewery owners in other parts of India, too). The promoters of Toit, along with those of Arbor Brewing Company, Windmills Craftworks and The Biere Club are founding members of the Craft Brewers Association of India (CBAI). CBAI plays a key role in liaising with the Central Government of India to formulate and update policies related to craft beer across the country.
A loyalty program (named Kudix Club), guided tours of the brewery, a blog and a newsletter are all part of the effort Toit makes to be in close touch with the community of beer-lovers in Bangalore. With the launch of its taprooms in Mumbai and Pune, Toit aims to replicate the same levels of interaction there, too.
In the course of nearly a decade of existence, Toit has established itself as one of the most popular hangouts in Bangalore. Its distinctive oval signboard, the sloping tiled roof inlaid with glass squares, the interestingly built 3-level space, and a crowd of hopefuls waiting eagerly to get in…all this is comfortingly familiar to beer-lovers in town.
The place will thrum with life again, as soon as the crowds start hitting the pubs, post-Covid. And customers will resume “sending” fine beer.
Pictures: Ganesh Vancheeswaran