Microbreweries are being set up in the major cities, as consumers get more experimentative.

Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran
Pictures: Abhishek Chatterji www.theuncliched.com

I step out of Downtown – a pub that was set up in the Indian city of Bangalore in the 1980s or ‘90s – and take a deep breath of the cool night air. The past hour had been quiet; my friend and I had guzzled two pitchers of Kingfisher draught beer, while talking about developments in our respective lives. I thought to myself that nothing about the pub had changed in the last decade – the waiters still take orders with a surly look and almost bang down plates of food on your table. Half the tables are vacant; the beer still feels watered down and the vibe in the joint is jaded, to put it mildly.

We cross the road and enter Communiti, a brewpub that came up about two years ago. It is past 8 pm on a weekday, and the place is crowded. Sitting under a tall tree in the outdoor area, I take in the décor of the pub and the profile of the crowd. The pub has a lot of earthy tones, with tree trunks having been fashioned into an entry canopy, brick cladding on the walls, plants fringing the compound and furniture made from unpolished, rough-grained wood.

The patrons are mostly in the early to mid-thirties. A few seem to be pushing forty. Almost all of them are hunched over their tables, engaged in eager conversation with their companions. There is an audible buzz in the air.

And fuelling the buzz is beer. On every table are tall, elegant glasses of beer. While most people seem to be drinking the blonde Hefeweizen or Belgian Wheat, I find a few glasses of coffee-dark beer also. That could have been the stout or the Irish Ale.

My own glass of beer arrives shortly. As I sip my Irish Ale, I think of the contrast between Downtown and Communiti. The two pubs are separated by just fifty feet of tarmac, but going by the drinks, food, crowd profile and energy levels, you could make out that they were separated by an entire era.

And one of the key reasons for this yawning gap between the two joints is that Communiti (like a host of other new-age pubs in town) serves craft beer.

Starting about a decade ago, and accelerating in recent years, Bangalore, Delhi/NCR, Mumbai, Pune, Hyderabad and the laidback outpost of Goa have seen the evolution of what ardent beer fans consider a more authentic representation of the drink. As of today, there are several companies making craft beer in India. While Indus Pride started this trend a decade ago (and then faded away), the first craft beer brand to make a dent in the Indian market was Bira. Today though, there are some (including me) who think this brand has lost its early fervour and flavour, and is increasingly resembling the traditional mass bottled brands. Still, there are many takers for it.

Close on the heels of Bira have come the next wave of craft beer brands such as Geist, White Owl, White Rhino, Simba, Kati Patang, Eight Finger Eddie and others. The rise in craft beers has mirrored the rise of micro-brewing in a few large cities of India – for instance, Independence Brewing Company, Windmills Craftworks, Arbor Brewing Company, Gateway Brewing, Doollally, Toit and many others. While the first couple of microbreweries probably came up in the period between 2009 and 2010 (Doolally and Toit being two of those earliest ones), many more have come up since 2015.
The rise of craft beer can be largely attributed to a few factors. For one, the disposable income levels and inclination to spend by urban Indians (especially, the younger adults) has been steadily rising. Secondly, more foreign travel by Indian corporate and business professionals is exposing them to the brewing and beer-drinking trends in different countries. The internet plays its role in spreading information, too. Combine all this with the latent desperate need to break away from the same old mass-brewed brands and voila! You have a vibrant craft beer scene.

The craft beer movement in India today resembles the action seen in the USA in the early nineties. While several Indie breweries in the USA have acquired a cult status since then and a large section of the drinking population there prefers craft brews, this movement has started flowering in India only now.

An accurate estimate of the share of craft beer in the overall market for beer in India is hard to come by, but it is likely to be a miniscule percentage. Even now, India remains a market dominated by hard liquor and strong beer. Mass bottled beer brands like Kingfisher, Fosters, Budweiser, Carlsberg, UB Export, Thunderbolt, etc. continue to have their loyalists. Craft beer’s adoption is limited to certain metros, and even within them, to a minority of the drinking public.

But this minority is growing fast in these pockets.

In the metros of India, the shift towards craft beer is playing out in two interesting ways:

1) one section of beer drinkers, whose palates are more evolved, has broken away from mass bottled beer and drink only (or mostly) craft beer

2) another set of people continue to drink one or two brands of mass bottled beer for reasons of taste and/or sentimental attachment; but along with these beers, they imbibe craft beer also.

Given that these are still early days for craft beer in India, there is a certain amount of hype and hoopla around it. Many craft brew aficionados are people who genuinely love beer and seek out the variety in flavours, tastes, textures and aromas. But some drinkers are also taking to it because it is the cool, new thing to be flaunting. Very likely, many of these early pretenders may end up actually loving craft brew for what it is and becoming genuine converts.

Akash Hirebet, ardent beer lover and brewing consultant based in Bangalore, loves the shift towards craft beer. He says, “While a small number of craft brew drinkers seek out a range of styles, the majority of them stick to the sweeter side or to middle-of-the-palate styles. No wonder, German and Belgian wheat variants find the most takers in India today.”

The mushrooming of brewpubs (Bangalore alone is estimated to have more than 50 of them, while Pune, Mumbai and Delhi/NCR are catching up) has given people a much wider range of choice than before. It is now possible to find brews of your choice within a few miles from home.

While it is true that the craft beer trend has caught fire in a few metros, a lot of action is yet to unfold. The policy framework has to be tweaked to incorporate the dynamics of the craft brew industry. For one, making it easier to keg/bottle and distribute craft beer outside microbreweries will really help the industry leapfrog to the next level. Indeed, Ashis Nayak, beer lover and consultant to a few restaurants and breweries in Hyderabad, thinks that the next big developments in the craft beer scene in India will be in kegging and bottling of these brands, so that they can be sold at retail outlets. “This”, he says, “will fuel at-home consumption and help craft beer wider adoption.” Another development to watch out for is home-brewing, though that is still some distance away.

Given the range and complexity of craft beer styles, it is important to educate people on the nuances of these brews and on what they offer to the drinker. This is where online groups play a role. Already, beer-appreciation groups have emerged on Facebook. Bangalore Beer Club, Friends of Froth, Bengaluru Thirst Club and Craft & Co. are a few such vibrant clubs that actively seed conversations around beer. And much of the talk here revolves around craft brews. Apart from online discussions, the groups organise pub crawls, boot camps and meet-ups periodically. These groups thrive on their love for beer and are doing their bit to get more people to appreciate the drink better. Going by the growing membership of these groups, it looks like their efforts are paying off.

In the final analysis though, it all boils down to one’s personal preferences. Akash Hirebet sums it up well when he says, “Craft beer is subjective and complex. What one likes depends upon one’s own tastes. If anything, an open mind, curiosity and exposure to different kinds always helps.”
I couldn’t agree with him more!