It is time the Indian beer industry threw out its sexist notions regarding beer and embraced a gender-neutral attitude.

Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

I am at a pub called Sotally Tober in the South Indian city of Bangalore. My wife and 8 year old son are with me. As we seat ourselves at the table, a waiter walks up bringing two menus. He hands one to me and the other, to my wife. The one I have received has the title BAR MENU printed in bright, bold letters. The one my wife has got says FOOD MENU.

In my head, something clicks. I suddenly recall that practically every time my wife and I head to a watering hole, I am handed the bar menu (or the ‘drinks menu’, as some joints call it), while she gets the grub menu. Exploring that line of thought further, I realise that this is what happens whenever I have gone drinking with any girl. A quick check with a few men and women friends the next day confirms my theory: in a majority of instances, this is what happens with them, too!

Beer – a male drink?

You don’t have to go far to find the reason for this. In India, beer is commonly perceived to be a man’s drink. For many decades since the introduction of this drink, it was made clear that it is not for women. The alcoholic beverages (alcobev) industry has been chiefly responsible for seeding this notion in our minds and ensuring that it stays there. To put it simply, brands and their marketing narratives always portrayed beer as a man’s drink.   

Most of the time, you’d find only men enjoying the brand being advertised. Bira is the only exception I can recall from the recent past. Its MakePlay commercial ends with a woman being served beer. But otherwise, the cues in beer communication are overtly male. You have a man or a group of men, you have sports such as football or cricket and you have the men bonding over the game. Women, when they do appear, are sexy props or the people serving the drinks.

To be fair to beer marketers, they had a good and simple reason to inject the advertising with masculine cues. Men have always been their main target audience (you could even say the only target audience), since they account for nearly 99 % of the Indian market for beer. Across the country, in urban and rural belts, beer has been drunk by men in the company of other men.

Not just that. The typical Indian male beer drinker has, for a long time, shown a marked preference for strong beer, which has between 5 and 8 % alcohol by volume. This is especially so in the small towns and rural belts of the country, where the prime objective of the beer drinker is to extract maximum ‘kick’ for the buck.

Samar Singh Sheikhawat, former Chief Marketing Officer, United Breweries Limited, and independent business consultant, says, “The size of the Indian beer market was about 330 million cases in FY 2018-19. Of this, strong beer accounted for about 83% and mild beer, 17%.” Traditionally, the share of strong beer has far outstripped that of the milder version in this country.

But in their attempt to cater to men, brands seem to have largely ignored the woman consumer.

Women and beer

So, who are the women who comprise 1% of India’s market for beer? Typically, they are middle-class or affluent women living in the few biggest cities of India. Dig a little deeper, and you will find that most of the beer-drinking women in these cities belong to one of the following professions – media, entertainment, marketing and communication (and of late, IT and related fields). Many women of this profile drink beer often and genuinely enjoy it. Most of them have their favourite brand(s) of the brew and are vocal about their enjoyment of the drink.

For Amrita Dinesh, a Chennai-based writer, beer stands for camaraderie and good food. Calling herself an introvert, she thinks beer is an excellent social lubricant. “There is a laid-back vibe to drinking beer, that cannot be matched by anything else,” she says.

Mumbai-based author, Vaishali Shroff, thinks beer brews togetherness. She says, ‘’There is an implicit ‘frat’ kind of feeling.”

For Monika Manchanda, a food writer based in Bangalore, beer means “happy times, summer sun, friendships and long Sunday brunches.”

The really interesting thing is that some of the women I spoke to started drinking in their teens; many others, in their early twenties. Some were even introduced to beer at home by their parents! The point is, for most women of this profile, beer has never been taboo. Whether they liked the drink or not has purely been a matter of personal choice.

But it is true that many other Indian women have stayed away from the drink.

There is a theory that women have a different palate from men – a theory that Samar supports. “They prefer milder, smoother, sweeter drinks,” he says. Beer is essentially a bitter drink, thanks to the presence of hops. And the kinds of beer that have been commonly available in India (only two kinds – ‘mild’ and ‘strong’ – to put it in slightly amusing layman’s terms) have been known for their harshness of taste.

Bottled at an industrial scale and distributed all over the country, they are meant to have a shelf life of months. Which meant that preservatives have to be added. Many brands add synthetic flavouring, too. All of this meant that one never gets the natural taste of freshly brewed beer.

Which is why, many women have taken to wine and cocktails more easily than to beer. Even within beer, they have largely preferred the milder variety of bottled lager. Many other women have been put off by the gassiness and burp-inducing nature of this beer.

But now, with the mushrooming of craft beer and imported brands in India’s metros, things are changing in these pockets. All of a sudden, there are many kinds of beer to choose from! And with so many taprooms and restaurants serving these beers, the brew has become more accessible. It is now easier for women to find a safe, non-judgemental place in the metros for a drink anytime in the day.

Sandhya Krishnan enjoying a pint of Coffee Stout at Byg Brewski, Bangalore.

Monika often finds herself at a pub all by herself. “Me, Kindle and a beer! Sometimes, I sit at the bar and grab a quick glass. I do it very, very often,” she says.

Alicia Coutinho, a physiotherapist based in Mumbai, loves her beer. “My girl friends consider beer to be a bitter drink and mostly stay away from it. But recently, I forced one of them to try craft beer and she loved it. She just couldn’t believe it was beer!’’ she says.

Geetanjali Chitnis, Head-Brand and Communication, Geist, says that their distribution model ensures that high-quality craft beer is available to consumers even at outlets where it wasn’t available earlier. “This is part of our effort to make craft beer more accessible to people. Many of them now have another strong reason to continue patronising their favourite restaurants and pubs, even if those outlets do not make their own beer. Because they now serve Geist.”

Though statistics are not available, it looks like more millennial women are taking to beer as their first alcoholic drink and that more beer-drinking women are venturing beyond bottled brands like Kingfisher, Foster’s and Budweiser. This change hasn’t dented the overall beer market in India, but is noticeable in the pubs in metros.

Anusha Deshpande enjoying a cold pint at Ales Brews & Ciders, Pune.

Persisting attitude

Still, the old mindset persists and plays out in different ways. And so, you have beer brands and drinking establishments going out of the way to cater to the woman drinker, thinking this is the way to do it. Unfortunately, they have learnt the hard way that this is not the way to do it.

Typically, the variants of most so-called ‘men’s products’ that are ‘specially launched for women’ fail. There are enough examples of this in beer. Because these variants are usually not true to the original character of the drink, which is what even women drinkers seek. By watering it down ‘for the sake of women’, the brand sends a wrong signal to them, thereby putting them off.

Take the Ardor 29 fiasco, for instance. A couple of months ago, a pub called Ardor 29 in Gurgaon launched what it called ‘a female beer’. The pub claimed that this brew wasn’t as bitter as regular beer, and was sweet and super smooth. A promotional post on Twitter said “….this is when your Bae will show her Tigress identity and she will be sufficient to sulk down any tiger…”. This led to a swift and spectacular backlash. Drinker groups on Facebook and Twitter raged against the move, wondering if brands thought that women beer drinkers weren’t good enough to have authentic beer. The pub subsequently deleted the tweet.    

Alicia asks with a degree of chagrin, “Do they have male wine? Then why have female beer?”

So, what’s the solution?

Removing gender from the drink

Rather than try to go the extra mile for women, beer brands and watering holes simply have to remove the mental barriers that already exist. This will level the drinking field for everyone. They just have to toss out biases based on gender (and on age and sexual identity, for that matter) and the resulting condescension.

This means brands must not operate on presumptions like: Women don’t drink. Even if they drink, they’d prefer a Hefewiezen to an IPA or Stout. Drinks are ordered by men and food, by women.  

Geetanjali of Geist says that the brand takes a gender-neutral approach to beer. “”We just treat everyone as individuals interested in beer. We understand that a woman can love beer and appreciate it as well as a man can.” Restaurants and watering holes must do the same.

Bangalore-based writer Madhumita Mukherjee says with some amusement, “When I am out with my husband, he usually orders a wheat beer and I, an IPA. When the waiter brings us the drinks, he serves it the other way around.”

Sensitising the wait staff to the nuances of gender will go a long way in making things more comfortable for women. Leaving it to women customers to decide what they want to order is the best thing to do.

Extending this approach to brand communication will be critical, too. We need more advertisements that show women enjoying beer, instead of being just sexy props in the story. “At Geist,” Geetanjali says, “we look at our communication through the lens of different consumer segments, including women, families, senior citizens and the LGBTQIA community.” Abroad, while sexist portrayals do exist in beer advertising, many brands have also shown women as consumers of the drink too. We need this shift to happen in India.

And finally, we need more conversations and happy anecdotes around women drinking beer. This is where online beer-drinker communities can help. Even today, only a few women open up about beer on these fora. With sustained support from the group admins and fellow beer-lovers, more women will come forth to share their experiences and perspectives on this drink.

That’ll make a lot of difference.

Pictures: Anusha Deshpande, Sandhya Krishnan