The headiness of a little-known flower from the tribal tracts of central India finds its way into craft beer.

Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Bangalore is wet. Its roads are slushy at places, but the leaves and buildings look freshly washed. As we take our seats in the balcony, I take a deep breath and allow the moist, clean air to fill my lungs. Casting my eye about the place, I find that only two other tables in the balcony are occupied. I quickly send up a note of thanks to the Creator for allowing me to hit a pub on a weekday afternoon, instead of being trapped in some corporate cage like so many others. Aah, the freedom that comes with being an entrepreneur! 

The server asks me what I want, and I place my order without even looking at the menu. After all, I am here today, at Arbor Brewing Company, for a specific reason. And, in a few minutes, that reason arrives at my table. The mahua dubbel, whimsically named Zingaat. 

I look at it for a minute, simply taking its appearance in. Deep reddish brown — like molten rusted earth — it has a white head more than an inch tall. I lift the glass to my nose and gently sniff. And sniff again. Do I smell something faintly fruity — and possibly, even chocolaty? I take a slow sip. And another. I let the beer breathe for a minute or two and take a couple of sips more. Juicy & boozy; slightly high notes of alcohol, I tell myself. I can detect an earthy and mildly fruity taste (which, I later learn, comes from the mahua flower). The beer has a moderately heavy body. And then, curiously, in my third or fourth sip, a spicy note rises up to meet my palate. It packs a bite, but only a gentle one. The beer seems to have the character of caramelised malt, faintly reminiscent of whiskey. Heck, this is as complex as a bloody integral calculus problem! I think, before adding, But thankfully, infinitely more enjoyable

Zingaat is a mahua dubbel which has the mahua flower as its key ingredient. 

Mahua Flower

It all started when Arjun Tale, brewer at Bangalore-based Arbor Brewing Company, had an idea a couple of years ago: What if we used mahua flowers to make a beer? Arjun hails from Channi village, in Akola district in the state of Maharashtra in India. Mahua, a flowering tree, grows extensively here, and in areas nearby. There is an abundant supply of the tree, its fruit and its flower in the forested tracts of central India, especially in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. The tree (and all that it gives) is venerated by the adivasi tribes (the original inhabitants) of this region. 

For centuries now, the adivasis have had a harmonious relationship with nature. They live off the land and depend on the forests for their daily sustenance. Mahua, in particular, lends a lot of colour and fragrance to their lives. For instance, using a rudimentary brewing method, they grind mahua flowers, boil them in water and add a fermented culture to make a native alcoholic drink called gavati daaru, which they consume with great fervour on all festive occasions — including birth ceremonies, weddings and funerals (many adivasis of India celebrate even death with joie de vivre). On these and other occasions through the year, the adivasis symbolically offerthe mahua flower and the gavati daaru to their animist gods, like Mahakaal, before drinking up the brew themselves. Mahua is also distilled to make an alcoholic drink called fulli, which is the purest form of the spirit, with no additives or diluting agents.  

In February or March every year, the mahua trees start shedding their flowers. The adivasis collect these in bulk and dry them at home. The flowers, which are pale green and slightly sour when they fall, acquire a reddish-amber colour as they dry. And they grow sweeter. 

Arjun grew up seeing many of these trees right there in his village, including one that is said to be more than a century old. When he shared his idea of a mahua-infused beer with Hollis Coats, the head brewer at Arbor, Hollis was kicked about it! He thought the flower would be an unusual ingredient in beer, and would gel wonderfully with their ongoing efforts to brew with Indian ingredients. So, on a subsequent trip home, Arjun brought back a sample batch of mahua flowers, weighing about 15 kilos. 

Hollis and he decided to try making a dubbel. Earlier, they had made a dubbel with raisins. Trippel and dubbel have a reasonably high sugar content, which usually comes from candy sugar. Sometimes, in India, jaggery is used instead of, or in addition to, candy sugar. These lend the beer a brownish colour and a caramelised taste. Since mahua already has a high level of natural sugar, they thought they’d harness that instead of adding candy sugar or jaggery. “We wanted to make the taste and colour of the mahua shine through, and not get masked by the properties of candy sugar or jaggery,” says Arjun. 

Arjun and Hollis tinkered with the ingredients. They crushed the flowers to make a slurry, and injected that into the brewing process at the boiling stage. And then, Hollis added an inspired touch to the recipe. He suggested that they add naag kesar (cobra saffron) and dagad phool (stone flower). Dagad phool is an ingredient in a few dishes, especially mutton-based ones, in certain parts of Maharashtra; the curiously spicy flavour it imparts to the food has people licking their fingers. 

Stone Flower

During initial tastings, the brewers got an overpowering taste of the dagad phool in the beer. They tamped that down a bit and, after fermentation, removed the flower altogether from the tanks. This removed its overwhelming taste and left behind a mildly spicy note. Once they cracked a recipe they were happy with, they decided to go the whole hog and brew a commercial batch. 

Then followed a 10-month period in which the beer was matured and conditioned. This was tricky; the brewers had to keep tasting the drink at intervals to see how it was shaping up. They noticed slow changes during this time. The high level of alcohol (by beer standards), the fruity aroma of mahua, its sweetness, the earthy, spicy notes from the naag kesar, dagad phool and Trappist yeast — all these started coming through in a perfect blend, delivering a nuanced, layered drink. To top it all, there was the beautiful, deep red-and-brown colour.  

Naag Kesar Seeds

Finally, the brewers decided that the beer was ready for consumers. Zingaat made it to the taps last month. Arjun and Hollis have brewed a 1,000-litre batch this time; going by response of the consumers, the batch will be over soon. 

Naturally, Arjun is excited about this experiment. “Hollis always supports me. We try to infuse an Indian character into some of our beers — seeing what Indian ingredients we can add to make an interesting drink.” 

Arbor, like a few other good breweries across India, is no stranger to brewing with Indian ingredients. Earlier, they made the Sarsapilla Stout, a collab-brew effort with Great State Aleworks, a craft brewery based in Pune. Arjun brought back the wild roots of the sarsapilla plant from his village for that drink. 

Over the past few years, craft brewers across India have brought out several interesting beers with local ingredients. (Read about it here.) And Indian brand DesmondJi bottles and sells a distilled drink made from mahua flowers. But Zingaat is probably the first time the flower has been used to make a beer at commercial scale in India. It is possible to play with the permutations and combinations of ingredients to change this recipe: different malts, yeasts, fruits, spices, etc. can be grist for the brewery. Hollis and Arjun have now placed some of this beer in an oak whiskey barrel, where it will mature for 6 months. We can expect to find a barrel-aged mahua dubbel on the menu by spring next year. It will be interesting to see how the woodiness of the barrel and the flavour of the whiskey it held earlier meld with Zingaat.  

Zingaat appeals to my heart, not only because of its taste and aromas: it has a fair-trade practice embedded in it. By buying the mahua flowers in bulk, directly from the adivasis who collect them from the forests, Arbor has cut out the middlemen, along with their fat margins and exploitative practices. “We wanted to give the mahua a wider audience and acceptance. It is special to people from my native place; so why not share it with others?” says Arjun, before adding, “Buying directly from the source and giving the sellers a fair deal was important to us.” 

Somewhere in our conversation, I ask him the inevitable question: Why Zingaat? He laughs and tells me that it is Marathi slang, and cannot be perfectly translated into English. It stands for a mood, he says — the feeling of being happily intoxicated, of being carefree. 

Recalling how I felt after two pints of the dubbel that afternoon, I know they have named the beer just right.

Photos: Arjun Tale / Charul Sharma (Header image)