With the growth of the craft beer scene in India, beer brands, breweries and communities are coming together to motivate beer lovers to appreciate the drink even more.

Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

It would be fair to say that the craft beer scene has grown considerably in India in the past few years. What started as a small movement at the beginning of this decade took root in Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune and Delhi/Gugaon. Of late, Goa, Hyderabad and parts of Punjab have been showing their love for craft beer, too. It is estimated that India has more than 100 microbreweries spread over these places, with Bangalore alone accounting for a majority of them.

The presence of so many breweries, a clutch of domestic bottled craft beer brands and several imported ones has meant that the game is hotting up. Beer drinkers in the places mentioned above are indulging their experimentative side and seeking out new types of beer (though the Hefe and lager continue to be the two most popular styles, I am told). Also, the number of beer drinkers seems to be increasing in these pockets, thanks to the availability of a number of styles of beer catering to different drinking palates. All of which means that there is a certain vibrancy in the craft beer market in the country today.

At the same time, there is much more potential for the market to grow. Currently, the Indian craft beer scene is nowhere close to that in the USA or in certain pockets of Europe – be it in the diversity of styles, the number of brands, the quality of the brew or the level of knowledge the average beer lover has of the drink. At the same time, things have come a long way since the early days of the craft movement.  

Intuiting that efforts have to be made to push things to the next level, several progressive members of the craft beer fraternity have come together to help people know their drink better and appreciate its nuances. Apart from a few leading breweries and beer brands, online beer groups are playing a big role in this.

For beer lovers, by beer lovers

The chief contribution of online beer groups has been to make beer a topic of day-to-day conversation and to pool together the knowledge of a vast number of people from across the country. Though they started small with local moorings, beer communities like Friends of Froth (FoF), The Beer Dossier (TBD), Bangalore Beer Club (BBC) and Craft & Co. have spread wings rapidly. They have grown in size (each having a few thousand members) and in the range of beer palates they cater to. These groups (all of which are anchored on Facebook) comprise people of all stripes from across India and indeed, from certain other parts of the world.

Through lively conversations involving posts, pictures and videos, members dissect almost every aspect of beer-drinking. A new style of beer they discovered on their travels, a particular way of pouring a beer, a new brewery they visited, new brands launched, the history of Trappist beers, the right temperature to serve beer at, the effect of glassware on the drinking experience, the most memorable ‘beer moments’ – you hear about all this and more! Often, hilarious anecdotes centered on beer come tumbling out of the personal closet. And then, there are beer trivia shared, quizzes conducted and different beers analysed for the benefit of the entire group.

These posts score big among the members of the communities, because they are fun in spirit and tone, while imparting knowledge at the same time. Even while discussing technical aspects such as carbonation, head dissipation, IBU, the varieties of hops and so on, the language is kept simple. Group admins encourage all members to post, irrespective of what beer they like and what kind of pub/bar they are drinking in. If there is anything these groups are not, that is boring and snooty. Part of the excitement is because beer drinkers are waking up to the fact that a brew they were chugging casually with friends all this while has so much more to it than just fun!

Anudeep Reddy, an administrator of FoF, mentions a specific conversation thread for its popularity. Named ‘Elroy’s Thursday Corner’, because it was initiated by Elroy Carlos Feguireido, one of the administrators of this group, the thread’s sole intent is to throw fun questions at members and draw out their thoughts and personal experiences w.r.t beer. As the name suggests, it is triggered every Thursday.

While all these groups started online, they have established a vibrant offline presence, too – in the form of meet-ups, beer launches and various other sessions that combine knowledge with fun.

Like the first Beer Bus Crawl that Hannan Hashim recalls conducting in Bangalore in 2015. Akin to a pub crawl on wheels, it gave participants a tour of a few breweries in town and a guided tasting of different kinds of craft beer. Hannan is India’s first BJCP certified judge and co-founder of the Facebook groups The Beer Dossier and Bangalore Beer Club.

The craft beer-paired-lunch sessions conducted by Akash Hirebet, co-founder of the Facebook group Craft & Co., in association with Brew & Barbeque in Bangalore is `another example. Involving a specially curated menu of beer and food, this dinner takes guests through a few dishes, each one paired with a specific beer. “As host of the dinner, I walked the guests through the dishes, explaining why a certain dish was being paired with a particular beer. I think food pairing can be explored with beer, now that we have a certain diversity of styles in this city. Why should wine have all the fun?” says he.

Brew-day collaboration (collab, for short) is another activity that has taken off well. A handful of people are selected through a quiz conducted on social media to attend these collabs at one of the breweries, where they get to participate in a part of the beer-making process.

Hannan Hashim thinks helping people appreciate beer better through all these activities will have an important rub-off on the craft brewing industry as a whole. He says, “If people understand craft beer and demand better beer, there’s an added incentive for breweries to go out of their way, innovate and make good brews.”

Shared interest, shared benefits

For sure, educating consumers about craft beer works in favour of beer brands and breweries, too. For one, it helps them draw more consumers into their fold and forge a bond with them. To some extent, this helps them stand out from those brands and establishments that don’t actively make such overtures. Not just that – leading breweries (their owners and brewers) share a deep love for craft beer and are keen to spread their love to as many people as they can. Ashish Ranjan, a Delhi-based administrator of FoF puts it this way, “Leading craft breweries of the country have acknowledged the knowledge gap and are a driving force behind such initiatives.” Conducting these initiatives is a way of improving the overall standards of the industry and ensuring that all stakeholders appreciate craft beer better.

The Independence Brewing Company in Pune (which has been holding craft beer boot camps for the past four years) and others such as Quaff (Gurgaon), Ministry of Beer (Delhi), Tama (Faridabad), Aurum (Bangalore), Brew & Barbeque (Bangalore) and Stories – The Brew Chapter (Bangalore) are just a few of the breweries that hold experiential sessions centered around beer.

The late John John Eapen, founder of FoF and of a beer blog called Tales of Froth was a champion of the craft movement and was actively involved in programs like the Beer Star (conducted in partnership with Tulleeho). Meant chiefly for the serving staff at pubs and those beer-lovers who are interested in taking up the Cicerone certification, this program helps participants understand the intricacies of different beer styles, serving fundamentals, the brewing process and food pairings.

Interestingly, the serving and wait staff of pubs learn a lot even from the knowledge sessions that are conducted primarily for consumers. This, in turn, helps them explain craft beer better to their guests, and handle and serve the drink properly.

But knowledge sessions are not the only way to make the craft movement grow. Prabhtej Singh Bhatia, CEO of Sona Beverages Pvt. Ltd., the company that makes Simba Beer, approaches the issue from a different angle. He says that apart from meet-ups and beer-centric activities, his company has leveraged distribution to enter new markets in India. They have taken Simba beyond the current hotspots of NCR, Mumbai, Bangalore, Goa and Hyderabad, and introduced it to markets like Kolkata, Guwahati, Sonepat and Panipat (the latter two towns being in Haryana). “Entering new markets and being available on more retail shelves is also an important step in making the craft beer movement grow,’’ says Prabhtej.  

A marathon, not a sprint

In the past few years, the beer-drinking groups mentioned here have grown into vibrant entities, bringing together disparate people who are united by their love for good beer. Not just that; the near-daily interactions have spawned real friendships and a deeper sense of belonging among their members. No more are they just groups of people sitting around and drinking beer; members support one another in personal matters, too. Keeping this spirit of community and sharing alive will be critical to sustaining the growth of the craft movement.    

Everybody I spoke to for this story readily admits that this is not a 100 metre sprint, but a marathon. While the initial momentum and the response of consumers have been good, beer brands, pubs and groups need to stay the course for best results. As Akash says, “These initiatives need time to develop and for more interest to be generated around them.” For this to happen, establishments and brands must see quizzes, meet-ups, brew-day collabs, bootcamps and other such initiatives as part of an on-going conversation with the beer drinking fraternity, and not as one-off attempts to rake in some business quickly.

This is all the more true, because the majority of beer drinkers in India are used to drinking commercial lagers, and will need some time to open up to craft beers. For many, craft beer is an acquired taste. Another hump along the way is that currently, most craft breweries are making only a limited number of beer types/styles. As they expand their portfolio of beers, there will be much more for communities to talk about, share and learn.

The good thing is that these beer-drinking groups, along with the more progressive breweries and brands thrive on a genuine love for the brew and the intention to raise knowledge levels about it. And the fizz of that love isn’t going to die down anytime soon.

Pictures: Friends of Froth / Tales of Froth /