Catamaran introduces the seaside Indian town of Pondicherry to craft beer.
Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran
For the longest time, Pondicherry (it is officially known as Puducherry; longstanding tourists and locals call it Pondy) has been the tourist’s haven, the drinker’s paradise and the spiritual seeker’s sanctuary. Lying on the Coromandel coast of India, this town hugs its multiple identities — and the Bay of Bengal — very well. The town (which is part of the independent Union Territory of Puducherry) has a liberal excise duty policy that is at stark variance with that of most other states of India. With liquor here being much cheaper than in other parts of the country, Pondy plays host to a number of bars, and liquor stores abound.
However, this quaint town didn’t have a single craft brewery. Until now.
In September this year, Catamaran Brewing Company became the first craft brewery cum pub in Pondicherry to open its doors to the public. Two months hence, the period of teething troubles and initial trials seems to be over, and the brewery seems to be settling down cozily into the local drinking scene.
Catamaran is located in a shopping mall on the arterial Anna Salai. We push open the thick wooden double doors (emblazoned with the brewery’s logo of a catamaran at sea) to step into a large room. My gaze sweeps around, revealing plush sofas wrapped around circular tables, lounge-styled seats, and some high bar stools. Along the left edge of the room, I can see a huge glass wall separating the seating area from the small brewery. Gleaming tanks are visible from where I stand. A long bar runs parallel to this wall and houses the beer taps.
Only three of the tables are occupied at the moment, so we have plenty of options to choose from. We seat ourselves in a sofa close to the bar (adhering to the time-tested dictum of true beer lovers: the closer to the bar, the better), and a waiter brings us the printed menu. As we are browsing it, he brings us glasses of water and a platter of vadams (savoury crisps akin to poppadums). We ask for the beer sampler set. We are told that five brews are on tap that day – a Helles lager, an oatmeal Stout, a Belgian Wit, an apple cider and a dark lager. Slow sips of each beer over the next several minutes reveal a brewery with promise. The apple cider scintillates, the Belgian Witbier refreshes, the Stout is creamy and malty, the Helles lager is crisp & summery, and the dark lager, intriguing.
As we drink, my mind rewinds to Catamaran’s backstory. College mates and friends for over two decades, Rangaraju Narayanasamy (Ranga) and Durgaprasad Radhakrishnan (Prasad) charted their respective careers before coming together to set up this brewpub. While Ranga, for whom Pondicherry is home, built his expertise in the business of food —managing gourmet tea shops and restaurants (including Sicily’s, the charming sea-facing eatery that serves delicious lasagna, pizza and burgers) — Prasad, who hails from the neighbouring city of Chennai, developed a love for craft beer and its nuances while working in an engineering technology company in the USA.
Launching a brewpub in Pondicherry was an idea that came to them naturally. The town with relaxed vibes, where even time seems to slow down, already had a beer-drinking culture, though only industrially brewed lagers were available so far. It seemed a good idea to capitalise on the town’s French connection, relaxed pulse and affinity to beer, and introduce the crowd to the exciting flavours of craft. Apart from locals, the co-founders are banking on tourists, especially the weekend floaters from Chennai, which is just 3 hours away by road, to patronise Catamaran. Ranga tells me, “Craft beer is new to Pondicherry. Rather than thinking of the bars here as competition, our brewery will change the dynamics of the beer drinking culture.”
In naming the brewpub Catamaran, Ranga and Prasad have drawn from the seafaring traditions of the region. In the days before motor boats became common, fishermen used to put out to sea in long, narrow boats made by lashing together sturdy logs of wood with thick ropes. This act of tying the logs together gave birth to the boats’ Tamizh name, kattumaram. This, in turn, spawned the English word catamaran. For centuries, catamarans were also used to transport goods over waterways.
The catamaran motif is reflected throughout the pub — in the logo, in the thick wooden planks, doors and rafters, and in the replica of the boat placed inside the brewpub.
While craft beer occupies centre stage, the food is not far behind. Reflecting Pondy’s Tamizh and French connections, the food menu offers local fare, Continental cuisine and some pan-Asian dishes, all of which make for great accompaniments to the brews. We sampled their spinach goat cheese phyllo parcels and mountain chilli baby corn, both of which were scrumptious. Ranga tells me, “We have included many items in the food and craft beer menus that we like personally. As regards the beers, the focus is to provide different styles, using natural ingredients with varied notes and flavours. We are trying to use locally-sourced ingredients like coconut and vettiver to give the beers a South Indian touch.”
While Ranga oversees the food, Prasad supervises the brewery. Roping in master brewer Oliver Schauff (one of the pioneers of the craft beer movement in India and considered by many to be a one-man brewing institution) could prove to be one of their best decisions. Having helped the founders set the brewery up, he continues to guide the brewing team comprising Suryakant Singh, Abhishek Patil, Divya Baviskar and James Joseph.
Suryakant, head brewer at Catamaran, joins us at our table for a brief chat. “We usually have five of our standard beers on tap,” he tells me. “These include Indian Summer (a Belgian Witbier), Pondy Pilsner (a Helles lager), Yuri G’s Drink (a smoked porter or a stout), Chingari Cider (a dry Apple cider) and Vox Populi (a dark lager). Every month, we also try to bring out an additional beer — like an IPA or a Marzen (for Oktoberfest).” Naming a beer after Yuri Gagarin (Yuri G’s Drink) is a reflection of the founders’ respect for the pioneering cosmonaut. All beers are served in pints (330 ml), which are priced at Rs. 199.
While ace bartender Shatbhi Basu (who has many firsts to her credit, including the fact the she is India’s first professional woman bartender) has curated the selection of spirits, ‘Mad Chef’ Koushik Shankar is in charge of the kitchen.
It is early days yet for Catamaran, but people seem to have taken a liking to it. Locals are trying the place out as an experiment — since many of them could be stepping into the world of craft beer for the first time. On the other hand, tourists who have been exposed to craft elsewhere come here seeking the same flavours. The provision of plugged and unplugged stages for seasoned and amateur musicians, and live gigs performing on weekends, should add a spark to this watering hole.
Photos: Catamaran Brewing Co. (header image & pub photo) / Ganesh Vancheeswaran