India’s small community of passionate homebrewers is trying to find its feet amidst challenges. 

Ganesh Vancheeswaran

In recent times, the brewing scene in India has evolved along two dimensions: commercial craft brewing and homebrewing. As much as craft brewing has garnered column space in the domestic press and blogs, homebrewing has remained in the shadows. 

People here start brewing at home mainly for different reasons – different motivators are at play. Many do it because they are shocked at how the bottled beer sold in India is adulterated with artificial colours, flavours and preservatives. They want to drink pure beer. And so, homebrewing. Some others start brewing out of sheer curiosity – to find out what it takes to make beer. Yet others are geeky, driven by a fascination of the brewing process, and possessing an urge to excel at it. But whatever be their motivation, they soak in the process of brewing and become ardent champions of it. 

Trial and error

Most homebrewers take a while to get into the stride. Their first beers invariably range from mediocre to disastrous. It is only after the first few attempts that they get a hang of things and start turning out decent beers. The mistakes they make range from having the wrong equipment (or no equipment, in many cases) to not getting the right temperature to using ingredients of a poor quality. But these mistakes lead to precious learnings, learnings that help them become better brewers over time. RL, who started brewing at home in 2016, says that his first batch of beer spoiled because he did not sanitise it. “I never realised that it must be sanitised!” he says. “And so,” he adds, “I did some more research. I read the book ‘How to Brew’ by John Palmer and spoke to many brewers. My next beer, a Belgian Dubbel infused with Indian spices, came out very well.” 

Most homebrewers learn to take these errors chin up; they make for a good laugh at the next brewers’ meet. But the satisfaction they get on finally making a good beer at home is unmatched. And their friends’ surprise on knowing that the wonderful Gose or Stout they are drinking was made at home makes the time and effort involved in homebrewing worth it. In a place like India where homebrewers are a small lot, this gives them bragging rights.   

RL has come a long way since that first failed batch of beer. Learning all the time from other brewers, books and his own experiments, he has graduated to making different styles of beer, such as German, French Saison and American. He now wants to make complex beers such as Porters, Sours and Hybrids. He has educated himself on the right equipment to be used (“The pH meter and sanitiser are critical!”), sourcing the right ingredients at a fair price (“The first time I made beer at home, I paid a bomb for yeast and hops.”), maintaining the right temperature and many other factors. 

A motley bunch

Accurate records of the number of homebrewers in India are absent, but estimates put it at between 8,000 and 10,000. AA, who supplies homebrewers with the necessary equipment and ingredients, says that homebrewers in India come from various walks of life and belong to different age ranges. “But most of them are in their late 30s or late 50s. They are professionals who have travelled well and enjoy fine food.” A common trait among homebrewers is that they are interesting people. Many of them have been exposed to the best beers from across the world (a fact that motivated them to make beers of a similar quality here), and have eclectic tastes in music, art, food, design, technology or literature.  

Passionate about the brew, they love experimenting with styles and recipes. When they are not at work or making beer, you will find them exchanging notes with other brewers on their recipes, equipment and brewing methods. While the number of meets has reduced because of Covid-19, brewers exchange recipes, ideas and perspectives on the phone. These close interactions cement bonds and lead to lasting relationships. RL says, “I have learnt a lot from the community of brewers. I am therefore happy to share whatever I know with others, to help them. I am still in touch with the brewers I met 5 years ago.” 

While many homebrewers are content to keep brewing at home, others are keen to become commercial brewers and join one of the many craft breweries in the country. In the years to come, this migration is likely to intensify. 

Miles to go

Going by the number of beers sold and the number of commercial brewers, homebrewing is still small in India. For one, the law is not clear and consistent across the country about whether homebrewing is legal. While it is legal in some states (if it is meant for personal consumption and the homebrewer maintains a stock of less than a certain volume), it is not, in other states. And even in the states where it is legal, government authorities are known to harass homebrewers on some pretext or the other. As a result, the homebrewers here are justifiably nervous, and prefer to stay under the radar. 

VN, a homebrewer, adds another important aspect. “Our fraternity needs accurate knowledge of homebrewing methods and more information on sourcing the right ingredients and equipment.” If this happens, we will see more good home brews emerge. This, in turn, will entice more people into homebrewing.Many regions of the world that are popular for their beer have a vibrant homebrewing scene. In fact, homebrewing has been one of the factors responsible for the growth of craft brewing in those regions. If India is to develop into a brewing nation, it is important that homebrewing is also fostered here, like in the brewing hotspots of the world. 

Picture: aaron007, istock