A series of in-depth profiles of the earliest and the best of India’s brewpubs.

Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

When The Biere Club threw open its doors to business in 2010, it marked the birth of the craft beer movement in the Indian city of Bangalore. It was located in a plush locality of the city and boasted swank interiors. Its highlight though, was its microbrewery. The Biere Club offered the tipplers of India’s pub capital a range of craft beers that were freshly brewed in-premises. And the tipplers lapped them up! For months on end, the perpetually crowded brewpub was the toast of Bangalore’s curious beer drinkers. 

Then came other brewpubs like Toit, Arbor, Windmills and several others. And before we realised it, Bangalore had acquired a truly vibrant craft beer culture – thanks to its numerous breweries and the ever-experimenting crowd of beer-lovers.  

It seems like it all began just yesterday, but the craft movement in Bangalore turns 10 this year. In the past decade, several new breweries have sprung up with their gleaming tanks, while many others have had to close. The market has matured a lot, with the Bangalore beer-lover having access to many more craft beer brands, styles and recipes than ever before. If this city was the pub-capital of India through the nineties and early 2000s, it has retained that title with aplomb, and has now added the tag of ‘brewing capital of India’. 

Despite all the changes that the craft industry has witnessed, some of the earliest breweries continue to thrive. In a landscape dotted with several average-quality breweries, they stand out for their stellar brews and for keeping a finger on the pulse of the market. Which is why, we thought it’d be fitting to salute the pioneers of the craft beer movement by profiling them. We kick-start this series with Arbor Brewing Company, which set up its brewpub in Bangalore in 2012. But this series is not just about Bangalore; it will shine the spotlight on pioneering brewpubs in other cities of India, too. 

Here’s to those who have been at the vanguard of India’s craft beer scene! Prost!

Born in Michigan, brewed in Bangalore

Arbor Brewing Company’s brewpub has played a seminal role in creating and shaping the craft beer movement in Bangalore. We look under the froth to see what the brand is all about.  

I am not sure if, as an undergraduate in the United States of America, Gaurav Sikka fell in love with the American way of life in its entirety. But there was one thing that he did fall in love with – the thriving, pulsing craft beer scene in the US of A. He remembers the many occasions when he hung out with his friends at local breweries, sampling their fare. “I was hooked! I suddenly realised that there was this whole new world of craft beer,” says Gaurav when I meet him in his office on Magrath Road in Bangalore. His eyes widen a bit and he sounds excited, as he thinks back to those times.

Finishing college, he worked in the field of digital media and animation, living in New York. His 3-year stint in America’s business capital saw him dive into local breweries (“Real estate in Manhattan was very expensive, and so, there weren’t many breweries.”), and enjoy the wide range of imported bottled craft beers that were available in stores. And whenever he travelled to other parts of the country on vacation, he would sample beers brewed in those parts. Slowly but steadily, he fell in love with craft. 

The genesis and early days

When the sub-prime crisis hit the USA in 2008, the markets crashed and there was blood-letting all around. Gaurav decided to return to India, where his family lived. It was then that the wild idea of setting up a brewpub came to him. “I thought to myself, ‘What if I brought the American craft beer culture to Bangalore?’”, says he. As the pub capital of India, Bangalore practically lived on beer and rock music. But the pubs of the eighties and nineties had started looking jaded, and the local beer-loving crowd was on the lookout for fresh experiences – they wanted something more than the two brands of lager beer served at pubs those days. Gaurav sensed that it was time to push the city’s beer culture to the next level. 

After studying the market closely, he firmed up his plan to set up a brewpub. But he was clear that he would not set up just any brewpub, but one that already had a hell of a legacy and reputation back in the United States: the Ann-Arbor based Arbor Brewing Company (ABC). 

“Arbor was one of my favourite watering holes during my days as an undergraduate. I was taken in by their adherence to American style craft brewing and their insistence on brewing with integrity. I wanted to bring that to India, and to my home base, Bangalore,” is how Gaurav puts it. And so, he entered into a partnership with ABC, and acquired the license to launch the brand in India. 

But before the pub could be launched, there was one big issue: India did not have a craft beer policy! The policy on making, distributing and serving beer was made for the era of bottled beers; drafting one for microbreweries & craft beer meant a whole series of discussions and intense liaising with Government officials. In this, Gaurav was joined by other early movers like Arvind Raju of The Biere Club, Sibi Venkataraju of Toit, Ajay Nagarajan of Windmills Craftworks, Ishaan Puri of White Rhino Brewing, Oliver Schauf of Doolally, and others. Working together to set the tone for craft brewing in India, they also cemented close relationships that last to this day. “Putting our heads together helped us launch the craft movement in India,” says Gaurav. After all, craft is all about collaborating at various levels. 

Finally, the craft beer policy was gazetted in February 2011. Arbor brewpub opened for business in Bangalore in November 2012, in the commercially active locality of Ashok Nagar. 

The first few months saw Gaurav and his team tighten the nuts and bolts of the brewery, so as to get their beers right. After the usual teething issues, they settled down to business. 

The Arbor brewing philosophy

The husband-wife team of Matt Greff and Rene Greff set up Arbor Brewing Company in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1995. With a commitment to serve carefully curated beers, they launched their first outlet soon after brewpubs were legalized in Michigan. The entrepreneurial and experimental streak of Matt Greff, who was a passionate homebrewer before he launched Arbor, finds its way into the brewing operations in Bangalore.  “While our focus is on offering classic American beer styles here, we always try out new stuff, too,” says Gaurav. In its 8th year now, Arbor has brewed more than 100 original beers – an average of about 1.5 new beers every month. That’s some serious experimentation!

All along, the phrases “true to the brew” and “brewing with integrity” have guided Arbor’s approach to brewing. This has meant that patrons get to savour superb, no-nonsense brews made from the best ingredients and with a strict adherence to process and quality protocols. Holding the quality bar consistently high has been a top priority. Being local (sourcing as many ingredients as possible locally), sustainable (following environmentally responsible business practices) and natural (making a number of items in-house using fresh, natural ingredients) in its approach to food & drink is important to Arbor. Interestingly, Arbor recycles the grain used to make beer, sending it to a local farmer for use as livestock feed. 

The beers

Arbor usually has 8 or 10 beers on tap at any point of time, comprising classics, seasonals and other experimental brews. While all their beers are popular with patrons, Raging Elephant (American style IPA; 6.8% ABV; 80 IBU) and Beach Shack (a more sessionable IPA; 6% ABV; 55 IBU) have become emblematic of Arbor here. In the spirit of bonhomie, Arbor’s team collab-brewed Beach Party Double IPA (8% ABV; 70 IBU) along with Alchemy, another bewpub in town. Easy Rider, No Parking, Bangalore Bliss and Smooth Criminal are other popular classics on Arbor’s menu, while the gose-style Watermelon Kettle Sour is its hat-tip to the on-going All-India Sour Beer Month (March 2020). 

Bhaskar Emperumal, a long-standing regular at Arbor (so much so, that a couple of friends consider him part of the pub’s furniture) believes that they have been consistently good with their beers. “Pilsner, Hefe, Ale, Stout and Sour… they have it all. And each beer is top class!” he says. He adds that its consistency (in the quality of beers, food and service) and comfortable vibes draw a number of regulars repeatedly. 

Arindam Som, another frequent visitor to Arbor, loves the fact that they offer interesting seasonals from time to time. “The Goan special Coconut Brown Ale, the Kokum Kolsch and the Big Lizard DIPA are a few that I have liked in the past,” he says. 

Gaurav believes that Head Brewer Hollis Coats has had a big role to play in ensuring that Arbor’s beers have made a mark. Hollis, his assistant Arjun Tale and the rest of the brewing team deserve credit for keeping the spirit of authenticity and experimentation alive. 

A social and open-minded brand 

The Arbor way is to listen to customers closely and take their feedback seriously. “We welcome feedback and suggestions from our patrons, and incorporate them to the extent possible. We are also a very social brand; our social media handles are interactive and always updated. Our patrons have many ways to communicate with us,” is how he sums up their customer-centricity. Customer-centricity also manifests in the form of smiling wait staff who willingly guide patrons to the right beer and food. Arbor is one of the few pubs where I have been able to have a conversation on beers with the wait staff – and that automatically pushes the brand up in my eyes. It is thanks to the same social nature of the brand that we see ‘bar takeovers’ by customers from time to time. 

Arbor takes interns from hospitality institutes and gets its staff to attend learning programs. Arbor Academy, the in-house Learning & Development program, focusses on nurturing in-house talent through training programs on Leadership. For a brand with a strong legacy and a clear mission in craft brewing, this is a vital aspect of ensuring that it stays on top. 

The craft beer scene in Bangalore 

Gaurav is understandably happy that today, Bangalore has a strong craft beer culture. An ever-growing community of beer-lovers has lapped up the wide range of options available, and is rooting for more. The average beer-lover’s palate has evolved considerably in this city in the last five years. And brands like Arbor have been instrumental in shaping this evolution. When I put this point to him, Gaurav responds by saying that he is aware of it, and that they (at Arbor) have a huge responsibility in ensuring that this culture continues to bloom. “We are in constant touch with our community of beer-lovers, and are always seeking out ways to push the envelope. We have to keep bringing out new beers, generating conversations and educating the market on the essence of craft”, he says. This, he says, is all the more important to fight off pretend-craft brands and to help consumers make an informed choice. 

As our conversation winds down, I ask him how he feels at this juncture of Arbor’s journey in Bangalore. He thinks for a moment and tells me (in a slightly emotional tone) that he is proud of the way the craft beer movement has grown in Bangalore, and in Mumbai, Pune and Goa. He credits this evolution to the joint efforts of brewery owners, and the resounding manner in which consumers have responded. He adds that Arbor as a brand has the responsibility to keep nurturing this movement that has taken root here, and to continue keeping its ear to the ground. All this, in addition to upholding the Arbor-Michigan legacy. 

Gaurav Sikka is confident they will do it! And so am I. 

Pictures: Ganesh Vancheeswaran