Women have made place for themselves in what was earlier a male preserve in India: the world of brewing. Let’s hear from a few of them.

Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Time was when beer (and all alcoholic beverages, for that matter) was seen to a male preserve in India. Media and marketing narratives helped strengthen this perception. They positioned alcoholic beverages as mostly suitable for men – with the exception of gin and wine, which were considered “mild enough” for women. 

But things have changed considerably in the last few years, and the growth of craft beer across India has had a large role to play in inducing this change. The less hierarchical and more open work culture of craft breweries, championed by a different breed of entrepreneurs, has helped equalise things for men and women. For instance, Dilip Gowda, Founder-By The Peepal, a brewery in Bangalore, says that he is just concerned about bringing out great quality beer. “And so, I view and evaluate everybody in my team as a professional, irrespective of their gender”, he adds. 

Karina Aggarwal, consultant to alco-bev brands and Founder of Gigglewater 411, a portal focussed on beer and spirits, thinks that many women in the alco-bev industry face a societal bias and resistance at some point in their professional journey. This was because associating with alcohol was considered taboo for women. “But this bias has spurred many women, including myself, to work harder, to do better. We felt we had a point to prove, at least in our early years in this field.” She adds that things have improved in recent times. There is greater acceptance of women in brewing roles, and this has opened up more work opportunities for them. 

Against this background, we thought it’d be good to catch up with a few women involved in making beer and mead in India. Here are excerpts from my conversations with a few brewers, the owner of a meadery, and a microbiologist. They offer a rich insight into their work, the challenges they face, and what gives them professional satisfaction.  

Read on!

Amruta Biranje: Head Brewer, Byg Brewski, Bangalore

My longtime curiosity about alcoholic drinks led me to become a brewer. I did my Master’s in Brewing Technology from Vasantdada Sagar Institute, Pune.

As a head brewer now, I ensure that my brewery is kept clean always, and that my teammates follow all the SOPs. This helps me maintain the quality and consistency of the beer. 

I try to maintain a number of beer styles on tap at any point of time; right now, we have 10-12 styles on tap. We keep experimenting with new ingredients like various fruits and spices. Recently, we brewed with green and pink peppercorn, and kokum. People appreciated these beers.

I have a multi-lingual brewing team. All of us understand the language of beer. I try to inculcate the importance of working together. I schedule shifts for all my teammates in such a way that everyone enjoys their work and gets personal time, too. 

A well-balanced recipe is important for a great beer. I love it when a new beer turns out the way I had imagined it – or even better! 

In a craft brewery, maintaining a consistent quality of the beer is a challenge. Since the brewery is not fully automated, we have to do a number of things manually. So, keeping human error out is a big thing.  

My typical day involves a host of activities like checking the temperature and pressure of all the tanks, checking our equipment and inventory of ingredients, milling, checking the status of all fermentation tanks, transfers to the beer tanks, and so on. I then make a checklist for the next day. And after a long, tiring day, I treat myself to a pint of my favourite beer. I like hoppy beers, malt-forward beers, fruit infusions and sours. 

The Indian craft beer industry has a lot of potential for growth. The number of craft breweries has increased over the last ten years. The craft brewing community is very open-minded and experimentative, and I like that very much. 

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Swati Shinde: Head Brewer, Gateway Brewing Company 

After working as a wine maker with almost 7 wineries, I ended up getting a Master’s in Wine, Brewing & Alcohol Technology from Vasantdada Sagar Institute, Pune. I’ve been a brewer for the past 6 years. After short stints at Barleys Brew House and The Biere Club in Bangalore, I moved to Gateway (in Mumbai) 5 years ago.

The owners of Gateway are great brewers themselves; so, I keep in constant touch with them regarding all brewery-related decisions. My teammates are all good at their work. I have trained my helpers on operational work. 

Raw material selection is critical for making great beer. Storing raw materials requires careful supervision and controlled conditions. Temperature, timing and ingredients are all factors that affect the quality of beer. It is a challenge to make great beer consistently.

I think of brewing as an art. I like trying out new beer recipes. It feels great when I get positive comments and feedback from consumers. 

I like all the IPAs, and am a fan of Porters and Stouts, too. The beers from Goa Brewing Company are some of my favourites. 

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Vidya Kubher: Head Brewer, Geist 

I’ve had an interest in beer for a while, and travel gave me the exposure. Various aspects of brewing were interesting to me, and a brewing career became the logical next step. So I trained to be a brewer about nine years ago. My formal studies were at Siebel Institute, Chicago, and Doemens Academy, Munich. I trained at various breweries and a yeast lab in Europe, too.

My role at our brewery involves a number of things: creating recipes, managing various aspects of brewing, and contributing to events. A good amount of effort needs to go in, to ensure even basic quality.

My typical pre-Covid workday would start early in the morning. After changing into work boots, I would check on utilities and then, move on to brewing, cellar operations, packaging, yeast management, beer tasting and interactions with my team. 

Work safety & hygiene are central to our work culture. My team includes a couple of brewers, lab personnel, a maintenance engineer and a couple of brewer’s assistants.

As always, the basics – a good recipe, quality ingredients, good process and diligence in cleaning & sanitation – make for a great beer. How the beer is stored and served also makes a big difference. 

Given that beer has been around for millennia and still draws so much excitement, speaks about the possibilities. The challenges for a brewer – deciding on beer styles, creating recipes, working with yeast culture and the things you encounter while brewing – also make the work interesting and satisfying.

Certainly, craft beer has made brewing a career option for women, and craft beer growth has accelerated the presence of women in brewing. Women in India today handle different aspects of brewing & laboratory operations. The beer sensory department can grow with the presence of specialists. The beer writers’ space has a lot of opportunities. Also, women shouldn’t shy away from the oft-ignored division of brewery repair & maintenance. If we consider ourselves capable in all aspects, we will have to be in this space, too.

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Ashwini Deore nee Tilay: Co-founder, Cerana Meadery, Nashik

A number of women across the world are sommeliers, meadmakers and brewers. Even in India, their number is growing. Very few people may know this, but women have been associated with beer since ancient times, when they used to brew in the kitchen! 

We (Yoginee Budhkar, my co-founder and I) love our industry. Our craft meadery is at Sinnar, outside Nashik city. Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey. We sell mead in kegs and bottles under the brand name Cerana. Cerana is the name of a honey bee variant that is widely found in India. Our bottled mead goes to retailers, while the kegs are distributed to bars, pubs and restaurants. 

Mead was called madhu madya in the Rig Veda. It is said that Lord Indra used to love this drink. We want to revive this heritage drink in India, and give it its rightful place, again. 

Jamun and pomegranate meads are two of our popular meads. We are going to make mango melomel soon. We’ve participated in collab brewing of meads; in Feb this year, we made some mead in collaboration with Big Pitcher, Bangalore. We also participate in events like Tapped.

Yoginee and I have to juggle different kinds of work: household chores, taking care of our children, and managing our meadery. It is challenging, but we have learnt to compartmentalise things. Our families’ support matters a lot to us. While Yoginee looks after Marketing, Sales & Accounts at Cerana, I manage the production, excise-related formalities, inventory and related aspects. 

This industry is open-minded. Whenever we visit breweries in India, we have found everyone to be welcoming, helpful and willing to share their experiences with us. 

Women are more finicky – more detail oriented – I think. We go into details, and take our time to decide what’s best in any situation. When people appreciate our mead at bars and stores, all our hard work seems worthwhile. We are happy to see where we have come, and happier when we think of where we are going.

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Shreya Sahasrabudhe: Brewer, By the Peepal, Bangalore 

I did my Bachelor’s in Biotechnology in Pune. Afterwards, I studied M.Sc. in Food Science & Technology in Mumbai. During that time, I got interested in beer and the brewing process. But it was while interning at Doolally that I fell in love with beer. After finishing my Master’s, I joined By The Peepal as a brewer. 

Anil Jacob (the head brewer) and I form a tiny team here, working closely with Oliver Schauff, our brewing consultant, who guides us. Anil and I have seen this brewery grow from its inception; right from the time it was being built. So we have always done everything in the brewery ourselves. We are the plumbers, tank cleaners, electricians, brewers…everybody. This has helped me learn a lot. In the initial days, I had to learn the mechanical aspects of how a brewing plant works. But after that, it has been smooth sailing. 

I love the way Oliver teaches us things. He throws a question at me, lets me think and answer for myself; like I am solving a puzzle. Also, I love that we have the freedom to experiment with recipes.   

New product development, sensory testing, blending – in fact, everything about making beer fascinates me. Being a research-oriented person, I like the research that goes into our ingredients and infusions. 

On brew days, we start at 6 am and go on till 6 pm, assuming things work smoothly. If there is a problem, we may end up working till late at night. I have had days when I have worked 20 hours; that adds to the excitement. 

Women do face some bias and resistance from society when it comes to working in the brewing line. When I told my family I wanted to be a brewer, they were tense for a few days. I had to explain to them that this was really important to me. After that, they saw things my way. But there is no such bias within the industry.

Opportunities for women are growing fast in this field. Recently, some students (including girls) from my institute called me up and said that they want to intern at a brewery. To me, that’s progress from where we were a few years ago. 

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Sushma Ganesh: Senior Microbiologist, Blackeye Beer Works Limited, Bangalore

When I started off in this field, my parents didn’t like the fact that I work with beer. They were worried that I’d find it very difficult to get married! (laughs) By the way, before I became a brewer, I was a national level archer, even qualifying for the Olympics trials.

After stints as a microbiologist at Khoday’s and Geist, I joined Blackeye Beer Works last year. We supply yeast to the outlets of Byg Brewsky in Bangalore, and to Spindrift Brewpub in Mangalore. 

An important part of my job is to make sub-cultures of the yeast we buy, some of which are imported. The yeast strains have to be stored under the right conditions. I also have to refresh and propagate the yeast, in synch with the brewing schedule. I love working with yeast. It is a critical ingredient in beer, and gives beer its character. 

As a microbiologist, I have to check the plating to ensure that it is not contaminated. Checking if the yeast is ready for use, checking the bitterness of the beer, conducting quality tests on yeast, storing and sub-culturing the yeast – all these are important parts of my work. We have to start propagating yeast 7 days before a batch of beer is to be brewed.

There are a number of women brewers abroad and in India, too. Abroad, there are even scholarships for women to join brewing courses. Something like this can be introduced in India, too. 

Even after spending 13 years in this field, I learn something new every day. I want to continue in this line, and to master it. There is a lot of exciting action in the Indian craft brewing scene.

Pictures: Ganesh Vancheeswaran