Permission to sell beer through growlers and beer stations has brought relief to micro-breweries in some parts of India. But the tough times persist.

Author: Ganesh Vancheeswaran

Like food & beverage (F&B) establishments in most countries of the world, the ones in India have been ravaged by the aftershocks of Covid-19. Thousands of eateries, bars, pubs and breweries had to remain shut since March, as people scurried home and have stayed there for nearly 5 months. 

While certain types of businesses resumed regular operations in June, F&B outlets could not. Many of them across India remain shut even today, with some of them having closed doors permanently. The ones that remain open are only receiving a few orders a day. Many of them have taken strict health & safety measures to protect employees and customers from the virus.

But of what use are these measures when most people are not willing to step out of home even now? The fear of the virus is palpable, and is not likely to recede till at least the end of this year. 

Craft breweries have been among the worst hit. Their misery was compounded by the fact that, when lockdown was suddenly announced in March this year, they found themselves saddled with an inventory of thousands of litres of freshly-brewed beer. Almost overnight, they had nobody to sell this beer to! Over the subsequent weeks, many craft breweries had to drain their entire inventory. Others hung on to their stock in the hope that state governments would open up takeaway sale of beer. 

This article shows how serious the situation was during the early weeks of India’s lockdown.  

Hundreds of breweries, therefore, heaved a collective (and loud) sigh of relief when the government of Karnataka, in May, allowed craft breweries (Government documents refer to them as micro-breweries) based in that state to sell their stored inventory of beer through growlers and resume fresh brewing. This was the first time such sale was being permitted anywhere in the country. This permission was subsequently extended, and continues to be in force today. (It is understood that the state government will review this order in the near future and see if it can be extended further.)

At that time, micro-breweries in other Indian states such as Haryana, West Bengal and Maharashtra had also requested their respective state governments for similar permission. 

In June, the government of Maharashtra passed an order permitting micro-breweries located in that state to sell beer from their premises in growlers. Actually, it went a step further. It permitted micro-breweries based in the state to set up beer dispensing stations within the state. In addition, it allowed home-delivery of beer by select retail outlets. While Kimaya Brewing Company is the only micro-brewery to have set up a beer station in Maharashtra so far, a few others are expected to do so, soon. In the same month, the government of Uttar Pradesh allowed bars and micro-breweries in the cities of Noida and Ghaziabad to sell beer through takeaway.  

These orders have come after repeated requests and detailed presentations made by the Craft Brewers Association of India (CBAI), a collective of micro-brewery owners from across India. Members of CBAI have been in close touch with the officials of the respective state governments to work out a solution to the Covid-19 impasse. Nakul Bhosle, Founder – Great State Aleworks, a Pune-based micro-brewery, and President – Maharashtra Chapter of CBAI, says, “Thankfully, the Maharashtra Government understood our problems, and was supportive in resolving them.” And early this month, West Bengal became the latest Indian state to permit takeaway sale of beer from micro-breweries (located in that state). 

By and large, the government orders issued so far allow between 0.5 and 4 litres of beer to be sold per customer per transaction. While some micro-breweries let customers bring their growlers, others prefer to use their own. Biergarten Brewery & Kitchen, a Bangalore-based micro-brewery, is one such. Nikhil Wahi, Managing Partner at Biergarten, says, “We sell beer in our own bottles, which are sealed with crown caps. This keeps the freshness and taste of the beer intact for as long as a week. This is not possible with growlers that customers bring in. Also, this way, we can sanitise the growlers thoroughly.” 

Another recent temporary order issued by the government of Karnataka allows growlers to be filled at distribution breweries located in the state, and distributed to hotels, restaurants, pubs and clubs that hold a valid RVB license. The beer can then be sold by these outlets to customers. But the growlers have to be filled only at a brewery and not at its distribution locations.

Taking advantage of this order, Geist, a popular craft beer brand, has launched its growler service in Bangalore. Customers can pick up Geist growlers from bars and restaurants that the brand has partnered with. The brand will keep updating the list of partner outlets from time to time. 

These are just the broad contours of the recent developments in the Indian craft beer industry. Each order comes with conditions and provisos. But the very fact that a few state governments have paid heed to the concerns of micro-breweries is heartening. Though breweries are seeing only a trickle of business from takeaway sales, it is definitely a step in the right direction. One hopes that other state governments in India will follow suit, soon. 

Nikhil Wahi of Biergarten echoes the sentiments of the entire craft-brewing fraternity in India when he says, “These orders should now be made permanent. Governments must realise that micro-breweries will be able to reap the benefits of these orders only a year from now. So, making these changes permanent is the least they can do, considering how hard we have been hit.” 

Pictures: Geist; Kimaya Brewing Company