This is a story called Bengaluru Beer. There is a fear that Delhi might over Bangalore as the Pub City of India– or has it already? The one person who I wanted to interview for this piece but couldn’t do it by deadline was a man from a company called Ambicon. They make equipment for brewing beer, which to me, is a sign that craft beer in India has come of age.
It is Saturday night and The Biere Club in Bengaluru’s upmarket Lavelle Road district is humming. The city, also known as Bangalore, is India’s pub hub, and the young IT professionals downing pints of handcrafted ales, lagers and stouts, all made in-house, are living up to the city’s reputation. “Bengaluruans enjoy their beer and we thought that it was about time that beer got its due in this city,” says the young and chic Meenakshi Raju, who along with her brother Arvind opened The Biere Club a few months ago. The Rajus belong to a family that is in the hospitality business. “My father and uncles all own hotels and resorts so my brother and I wanted to do something different,” she says. It was only after visiting Singapore’s Brewerkz that they honed in on a craft brewery: the pub city of India had none of its own.
Bengaluru’s salubrious climate, cosmopolitan citizens, colonial buildings and army cantonments all give this city a faintly British touch and with it a strong tradition of watering holes. Nostalgic Bengaluruans talk about downing pints of beer at the Windsor Pub, Guzzlers, Scottish Pub and Underground as a rite of passage. Not surprisingly, India’s most famous beer brand, Kingfisher, is headquartered in Bengaluru. Kingfisher organises The Great Indian Octoberfest, an annual three-day event to promote its range of beers, each appealing to a different price point. “Beer drinking is so deeply entrenched into the fabric of Bengaluru that I see no way that it could ever be dethroned,” says Manu Chandra, Executive Chef of Olive Beach restaurant, Bengaluru, and Olive Bar and Kitchen, Mumbai. “The good news is that beer is no longer in the male domain, which it was often perceived as. That simply doubles the demographic. It will forever remain a student and youth favourite – that’s a substantial number too.”
The IT industry and the disposable income it bestowed on young professionals only increased the demand for beer. Many of them went abroad as engineers and learned to enjoy beer; some, when they returned home, decided to figure out how to duplicate the same thing in India. Narayan Manepally and Paul Chowdhry are two such schoolmates who went abroad and then returned to Bengaluru. Manepally worked at Intel in Portland, Oregon, for many years and brewed beer in his garage. When he returned to take over his family’s air-filter business, he longed to taste the microbrewed ales that he had enjoyed on the American west coast. So he and Chowdhry, who describe themselves as “techies gone wild”, started Geist, which they call India’s first handcrafted beer. “The city of Bengaluru is like the state of California, which typically sets the trends for the rest of the US to follow,” says Manepally. “What we need in Bengaluru is a progressive legislature like California’s that will allow Bengaluru to shine to its full potential: opening up markets and levelling the playing field that promotes consumption of lower- alcohol drinks like wine and beer.”
Beer in Bengaluru, much like other alcoholic beverages, is under the control of the government with crippling regulation of production, distribution and pricing. Beer aficionados have tried importing Trappist and Belgian beers, but even this requires persistence. In spite of all the hurdles that the Indian government imposes, beer prevails. “As a food-and-beverage professional for over a decade, I was astonished to learn that almost 20 percent of beverage sales are derived from beer,” says Vinod Pandey, Food and Beverage Manager of the Taj West End hotel. The West End stocks more than 450 labels of beer, including Geist’s Whistling Wheat and Blonde beers, which have become hot favourites with guests, says Pandey. International guests, however, predictably want to drink the local Kingfisher beer. Pandey is nostalgic for beers such as Golden Eagle and Rosy Pelican, which, he says, brings back “fond memories of his days in hotel management school with good old buddies”.
Beer’s hold over Bengaluru might be weakened, however, thanks to the popularity of another drink: wine. “Today, another drinking culture which is rapidly taking over Bengaluru – and the rest of India – is wines,” says hospitality professional and avid foodie, Aslam Gafoor. “There is a growing tribe of people who are la-di-dah-ing with a glass of red and who would rather be seen dead than with a pint. So in that sense I am assuming that there is a shift taking place in drinking habits.”
Lending credence to this is the presence of many wine clubs including the Bengaluru Wine Club, the Wine Society of India, the Bengaluru Black Tie, and Food Lovers’ magazine’s wine dinners, none of which serve beer. India saw an increase in beer consumption of more than 90 percent from 2002 to 2007 compared to a rise of less than 60 percent for other alcoholic beverages. Bengaluru’s beer mavens are more avant-garde and willing to experiment with new micro-brewed ales and lagers. “Personally, I have seen more beer being consumed here than in other cities. I have worked in Hyderabad, Delhi and Kolkata,” says Amaan Kidwai, Executive Assistant Manager at the ITC Gardenia hotel. “Bengaluruans love draught beer more than people in other cities and are willing to try new beers like Trappist and other handcrafted international beers. And Bengaluru is also among the first cities in the country to have a microbrewery.”
Some state governments are making the right noises about lowering taxes and loosening regulations. Still, India has a long way to go. International brands such as Carlsberg, Tuborg, Budweiser and Fosters are also in the game to sell beer to the vast Indian market. As beer maven Sanjay Roy says: “Beer lovers the world over see themselves as part of a large, worldly, fun-loving tribe. Brand preferences may vary, but their love for beer is a unifying factor.” His words ring true, especially among the beer-loving regulars at The Biere Club.
So devoted are these “tribe members” that they have been known on occasion to drink their favourite brew dry.
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