It is Saturday night and the Biere Club in Bangalore’s tony Lavelle Road is humming. Young IT professionals down pints of handcrafted ale, lager, wheat and stout beers, all made in-house. “Bangaloreans 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, 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. It seemed only fitting for Bangalore– a city that has long been known as the Pub City of India.
Bangalore’s salubrious climate, cosmopolitan citizens, Colonial buildings, and the army cantonments, all gave this city a faintly British touch and with it, a strong presence of watering holes. Nostalgic Bangaloreans 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 Bangalore. Kingfisher organizes ‘The Great Indian Oktoberfest’ over three days to promote it range of beers, each appealing to a different price point. “Beer drinking is so deeply entrenched into the fabric of Bangalore, that I see no way that it could ever be dethroned,” says Manu Chandra, executive chef of Olive Beach restaurant, Bangalore 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 increase the demand for beer. Many of them went abroad as engineers, learned to enjoy beer and then returned home 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 Bangalore. 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 in 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 Bangalore is like the state of California, which typically sets the trends for the rest of the US to follow,” says Narayan Manepally, who, along with his partner, Paul Chowdhry, co-founded India’s first craft beer, Geist. “What we need in Bangalore is a progressive legislation like California that will allow Bangalore to shine to its full potential: opening up of markets and leveling the playing field that promotes consumption of lower alcohol drinks like wine and beer.”
Currently, beer in Bangalore, much like other alcoholic beverages is under the control of the government with crippling regulations over production, distribution and pricing. Beer aficionados have tried importing Trappist and Belgian beer, but even this requires persistence. In spite of all the hurdles that the Indian government imposes, beer prevails. “As an food and beverage professional for over a decade, I was astonished to learn that almost 20% of beverage sales are derived from beer,” says Vinod Pandey, Food & Beverage manager for the iconic hotel Taj West End. The West End stocks over 450 labels of beer, including Geist’s Whistling Wheat and Blonde beers, which, Pandey says, “have become hot favourites with guests.”
Beer’s hold over Bangalore might be toppled however, thanks to the popularity of another drink: wine. Says hospitality professional and avid foodie, Aslam Gafoor, “Today, another drinking culture which is rapidly taking over Bangalore– and the rest of India– is wines. There is a growing tribe of people who are la-di-dahing with a glass of red, rather than being seen dead with a pint. So in that sense, I am assuming that there is a shift taking place in drinking habits.”
Lending credence to this argument is the presence of many wine clubs including the Bangalore Wine Club, the Wine Society of India, the Bangalore Black Tie, and Food Lovers’ magazine’s wine dinners, all of which don’t serve beer. That said, India has seen a 100 per cent increase in beer consumption, mostly driven by North Indians. Bangalore’s beer mavens are more avante-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 – Hyderabad, Delhi and Kolkata,” says Amaan Kidwai, Executive Assistant Manager at the ITC Gardenia. “Bangaloreans love draught beer more than people in other cities and also are willing to try new beers like Trappist Beers and other handcrafted, international beers. Bangalore is also among the first few cities in the country to get a microbrewery.”
Some state governments are making the right noises about lowering taxes and loosening regulations. But still, India has a long way to go. Vendors like Sandeep Bhatnagar, whose company, Ambicon Consultants markets microbrewery equipment to brewers (Bangalore’s Biere Club is a client) has been coaxing the government to align its policies to the present. Bhatnagar lived next to a microbrewery in the UK and now travels all over India in search of good beer.
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 would see themselves as part of a large worldly, fun-loving tribe. Brand preferences may vary, but their love for beer would be a unifying factor.”
His words ring true at the Biere Club pretty much every night where a devoted crew of drinkers down beer, so much so that the place occasionally runs out of a customer’s favourite beer.