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Game for Gourmet beers?

It’s not just a cheap tipple any more. Gourmet beers are pouring into India, giving us something to cheer about. Bhisham Mansukhani tells more.

india Updated: Sep 04, 2010 20:04 IST
Bhisham Mansukhani

"Bananas,” says creative director Abhinav Thakur, screwing up his face in memory. “It definitely tasted like bananas.” “It” refers to Thakur’s first brush with an artisanal Belgian beer. He is not quite sure he liked it – “It was sweet and heavy, not what I expected of beer” – but says he will not object to trying more such beers.

“It’s quite fascinating to see how many different tastes, flavours and kinds of beer there are, when all my life I thought beer was, well, just beer,” he says. “Something you just knock back without thinking. What I’m learning now is something different and it’s fun to know more about it.”

This makes Thakur one of the many people in India who can make beer aficionados feel upbeat. Because in India, the popular perception of beer is that it’s an unsophisticated, generic sort of drink. And the fact that beer can actually be just as urbane as, say, wine or whisky, is something that is just beginning to be understood now.

Ready for a beer hug
If you’ve been to a reasonably upmarket bar lately, you’ve seen the change. To start with, there’s a slew of international brands in bars, liquor stores and supermarkets. Five star hotels are catering to a discerning beer drinker – hitherto considered a fictitious character.

BeerThen, there are more types of beer than just the lagers and pils we’ve been aware of so far – there are stouts, wheat beer and even mango beers. There are beer communities other than men congregating at pubs to watch football, and the governments of the day finally know what a microbrewery is. Yes, beer culture has landed in India. And it’s stirring up both aficionados and the averse.

But having arrived, where is it going? And how did it get here in the first place? The second question is the easier to answer. “Travel!” says Pankil Shah, who runs Mumbai pub and restaurant Woodside Inn with his partner Sumit Gambhir.

“That’s one of the chief reasons for the arrival of beer culture in India. Young urban Indians had pretty much grown up on mass produced lager, so when they came across a staggering variety in Europe, America and even Africa, there was a change in their perception. Beer in the West is almost as high up in the urbane hierarchy as wine, but in India, even 10 years ago there wasn’t much awareness.”

Inbound tourism has also helped, says Manisha Vinod, marketing head of Bengaluru-based Nilarya Gourmet Beers, which has been importing Trappist and Abbey Belgian Ales since September 2007.

“The increase in the number of five star hotels has fuelled the popularity of good quality beer, since the hotels service a large number of foreigners who know and drink these beers. Slowly, the awareness is rubbing off locally,” she says.

But it is a slow process, says Ankur Jain, proprietor of Delhi-based Cerana Imports which, in the 18 months of its existence, has put together a portfolio of 50 beers including German, Belgian and American craft beers. “Beer in India at this point is where cars were in 1991,” he says. “We know what they are, so to speak, but not the variety of them.”
strange brew.

As of now, beer doesn’t really occupy a hugely important place in our lives in India. As a nation, our per capita consumption of beer is a mere 1 litre, whereas in countries like China, it is 25 litres. And 76 per cent of all beer consumed in India is generic strong beer, mainly lager.

The latter is a legacy of the British who introduced beer in India in the first place. But in India, where the heat tends to spoil beer fast, they essentially stuck to lager – and so have we, so far.

“The tragedy for the Indian beer drinker is that beer has been commoditised, produced on an industrial scale and the selling pitch has been low price and high alcohol,” explains Jain. “But worldwide, the perception of beer is that it’s a gourmet drink and craft beers are preferred over industrial.”

Craft beer is beer that is brewed in small quantities, using traditional methods and high quality ingredients. It is also referred to as artisanal beer. In India, craft beer is a very recent innovation – only one company does it so far, Little Devils, a venture set up by an Australian company in India – plus the few microbreweries that exist.

Mostly the craft beers we get here are imported. That was quite a challenge, say beer importers. First, our perception of beer had to be changed. And then import duty was steep, so were state duties and taxes, and so imported beers were four to five times more expensive than what we had here.

Now the going is much easier, they say. “Wheat beers and Trappist beers (beers brewed by the monks of Trappist monasteries) from Belgium are very popular with Indian drinkers,” says Jain. “But Indians are still only acquainting themselves with the variety that’s out there. French varieties like Saison, India Pale Ales and Black Coffee Stout from the American company Brooklyn Brewery are also popular.”

The pints aren’t cheap – Rs 175 to 300 from the shops, and much higher in pubs and restaurants and yet, strikingly, Jain’s sales have been higher (70 per cent) in case of the latter.

Frothing at the mouth
That’s because Jain has been relentlessly training the staff of hotels and restaurants where his beers are sold, because they are that crucial point of sale. “The consumer experience of any beer will be determined by the serving temperature, quality and cleanliness of the glass and how it is poured. If the beer is a virtual unknown, then how well the bartender or waiter knows the beer will determine if it sells or not,” explains Jain.

Plus, he’s been pushing for beer menus to be written on the lines of wine menus, in that they categorise beers by their styles. Then there are awareness events for drinkers including beer tastings and food and beer pairings. Jain also created one of the first online beer communities, Savour, on Facebook last year.

To boost awareness, Nilarya Gourmet Beers has taken a similar route to build awareness. And this seems to be working. “We believe that many consumers will migrate to the beer market as affordability and beer appreciation continues to grow,” says Devapriya Khanna, director, marketing, Carlsberg India.

To help the process along, Carlsberg, a global brand now manufacturing in India, has taken the concept of beer and food matching to an interactive level with a franchise of cook-outs where professional chefs and amateurs compete to create recipes based on beer. It has become popular in Bengaluru.

Moving pitchers
Slowly then, interest in beer as a gourmet drink is growing. And now, just like wine before it, beer drinkers are becoming aware not only of the fact that there’s much to explore, but also of the fact that there are ways and ways to drink the brews.

For instance, at Woodside Inn, Mumbai, beers are served in the proper glassware. In fact, there’s a dedicated glass for almost every beer on the menu.

“Indians simply weren’t aware that beer can be as diverse as wine,” says Shah. “Glassware and serving temperature were hardly talking points till now. The beer companies that supply to us have been helpful in terms of glassware which has allowed us to serve the beer in their respective glasses, whether these are ales, pilsners, wheat beers or stouts.”

Five star hotels have also woken to the discerning Indian beer drinker. For instance, the Lotus Pavilion at the ITC Royal Gardenia in Bengaluru has over 30 different beers on their list – and the list is growing, says beverage manager Gaurav Soneja.

The soon to be opened Four Points Sheraton in Pune will have the country’s first ever brew pub inside a five star hotel, says its general manager, Pankaj Mathur. And the Grand Hyatt Mumbai imports Tsing Tao, a Chinese beer, especially for its restaurant and lounge bar, China House.

And then, there are the microbreweries, about which much has been written in the past couple of years. Microbreweries, as the name suggests, are small breweries that produce no more than 15,000 barrels of beer annually, and sell fresh-brewed beer by the glass and pitcher right there and then.

“The best part about beer at microbreweries is that it is fresh,” says hospitality and foodservice consultant Sudhakar Hannda. “It has no preservatives and endears itself to those who are turned off by industrial beers.” Prateek Chaturvedi, along with a partner and a German brewer, opened Doolally, one of India’s first microbreweries, in Pune a year ago. Doolally produces 19 types of beer – and counting. “And we recently brewed a cider based on a local variety of blackberry called Karvanda,” says Chaturvedi.

Small beer
But there’s still a long way to go before beer reaches the status that wine and whisky have in India. Jain, like all the importers, believes that the market for imported beers, including craft beers, is still niche at best, due to both cost and perception issues.

“Beer in India still suffers from an image problem. It’s the one drink students and young, struggling executives can afford and it’s simply meant to be drunk, not thought about or talked over like wine. That beer is treated differently outside of India is a message that will take some time to register here. Yet, given the small base of consumers for imported beers, the market can only get bigger,” Jain says.

A premium froth
Expensive beer should be an oxymoron, but capitalism invades everything and beer sports no force field, only a good head. So here are some of the world’s most frighteningly expensive pops – bottles that one is unlikely to find behind the bar of the local pub or on the grocery store discount shelf.

Tutankhamun Ale: $52 per bottle.
It sounds like a character out of the unmade prequel to The Mummy and while it does tip its hat to the pharaohs, the beer itself is Brit, born and brewed in a Cambridge lab from a recipe apparently discovered in Queen Nefertiti’s Temple of the Sun in Egypt.

The temple had its own brewery.The beer is named after the queen’s stepson who also went by the sorry nickname of Tut. Produced in limited quantity, the beer costs $52 a pint. One can almost hear window shoppers going ‘tut tut’.

Samuel Adams Utopias: $100 per bottle
It’s a strong beer (50 per cent alcohol) and an expensive one. Brewed with high quality hops and sold in an antiquated copperplated brew kettle, it’s got flavours of oak and vanilla – most unlike typical beers. Uniquely, the beer is not carbonated and therefore shouldn’t be too chilled. Beer hounds shouldn’t despair over the price. Carslberg’s Vintage No. 1 is four times as expensive.

Carlsberg Vintage No. 3: $348 per bottle
Carlsberg raised eyebrows in 2008 by introducing the $400 Vintage No. 1. The beer was the first to be aged in French oak, with very limited production. Vintage No. 3 is the third in line, brewed between 2008 and 2010. Only 1,000 bottles are available.

Brewdog’s ‘The End of History’: $765 per bottle
The ominous name is almost appropriate for this, the world’s most expensive beer, coming out of Belgium. Only eleven bottles of this beer, named after a book by philosopher Francis Fukuyama, were ever produced. The blond Belgian ale packs 55 percent alcohol.

The bottles are encased in a stuffed squirrel or weasel, which means Brewdog certainly hasn’t endeared itself to animal lovers – never mind beer lovers who can’t afford to take one of these bottles home. The bottles, however, are the beer’s most striking aspect. Stuffed by a gifted taxidermist, the four grey squirrels and seven weasels selected to hold the bottles were all roadkill. So their immortalisation as beer bottles may actually be considered more respectful than ignominious roadside decomposition.

To pour & how
When we pour beer, we tend to tilt the glass to about 45 degrees and pour the drink against the side. That’s really not necessary. Pour beer like you would any beverage. Pour a third to start with, wait for the foam to settle, then pour again and again till the glass is almost full with the head raised a tad above the rim. Pouring this way ensures the right level head and also releases carbon dioxide from the beer.

Temperature is important. Heat is the prime adversary for beer in tropical countries such as ours, as the beer loses its carbonation, goes flat and tastes insipid. Freezing cold beer, on the other hand, numbs the tongue, so the beer comes off like a tasteless cola. Beer glasses should be chilled sufficiently but then hand-rubbed to bring the temperature up a wee bit so that it isn’t so cold that you can’t taste the beer.

Bring your own bathrooms
Alcohol is a diuretic. This means it stimulates the flow of water from the body. In other words, it makes one pee a lot. Now, alcohol isn’t the only diuretic in the world, but it’s unique in that it temporarily inhibits a naturally occurring hormone called Anti Diuretic Hormone (ADH) which regulates, and thereby reduces, loo visits.

It does this by confounding the osmoreceptors in the brain which connect to a certain organ down below which is meant to release the ADH. Worse, the hops resins in beers also stimulate the kidneys to dispense with excess water. It’s a double whammy and explains why, when you drink beer, you spend a lot of time in the loo.

Roll out the barrel

Are microbreweries worth the brew-haha they’ve caused? Expert taster Magandeep Singh tests the casks

Ever since the UK’s Beer Purity Law of 1516, beer has not changed much. The same four ingredients – barley, water, yeast, and hops – have been used to make beer since the very beginning. Then, beer was almost a home-made produce, changing from one village to another. The idea of a large-scale commercial brand of beer was ridiculous. Beer came to India with the English and stayed. But the Indian Pale Ale (IPA) that was intended for the Indian market left our shores with the British Raj, and has only just returned.

Now beer, the proper kind, is making its presence felt in India. Three microbreweries – places where beer is freshly made in small quantities and in various styles and flavours – have opened up in Delhi in quick succession and I spent some time trying and re-trying their produce. Microbreweries are virtually hangover-free, as the beer is fresh-made. It also has an almost zero carbon footprint as it is consumed where it is made.

To ensure that I didn’t give in to personal prejudice, I was accompanied by regular consumers, who were just out to have a good time. The reviews here are a collective of what we all felt.

Howzzatt: So many pints, so many years, and I still don’t know the correct spelling of this place. But I had felt beer and snack quality deteriorate and had stopped frequenting the place. This time, I was happy to remark that the beers were back to where they were when they launched. The snacks too are delightful.

They have three beer styles, and the dark beer is the most appreciable. This is the kind of stuff we don’t get in bottles. I still feel that compared to a microbrewery abroad, they can enhance the flavour components. But we all agreed that as a package, this was the best put together of the three.

Vapour: The beers – all four styles – were the least preferred, not only by me. All had a strange eggy aroma; the lager was shippable, at best. The wheat was indistinguishable. But one of the members of our tasting team did remark that it seemed like a problem with the current batch as opposed to a generic statement of affairs as he had tasted better beer here before, even though the beer was never fantastic. The Premium was interesting though, unfiltered and with the cloudiness of dead yeast but again, the aromas and tactile need some work.

Rockman’s: We all concurred that the beer here is undoubtedly the best. The taste is defined for each style – there are four – and representative of their respective styles, which means that you could taste with your eyes shut and even at first go, you would easily be able to tell the difference. My favourite: the wheat brew – cloudy, flavourful, with that classic creamy vanilla-dried herbs mix. However it is a bit pricey – and by that I mean more than a bit pricey.