Tuesday, November 16, 2010

India and Craft Beer

When someone says craft beer, one doesn’t immediately think of emerging market countries. And honestly, there’s a reason for that. Recently I spent a few months in India for my day job, and while there, I was excited to try their take on craft beer. The first thing I’d advise someone about India-nothing is convenient. I was based out of the Delhi suburb of Noida not far from the city of Gurgaon where all three of the Delhi area breweries are based. While by American standards, it would be just down the road, by Indian standards it’s quite a trek. I rented a car and driver for 6 hours to go to two brewpubs. Freeways are scarce, and traffic jams common. Basically anything goes on their roads. Lanes are a suggestion, as they’re supposed to drive on the left hand side. If that’s inconvenient, they just drive on the right.

The second thing I’d advise is that the beer scene in India in still “nascent,” as one of my Indian colleagues put it. The main reason people drink in India is to get drunk. There hasn’t been the disposable income to care about taste or quality. Basically they need more bang for their buck. If that means buying a Haywards 5000, which honestly tastes like a Bud Light with an alcohol burn, so be it. However, there is an exploding middle class developing, with an expanding disposable income, which is searching for more than a quick drunk.

My first stop was Howzatt brewpub. It’s located at the Galaxy Hotel in Gurgaon and is a cricket-themed bar. A little insight on Indian culture-field hockey is their national sport. Cricket is their religion. I honestly was shocked by brewery. Despite being a five star hotel, I didn’t expect how modern of a facility they have. I walked into the brewpub, and I immediately was hit by the aroma. I was lucky enough to go on a day they were brewing. After six weeks in India and no beer exposure, it was a moment of pure joy. We sat down and looked at their menu. They only brew three beers, a lager, a dark lager, and a wheat beer. We started with the lager. There were three of us, myself and two of my American colleagues that were working in India with me.

They had pitchers that poured three pints. Roughly cost $8 so very cheap by American standards. The lager is what it is. I have to be honest that lagers aren’t my favorite style. However, compared to the mass produced Indian beers I’d had up until this point, it actually had character and flavor. Next we tried the wheat. This could have been an excellent beer, but it was overpowered by an overabundance of wheat. It was like chewing on a stalk of wheat. It wasn’t awful, but they need to tone down the amount of wheat they use in the brew. Third on the list was their dark lager. This was actually their best in my opinion. It had a great malty flavor with enough hop balance that it wasn’t overly sweet. Overall, Howzatt was a great brewpub, and one I’d liked to have returned to if it wasn’t such a hassle getting there.

Next up on the mini-tour was Rockman’s Beer Island , again in Gurgaon. However, we got caught in traffic and it took about 45 minutes to go the 15km from Howzatt. Located on the 4th floor of the Ambience Mall, it is a large complex of restaurants and pubs. We were seated in the Bavarian Pub Brewery. It’s supposed to give you the feeling of being in Germany, but not so much. They have five beers available. They had a lager, strong lager, a dark, a wheat, and a special Oktoberfest. I tried the Oktoberfest and it tasted like a standard lager. The beers were much pricier here, and a 20oz glass was just short of $10. Because of that, I only had one more, the dark. It was decent, but not worth the cost.

On a non-brewing note, I did find Leffe at Route 04 at Kahn Market in Delhi. Overall, the selection you’ll find at a bar includes Kingfisher, Corona, Budweiser, Tuborg, and possibly Victoria Bitter or Fosters. Lagers are the preferred style in India so that’s what you find. I actually had someone ask if I’d ever had a Guinness because they’d heard good things about it. I was also told that if you go to Mumbai or Bangalore, you may find a better selection. But in Delhi, there wasn’t much to be found.

India is developing a beer culture, which gives it potential. With the large number of Americans, Europeans, and Australians being sent there for business, craft beer could make a killing, especially in the urban centers. However, at this time, it is not a destination for beer-lovers. Possibly in five to ten years, I would imagine that you’d find a much better selection. Hopefully if I have to go back, this will be the case. Either way, I know I’ll be packing my suitcase with some beers from home. You can never be too sure.



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