Opposite blueFROG in Lower Parel, increasingly Mumbai’s favourite drinking district, frenetic activity hauls up the pillars of what will be The Barking Deer—Mumbai’s first microbrewery and restaurant. In distant Dombivli, The Gateway Brewing Co., a hobby-turned-business venture, is gearing up to supply kegs of three to four different kinds of beer to pubs across town.
Mumbai is finally catching up with the hearty party centres of beer-producing New Delhi, Bangalore, Gurgaon and even Pune. These are but two local breweries that are expected to roll out indigenous brands of craft beer, which will add to the surfeit of imported brands that have become available in India.
Back at The Barking Deer, shiny new steel-copper vessels covered in plastic wrapping hug one corner of the long room in early November, as Gregory Kroitzsh and brew master Benjamin Johnson, took in Mumbai’s beer history in the making. Kroitzsh, the main working partner in the company Seven Islands Craft Brewery, hopes to open it by the end of the year, with a soft launch impending around Christmas. They are waiting for the last set of licences, from a very complex web of paperwork, to come through.
Depending on the required bureaucratic clearances coming through, the Gateway Brewing Co. will also begin to roll out craft beer before the end of the year. Navin Mittal, Rahul Mehra and Krishna Naik, whose business cards describe them as boss/brewer/beer geek, wanted to start a brewpub, but again the laws posed roadblocks. The brewing business is considered polluting and so is difficult to set up in the Greater Mumbai Region (GMR). Also, you’re not allowed to manufacture and sell from the same location. So the Gateway trio set up their brewery in Dombivli, struck a deal to distribute their beer to at least four bars in the city (for now).
Obstructions to the city’s microbrewery business have ranged from ambivalent laws to expensive real estate, but there are signs of change. Kroitzsh, who thought of entering the business three years ago, when he quit his insurance job and started missing the “craft culture of the US”, believes he has cracked the local code in an arena where there are not even government guidelines on microbreweries. “There was probably no clear path to doing this before us,” he says. But besides patience, it takes a combination of permissions from departments like excise, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) and the Maharashtra Pollution Control Board (MPCB), among others.
A buzzed new world
Over the last few years, the number of imported beers available in India has grown rapidly from just Corona—several places have the Belgian Hoegaarden on tap, and the Italian Peroni, German Schneider Weisse and Dutch Amstel have become freely available. But these come at a high cost, again, because of Maharashtra’s taxes and duties.
There have been an increasing number of beer festivals in the city, some coinciding with the German Oktoberfest, organized by restaurants or bars or trade organizations. The second Mumbai International Beer Festival held on 27-28 October, for example, had about 30 brands of imported beer. Woodside Inn in Colaba has been holding a beer and burger festival for several years, matching up the beer from a country to its corresponding cuisine. The Indo-German Chamber of Commerce does one at the Mahalaxmi Race Course.
Nikhil Agarwal, sommelier and director of All Things Nice, has been holding beer tasting sessions for three years now. He believes beer and wine are two categories with great potential in the city. “People in Mumbai have no problems spending money but they appreciate quality and so will not spend stupidly. They are not drinking more but better,” says Agarwal.
Places like The Irish House (which recently opened a second outlet) and Café Zoe in Lower Parel, Lagerbay in Bandra, Cerveza at Kala Ghoda and 3 Wise Monkeys in Khar, among others, have pushed for the brew. The Belgian Beer Café is set to open an outlet here, after the National Capital Region. At a time when even James Bond traded his dry martini for a Heineken, the beverage is frothing with the anticipation of growth.
“We serve only beer,” says the bartender at the The Pint Room in Bandra on a relatively free Saturday night. What The Pint Room lacks in ambience, it makes up for in personality. The choice of beers, 38 in all, is excellent—they even come in their own branded mugs; Jigna Shah behind the bar is chatty, knowledgeable and pulls out a ready reckoner for beers in case one wonders how the Portuguese Super Bock is different from the Belgian Liefmans. The first impression of the over three-month-old establishment is deceptive; it’s cheerful, but not cheap. A pint of the superb Trappist from Belgium, Chimay, comes at over Rs.900.
“The only challenge is the taxes—for beer, it’s the highest in the world here on the basis of per unit of alcohol content,” says Pradeep Gidwani, founder and “coach” of The Pint Room, from Delhi, where the first outlet opened two years ago.
The Pint Room takes you back to the Bangalore of 20 years ago, when it was cool to hold a mug in murky pubs to the low, muffled sounds of rock music. The difference, however, is that the choice is no longer a pitcher or a mug; it’s Belgian or German. You don’t drink and ponder; you drink and discuss the hint of corn in the lager.
“Our beer will be at least 30% cheaper than any imported one, and will be fresh without any preservatives or glycerine,” says Mittal of Gateway.
Naveen Kotyankar, one of the partners at Lagerbay, says that when they get their licence to sell beer on tap, they will use only Gateway products. Kotyankar says the bar, which opened in March and stocks about 30 brands (and no Kingfisher), does not want to sell only beer, but in the last few months, its sale has equalled that of other liquor combined. “People get aspirational as they travel more and they even know how to pronounce all the names,” he says. The most popular sales are still Carlsberg and Budweiser but Hoegaarden, Schneider Weisse, Murphy’s Irish Stout and Kolsch Fruh from Germany are doing well too here.
While Gateway will source locally, Johnson will import all the main ingredients—malt, yeast and hops. “The water will be local,” he says, laughing. What moved Johnson from the year-long winters of Alaska, US, to the year-long tropical heat of Mumbai was curiosity. He wants to experiment with flavours, include Indian spices in drinks, and he wants to make a Lambic with kokum.
All of them want to introduce local tipplers to diversities—Indian pale ale (IPA), porter, bitters, varieties of blondes and not just lagers. The idea, say Kroitzsh and Johnson, is to demystify and define beer, tell people not to be afraid of trying new ones.
As Mumbaikars wait for the innovation of craft, they may get encouragement to experiment from Belgium, a country with around 800 beers, whose favoured line of sarcasm against their Dutch neighbours and mass-produced beer is this: Even our cows prefer local beer and when they pee, it’s bottled as Heineken.