Ankur Jain swore by wine and vodka until October 2002, when he ordered an ale in Zum Schneider, on the lower East Side of Manhattan. The imported European ale had been specially brewed for Oktoberfest. “It didn’t taste anything like beer. It was light, refreshing, amber coloured, had a spicy-fruity flavour and even left a clove aftertaste. I was sold on it.”
He began to visit the well-known Brooklyn Brewery for a few pints every Saturday afternoon. “My office was very close to the brewery and I used to get out early Saturday afternoon, to get a few ‘brewery fresh’ beers after work!,” he says.
In 2006, Jain shut his healthcare business in Brooklyn and moved back to India. He set up Cerana Imports Pvt. Ltd in 2007.
Now Jain’s importing more than 50 craft beers from Europe. He’s determined to drive beer to its rightful position on the gourmet ladder. Among the beers Jain is bringing is the organic Moinette Biologique; Kriek De Ranke, a cherry-flavoured Belgian “wild beer”; the Trappist Rochefort No 10 (11.3% alcohol, the strongest beer in the world); and the only Trappist beers from the Netherlands.
At the time of going to press, Cerana Imports was scheduled to launch more than 20 beers in the broad categories of wheat beers, Trappist ales, farmhouse ales and noveau beers in Delhi. The beers will be launched in Bangalore next and then in Mumbai, where Jain is still sorting out excise and pricing issues.
Jain’s discovery of good beer is a familiar story. It’s pretty much what happened when Kingfisher-drinking, machine parts supplier Nikhil Kumar encountered Trappist beer on a holiday in Europe. When Kumar and his wife Lavanya sat in Café Gollem (the first pub in Amsterdam to serve Belgian beer) and sipped a glass of Chimay White, they were hooked.
The couple carted some bottles back for their beer-loving pals in Bangalore. That was four years ago.
Head for Belgian: Kumar’s imports made Bangalore happy. Hemant Mishra / Mint
In September last year, Kumar—who also runs TD Power Systems Pvt. Ltd, a company that supplies machine parts to power generation companies—set up Nilarya Trading Pvt. Ltd and imported 10 Belgian ales and one Dutch pilsner. Today, he supplies to 70 restaurants and outlets in Bangalore and select restaurants in Mangalore, Mysore and Kabini as well. “At the moment, the imported beer market in Karnataka is just 1%, of that we have a 30% market share,” says Kumar.
Now Kumar is working on importing American craft beers. “I am still in talks with four or five breweries and am yet to finalize on what we can expect to bring in,” he says.
Even Hoegaarden, that great white Belgian beer which is brewed to a traditional recipe that goes as far back as 1445, is now available in Mumbai, Goa and Delhi, and will soon be available in Bangalore.
Last month, beer powerhouse InBev India International Pvt. Ltd launched three of its cult Belgian beers—Stella Artois, Hoegaarden and Leffe—and one German lager, Beck’s.
“The reception has been very positive and we can say that we own 20% of the imported beer market with these four labels. The market is so open to variety, I’m thinking of bringing in more labels next year,” says Raja Mukherji, CEO of InBev India International Pvt. Ltd.
Agrees Kumar: “There is a lot of space in the market. Most mid-sized cities across the world have at least 30 to 40 varieties to choose from. This is just the beginning.”
The history and tradition attached to Trappist and Abbey beers has always generated a buzz. These beers are brewed by monks in monasteries. The monks are under an oath of silence and have one spokesperson for every monastery. The monasteries, which keep their recipes secret, aren’t too keen on business, so most labels depend on word-of-mouth publicity.
Of the 11 labels Kumar imports, the ones that move the fastest are Orval, which has a bitter finish, the three Chimay labels (white, red and blue) and Christoffel Bier, which is a pilsner that pours a murky blonde and is quite a hit due to its bottle with a pop-up cap.
Kumar believes that experimentation can begin only when people are given options. “It’s a new world, where the beer with a big head is poured into goblets instead of mugs and you find traces of yeast left in your bottle because they are bottle conditioned (the beer ferments in the bottle). All this can be rather puzzling to people who have been drinking clear filtered beer.”
Arjun Sajnani, who serves Kumar’s selection at his restaurant, Sunny’s, says all the 11 beers on the menu are hits. “The presence of Belgian beer on my menu adds to its credibility as an international restaurant.”
But while Karnataka develops a taste for Trappist, Kumar’s expansion plans in the rest of the country are on hold due to heavy excise duties in other states. “We pay a 100% custom duty charge to bring the beer into the country and that’s why a pint in Karnataka costs more than Rs160. In an ideal world, a consumer shouldn’t be paying more than Rs100 for a good glass of beer,” says Kumar.
He adds that pricing gets more challenging in other states. “We were very keen to enter Maharashtra, which slaps close to 125% state excise duty. I’d have to price my product at Rs300 for a pint and there’s no reason for anyone to pay that kind of money”. We’ll drink to that.