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Barrel-aged beers join the bar party

From lagers infused with Goan poee to barrel-aged stouts and 100% millet beers, Indian beers are getting innovative

Indian craft brewers are experimenting with unique flavours.
Indian craft brewers are experimenting with unique flavours. (Istockphoto)

The discordance between the flavour descriptions and the drinks placed before me throw me off kilter. “Characterised by a distinctive taste of maraschino cherries, laced with chocolate reminiscent of Ferrero Rocher” reads one. “Vanilla and plum along with a light woodiness, all in excellent balance” is the explanation for the second. Two perfectly apt ways to describe a full-bodied red wine, except that these are beers—barrel-aged stouts.

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The first beer, served at a private beer tasting organised by a friend, is a deceptively smooth one by Geist Brewing Co., Bengaluru. Named Geist Barrel-Aged Stout 7M, it has layers of dark raisin, pepper and liquorice and is aged in bourbon barrels for seven months. The barrel character comes through as the beer warms. The second, Geist Barrel-Aged Stout Brewer’s Blend, has a silkier mouthfeel, despite receiving the same seven months’ maturation in bourbon casks. Only here, the batch was blended with a touch of the brown-black Geist Stouter Space beer and left for further maturation. The Stouter Space beer is a roasty chocolate stout with hints of coffee, mild caramel, moderate hops bitterness and sweet malt notes.

India’s craft beer world is entering an innovative era. Unique brewing concepts like mixed fermentation and barrel-aged options are making beer more than just a mere sum of its parts—water, malt, yeast and hops.

“Mixed fermentation is a new category that is taking off all over the world. This technique uses multiple microorganisms as fermenting agents,” explains Narayan Manepally, Geist’s CEO, adding that it introduces unique flavours into a beer.

Geist has experimented with other beers with this technique, like the peated barrel-aged stout that’s left in whisky casks to mature for five months. Then there’s a stout aged in bourbon casks for 11 months redolent with Christmas spice notes. “We decided to use bourbon and whisky barrels, as these flavours are beloved and familiar to the Indian palate,” says Manepally.

Also hitching a ride on this barrel-aged bandwagon is Delhi’s Fort City Brewery. They recently collaborated with the award-winning Indri Trini single malt whisky and Camikara rum, both from the house of Piccadily Distilleries. This resulted in Fort City’s Imperial Stout made in ex-Indri barrels, complementing the oak and coffee characters of the whisky. Jaggernaut, the brewery’s Indian interpretation of a Belgian dubbel style beer (a brown ale with understated bitterness and hints of cocoa and caramel), was aged in ex-Camikara barrels to absorb the raisin and other dry fruit characteristics.

Vikram Achanta, co-founder and CEO of Tulleeho, a Delhi-based drinks training and consulting firm, says, “I have seen breweries like Arbor Brewing Co. in Bengaluru doing this for the last few years. Barrel ageing is a great way to get flavour infused into beer. This has been happening in the reverse too, with brands like Jameson Caskmates Stout Edition Irish whiskey finished in seasoned Irish stout barrels, and Glenfiddich’s special IPA (Indian pale ale) cask finish expression.” He says flavoured stouts, ales and IPAs are a great way to introduce lager- or witbier-drinking Indians to more experimental iterations.

With flavour as the buzzword, it is no great surprise to see a corollary emerge with distinct desi overtones. Bringing this into focus is the very interesting Goan poee (coconut toddy fermented bread) flavoured lager available at the Seven Rivers Microbrewery at the Taj Holiday Village Resort & Spa in north Goa.

“I was inspired by a California lager and by the iconic Goan poder (baker) who makes and sells poee. Brewed with pilsner and Munich malts, the poee renders a bready, slightly fermented note. These notes give an earthy balance to the German mittelfrüh hops that lend the bitterness to the lager,” says the microbrewery’s F&B manager Ishan Bhardwaj.

In a slightly different vein, Pune’s Great State Aleworks has recently introduced a 100% millet beer under the “speciality ale” category available only in Pune and Mumbai for now. While breweries have been using millet with hops and wheat and barley blends in varying ratios, this is a 100% millet, or unmalted bajra beer.

Nakul Bhonsle, founder of the brewery, says, “Our reason for launching this millet beer vertical was three-pronged. Firstly, we as a company love to introduce local and seasonal produce into our beers. Secondly, the prices of barley and traditional beer ingredients like hops have shot up, making us shift to Indian-grown substitutes. Third, our millet beer is gluten-free.”

Great State Aleworks' 100% ‘bajra’ beer.
Great State Aleworks' 100% ‘bajra’ beer.

Is there a perceptible difference in the taste of millet beer vis-a-vis traditional beer? While a few say that the taste of such beers, with a clear, non-cloudy look, are a bit on the coarse, raw grain-y side, others feel that although tad bitter, millet beers have a more yeasty, bready mouthfeel that’s quite pleasant.

Around the week of Holi, Indian beer brand Bira 91 and New Belgium Brewing, one of the largest craft brewers in the US, released a limited edition Belgian dubbel-style ale called “Chutney Sour”, imbued with the sourness of tamarind.

This burgeoning trend can easily be seen as a whetting of India’s beer appetite, and we are likely to see more innovative ingredients, flavours and fermenting techniques.

Raul Dias is a Mumbai-based food and travel writer.

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