The return of craft breweries
In the pandemic-induced slowdown, breweries found creative ways to bring draught beer home
So, you want to take me home?" reads a cheeky prompt on the website of Doolally Taproom. It refers to the Maharashtra-based microbrewery’s takeaway growler bottles of craft beer, which can be ordered online or picked up from their breweries in Pune and Mumbai. Growlers, pressurized containers with a capacity of 1-5 litres for carrying freshly brewed craft beer, are the new buzz among craft beer lovers in India.
But it’s not just the imaginatively named growlers (the term probably refers to the sound of beer sloshing about in the closed container, rumbling and “growling" as the carbon dioxide escapes and rattles the cover) that are in the news. Breweries and brewpubs in Maharashtra and Bengaluru, the biggest hubs of craft beer in India, are experimenting with a variety of ingenious ways to service home consumption and keep their brands alive despite the inevitable pandemic-related slowdown in business.
Last week, Kimaya Brewing Co. in Pune launched Maharashtra’s first beer filling station for an unlimited supply of fresh brews. “Think of filling stations as ice-cream shops. Except you get takeaway beer in growlers," says Mumbai-based Saumya Khona, co-founder of Tapped Flight. Last week,his team came up with curated craft beer subscription boxes delivering pints and growlers to customers in Mumbai. Although Tapped started as a beer festival venture in 2014, with an annual event showcasing craft beers from around the country, the pandemic made it reinvent its value proposition. It moved online and its website now offers boxes of ales, lagers and ciders from indigenous breweries. Beer enthusiasts pre-order or subscribe to these boxes without knowing which brands or styles they contain. It is an exciting opportunity to discover new brews, says Khona.
“We have been in talks with the government for the last two years to make growlers legal and the pandemic accelerated it for us," says Nakul Bhonsle, the director of Pune-based craft brewery Great State Aleworks and president of the Maharashtra chapter of the Craft Brewers Association of India. Making it official secured the survival of breweries such as Great State Aleworks, Yavasura and Bombay Duck Brewing in Maharashtra, which supply craft beer to bars and restaurants such as Woodside Inn and O Pedro in Mumbai.
As with all things related to alcohol, the introduction of growlers began with a change in laws. In fact, alcohol consumption and state administration are so intrinsically linked that they find mention in one of the oldest Indian texts related to government policy—the Arthashashtra by Chanakya, who lived in third century BC, says alcohol is not fit for consumption after three days and must be fed to pigs. Coincidentally, breweries recommend not consuming the contents of a growler three days after you have brought it home. In May, Karnataka’s excise department allowed the sale of craft beers by microbreweries in growlers for home consumption. It is a temporary measure to generate earnings and tide over the income triggered by the slowdown. In Maharashtra, however, a law has been passed to permit breweries to sell draught for home consumption.
“We always wanted to reach consumers directly to create awareness about our brand and widen our revenue sources. With the passing of the law, we became a business-to-consumer model overnight," says Bhonsle. Something similar happened to Bengaluru’s Geist. It had hoped to introduce the beer-in-growler culture last year on its factory premises. But it’s yet to get a licence, and it’s now stocking growlers in places like The Reservoire, The Permit Room and Jimi’s Beer Cafe.
To connect with consumers directly, breweries have had to amp up their online game. A sure-shot way to spread the word is through contests. In Bengaluru, microbreweries like Byg Brewski are giving away vouchers and startup brands like Briggs Brewery are trying to find legitimate ways to deliver beers to contest winners. “In our city, home delivery of beer is not legal. If you want a crisp lager, you have to come to the brewery or visit a liquor shop. It’s posing a bit of a challenge for sales," says Hari Singh, founder of the Bengaluru-based Briggs Brewery. He says there is news about home deliveries starting next month and hopes things will begin to look up.
Bhonsle believes in collaborations. In early August, he joined hands with the Pune restaurant We Idliwale for food and beer combo meals in their home-delivery menu. Fresh brews were paired with Kadle Pudi, Sambar fried rice and curry bread.
Breweries from north India have been conspicuously missing from this conversation. There are no growlers in Delhi, nor is there an innovative approach to home delivery. A Gurugram-based craft beer consultant and founder of Kadak Brewing Co., Ishan Grover, believes they don’t have government support because the brewing industry is still quite niche compared to the robust scene in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Pune. “Here the licence fee is prohibitive—roughly ₹60 lakh annually. In other cities, it is about ₹5 lakh. How will we make this money only on a home-delivery model?" asks Grover, adding that the dry summer months, considered peak season for beers in Delhi, have ended. People prefer hard liquor as winter approaches.
The narrative is completely different in Mumbai. Khona of Tapped Flight plans to revive certain craft beers which ceased production and introduce new launches in subscription boxes. Pre-lockdown, these initiatives were reserved for pop-ups and events. He believes the timing for the online model is just right—gift boxes with craft beers are in the works to welcome the festive season.