Kegs of sunshine
The beer business in Goa is undergoing a frothy change, with craft brewers defining how the state looks at bottled beer
Last November, when it was the beginning of just another promising season for tourism in Goa, at least two men had more than a casual interest in the state.
Javed Murad and Prabhtej Singh Bhatia had separately launched their products in the land of sunshine, beaches and good food. Though what they sold—beer—seemed like a natural fit in a state known for its laid-back attitude, it was still a new market for them, and brought with it fresh apprehensions.
Nearly six months later, Bhatia, the founder and chief executive officer of Sona Beverages Pvt. Ltd, which makes Simba, and Murad, co-founder of White Owl Brewery Pvt. Ltd, have found visibility, restaurant partners, and plenty of optimism in Goa. Craft as a term used to denote small, independent, innovative breweries, is becoming increasingly familiar.
In north Goa, with its plethora of budget hotels and eateries, both Simba and White Owl are in your face—depending on the places you go to. Added to that is a relatively new local craft beer brand, Susegado, which is pushing the boundaries of variety that the state has to offer.
Booze behemoth Kingfisher is also planning to get into the craft business, as United Breweries Ltd announced earlier this year. The American Arbor Brewing Co., which opened a brewpub in Bengaluru in 2012, will start operations in Goa in a few months—only their second venture outside Magrath Road.
With murmurs of a couple of more microbreweries starting soon, beer in Goa is undergoing a frothy change, matching the altering demographic of tourists.
For one, visitors now include people from all over the country—besides abroad—thanks to increased air accessibility. Visitors from metropolitan centres like Mumbai, Bengaluru and Delhi are already familiar with craft—owing to a burgeoning number of breweries in these cities. People working in the hospitality sector say Indian travellers are now open to spending more.
At tourist favourites like Baba Au Rhum in Anjuna, Bomra’s in Candolim, Cavala in Baga, Vinayak Family Restaurant in Assagao, and Antares in Vagator, bottles of White Owl and Simba battle with Bira 91 and other imported brands for refrigerator space. Though priced higher than a Kingfisher or Goa King’s, craft has its takers, and the numbers are only growing.
While White Owl and Simba sell in bottles, Susegado does only draught at the moment and Arbor will initially sell two varieties of its craft in cans.
“To have people spending Rs200-250 a beer—that’s the leap of faith we took," says Aditya Challa, managing partner and brew-master at Rising Tide Beverages LLP, which makes Susegado. “I was convinced price cannot be the only factor not to make better beer in Goa."
This holiday haven is merely following the trend set in major cities where lager—which most bottled pints contain—is not the only beer you have to bear with.
Bhatia says that when they launched in November, 99% of their sales were of the wheat variety, and the rest, stout. Now, it’s 90-10—sale of stout has gone up 10 times even if absolute numbers are still low.
“It’s (Goa) a great place to go before you go to other places," says Murad, who launched White Owl’s beer in mid-December in Goa and in Bengaluru in March. “It’s a nice market with regards to flow of people and locals who enjoy themselves."
Simba’s stock comes from its central brewery in Durg, Chhattisgarh, which also supplies to its other markets in Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Jharkhand, with Delhi-Gurugram and Bengaluru next in line. Unlike Mumbai, where White Owl has a microbrewery in Lower Parel, its Goa supply comes from a brewing partner in Madhya Pradesh.
There is a reason why White Owl is selling only bottles. “A taproom is a great model, but it also needs a speciality restaurant space and is a higher rewards game. But Goa is a seasonal market. If you take the local areas, you may have different dimensions; tourist-friendly places will have a different one," says Murad.
“Can you make a microbrewery feasible in Goa, which is seasonal?" asks Bhatia, who founded Simba in 2014. “If you can, only people who visit can taste it. To make it seem like a daily drink or a lifestyle choice, people should not have to travel. They should be able to drink at the comfort of their home or in a restaurant."
All of them agree that Goa is an easy market when it comes to legislation—“it’s a simple, well-run process," says Murad.
“Goa allows microbreweries to distribute in any format," adds Challa. “I can register a bottle label as well (not just kegs, like in Maharashtra) and can export (they plan to in Singapore)."
“From a licensing perspective, there’s more leeway for smaller brewers in Goa," says Gaurav Sikka, managing director at Arbor. “From a lifestyle perspective, it’s got a great international vibe. We want to take the brand out of Karnataka and this gets us closer to Maharashtra."
To spread awareness, White Owl did samplings, partnered with the Saturday night market in Arpora and put emphasis on staff at points of sale to explain what craft beer is.
Bhatia says they wanted to make sure that Goans were trying their brew so as not to depend entirely on seasonal demand. The restaurants and events they went to were focused on local residents.
The more the merrier
Perceived to be a predominantly two-brand state till over a decade ago, with Kingfisher and King’s, Goa grew to welcome international labels like the rest of the country. Even as King’s sales and quality declined, Kingfisher, Budweiser and Tuborg became popular choices.
One of Goa’s more definitive beer brands, the nearly 30-year-old King’s underwent a transformation three years ago after it was bought over by Viiking Ventures Pvt Ltd. An infusion of funds and ambition from its new Mumbai-based owner led to a revival and a new name, Goa King’s.
“My plan in next two years to make it a global brand and hopefully, reach a target of 10 million cases a year by 2020," says Sachiin Joshi, chairman of Viiking, in a text message.
The reinvigoration of the brand, its availability in other states and export to six countries makes it more recognizable—and adds to the competition in the state.
But beer-makers say there is enough room for everyone. Many believe the advantage for craft as opposed to the generic lager variety is that it feels lighter on the palate and does not kill the appetite needed for that fish thali. Also, since revellers in Goa are not averse to popping open a bottle at breakfast, a fresh mug of craft makes for a refreshing change.
“People have moved from heavy to lighter beers. Craft’s light—others would fill you up," says Vishal Khosla, general manager, Novotel Goa Dona Sylvia, which stocks Bira and Simba, among others.
Craft-makers say visitors from places without a microbrewery would be happy to try their produce, given that Kingfisher is available everywhere and only people of a certain vintage feel sentimental about Goa King’s.
“Differentiation will happen between good and not-so-good craft. In Bengaluru, you have 40 brewpubs, and all thriving. Eventually, innovation and quality will stand out," says Sikka.
Goa is also different from other markets in that while beer is the preferred brew for summer months in the rest of India, for Goa, it peaks with the tourist season from November-February. Also, strong beer has more takers in other states, while milder versions sell more here.
According to Samar Singh Sheikhawat, chief marketing officer at United Breweries, 82% of the sales in the rest of India are for strong beer, 18% for mild. In Goa, it’s the opposite—85% for mild and 15% for strong. “People drink through the day, so mild works better here," he says.
“The volumes (for craft) are not significant," adds Sheikhawat, whose company also distributes imported Heineken, wheat beer Edelweiss, lagers Desperados, Dos Equis and Mexican brand Sol. “The conversation and noise is significant."
Bhatia says that even as the tourist season is coming to an end, sales have grown at a “decent pace but constantly"— 30% higher in March than in December.
Blow to the flow
It’s still early for a sense of joie de vivre—craft manufacturers know there are challenges ahead. To sell beer on tap requires investment, equipment and space—in order to keep the kegs cold—which not many bars may be able to do.
“We are trying to educate, that this is what we do, the ingredients we use and our quality.... That (culture) will not change until four-five other craft breweries open," Challa says.
Brand loyalty is the other snafu—not everyone cares what beer they are drinking. “There is promiscuity among consumers—gone are the days when consumers were loyal to the brand. Brands have to be loyal to consumers," says Sheikhawat.
Loyalty to a beer brand is not that evolved as to a whisky brand—people will drink what’s cold, agrees Manoj Asrani, Viiking’s group chief marketing officer, explaining why their motto is to be available in every store.
At Novotel, Simba has taken over a bit from Bira White, Khosla says. But that could be just a sign of transition as tastes and sales try to get in sync with quality and distribution.
“There is a lot of emphasis on cheap drinking here," says Shreyas Gadre, Susegado’s sales and marketing manager. “This is not like other beer which you chug and get drunk.
“People lay emphasis on what they eat; why not do the same with what we drink?"