Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Sad Selection of Beer in India

Sometimes a person doesn't realize how good they have it until that "it" is gone. In my case that would be a large variety of really great beer from the worlds best breweries in generally very drinkable, if not excellent condition. I could think of of few other things that have gone missing since moving to India but I'll stay on topic and just relate a few issues I have with my favourite beverage here.

First and foremost, the fact that beer is a perishable product is completely lost on beer importers and retailers in India. The majority of imported beers here - and it is a sadly small selection - are over a year old and sometimes two. These beers are terribly oxidized (in other words spoiled) and should be avoided. They are also more expensive in India than they should be - even more so than in the US. Basically any imported booze in India seems over priced due largely to excessive taxation. But if you ignore my warning and insist on purchasing an imported beer in India, one would be well advised to check that little sticker on the bottle that "should" say the month and year of import. I say should because the unscrupulous importer often just skips the month and gives a two year spread. A bottle of Orval (a lovely beer when in good condition) that I bought in Bangalore shortly after arriving, simply said 2010-2011. It tasted like it too. If you are really lucky the brewery will have printed a "bottled on date" on the bottle as well. Armed with both dates you will truly be and educated consumer. If the brewery respects it's customers less, you will get an expiration date (which varies greatly from brewery to brewery and is mostly meaningless) or no date at all! For those that don't know, oxidized beer tastes completely dead and a bit like cardboard. Good, silky, fresh malt flavour will be severely compromised and bright, spicy/herbal hop flavour will be completely absent. If it's a beer style that should have some interesting flavours from the particular yeast strain used (many Belgian's, including Orval), those flavours will be compromised too. And because many of these Belgian beers are bottled with some yeast or other "good" organisms, they will become excessively carbonated and very difficult to pour. The three variables that greatly influence or accelerate oxidation are time, temperature and the quality of the bottling equipment used at the brewery (poor packaging equipment introduces too much air). India is a hot country and these beers typically sit warm until retailed. Sometimes for a very long time. All that time and temperature takes it's toll. I suspect these beers may even be shipped to India in unrefrigerated containers. If that's the case, most will be well on their way to being ruined before they even get here. Shipping containers can get very hot.

Beer is also prone to damage from light, either natural or artificial and should be protected from such but this is mostly a problem at the retail level where cartons or cases are opened. Cans offer the most protection followed by brown glass and then green. Clear glass is a poor choice for a beer bottle and usually offers no protection. For these reasons when I buy beer from a lighted display cooler, I choose from the second or third row where light exposure is less.

Another reason for the sad selection of beer in India is the lack of local producers - it's not exactly easy (or cheap) to open a micro brewery here. Many states do not allow it and those that do may have only just begun and can have some quirky (in other words, bad) rules. Take Karnataka for example - the one I'm most familiar with - to get a brewpub license the premises must be greater than 10,000 square feet and no beer can be sold wholesale, off the premisses. The maximum alcohol content allowed is 8% and production cannot exceed 1000 liters per day. The brewery license period begins in June and is not prorate-able. So if you want to open a brewery in May, you will pay a years fee for one month of operation and then pay the following years fee the next month. An estimated beer tax of 50% of annual capacity at the rate of 5 Rupees (10¢) per liter must be paid up front along with the annual microbrewery license fee of 2.15 Lakhs ($4300) and then there is the extra excise tax of 12.5 Rupees per liter. Once you do finally open you must close daily by 11:30PM! Add the crazy import tariff on the brewing equipment and malt/hops - which can be as high as 50% - and it's a wonder there is any craft beer being made here! I'm not really sure who is served or protected by these over-reaching regulations but one thing is for sure, it has been made unnecessarily difficult to open and operate this type of business. The consumer will invariably have less choice and pay more dearly for it. I do hope for some reasonable liberalization in the future but at least things are moving forward...

So what's an enthusiastic Bangalorian imbiber to do? Well there is always Gin & Tonic (as long as the gin isn't imported $). I'm pleased that tonic water in India is made with cane sugar instead of genetically modified corn syrup (yuck) like it is in the US. I did also finally find a wine made in India that I can drink (Segram's Nine Hills Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon). I'll leave the local industrial lagers to those with a less fussy palate than myself. Or one can head down to Toit in Bangalore for a very decent house brewed craft beer. Hopefully the same can be said soon for Windmills Craftworks in Whitefield - if only the pace of construction would pick up...

Brewery Update - Glycol piping is complete and so is wet/cement work in the brewhouse (finally) but still no glass, water, electric or steam. It's unlikely that the pub will open before June but I expect to do a test brew sometime in the next two months. The road is long and slooow...

1 comment:

  1. Agreed. I happened to taste a beer that was over two years old (heaven knows what temperature fluctuations it saw), thanks to my ignorance of not checking the labels. It tasted like cardboard. Bad. With the increase in breweries like toit, windmills etc there is a better alternative to these old imported stocks.
    Also, the average person who hasn't tasted good beer would likely set his standards really low by drinking these imports.


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