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Indian Beer: My Quest for an IPA

November 29, 2018

Now I want to talk a little about a subject dear to my heart - beer.

 

After a month in dry Iran, followed by three months in Sri Lanka (where the local range consisted of Lion Lager, Lion Strong and the ever elusive 3 Coins; often on a menu but always "Sorry, sir, all finished"), I was keen to sample a wider range.

I'm quite the fan of a decent IPA, which, if you're not aware, stands for Indian Pale Ale, so where better to try than India. Why Indian Pale Ale? I know you want a short history lesson so here goes. In the days of the British Raj, what they discovered was that beer lasted the voyage better if they upped the hop content. Hence a overly-hopped pale ale was prepared for the voyage – the Indian Pale Ale. Whether the beer actually was preserved better, or whether the higher hop content masked any spoilage is a matter of conjecture; either way, the IPA became a hit with thirsty British troops. And centuries later, with me. 

 

 

Arguably the biggest trend in craft beer over the past few decades has been the rise in popularity of the North American style of IPA, using the more fruity and floral local hops to create a much hoppier version of the IPA than what was traditionally brewed in Britain. New Zealand brewers have largely thrown their brewing caps into this style, naturally this was, ideally, what I wanted to find. So now that I was finally in India, my quest could begin.


 

My first stop in India was Goa. Having been told beer was not cheap in India, I was surprised, it was rather affordable in Goa, sometimes as cheap as 50 rupees (NZ $1) from a store. I'd figured it wouldn't be that cheap there, being a touristy destination. It didn't take long, however, to find out that the opposite is true, that alcohol taxes in the state of Goa are the lowest in India in order to keep the tourism industry happy. I found a decent range was available (wheat beers, dark ales, pilsners etc) but no IPA.

The longer I travelled in India, the more I realised how limited the beer scene was. In most of the cities, Kingfisher and imported lagers such as Tuborg ruled the roost, whereas in the smaller towns, Indian strong beers ruled.

 

A quick word on that – the Indian strong beer has a sweet and malty flavour with a strong content of 7-8% (trust me, this is not as good as it sounds!), and it is seen as a masculine trait to drink strong beers – often you'd ask what beers were available in a bar or restaurant and be met with the reply of “Strong beer, sir!”, with a massive grin, never mind which particular brand they had in stock. In fact, in some of the religious towns (Hampi, Pushkar, Orchha etc) where beer is officially not sold, strong beer is all you can get under the table as that's all they can be bothered smuggling in.

 

I must make mention, however, of a brewery called Bira 91. Based in Delhi but brewed in Indore (more about the reason for that below), they have a small but interesting range. They produce two wheat beers, an ever elusive IPA (didn't find it once in 6 months, leading to increasingly stronger gnashing of teeth) and, interestingly enough, a strong beer that is perfectly drinkable (mild hoppiness, with a malt character not as cloyingly sweet as the other strongs). And most importantly of all, they seemed to be the only Indian craft brewery that bottled, providing me with the ability to occasionally avoid Kingfisher or strong beers.

 


 

Bangalore

After a coastal jaunt through Goa and Kerala, I headed inland to the state of Karnataka with two destinations in mind - Mysore, for its famous palace, and Bangalore, for its reputation as the craft beer capital of India (due to it being an affluent IT hub).

Arriving in Bangalore, a quick internet search revealed plenty of options. The first night, I ventured into Toit, based purely on it being the closest to my hostel. Spread over 3 levels, it was more restaurant than bar, with most tables reserved for diners, although they managed to find an empty bar stool for me. They offered 4 different beers, although I quickly discovered that they only had two in stock. The first thing that caught my eye was the Colonel Toit IPA. Bingo – the first place I visited had an IPA in stock! This was more the traditional English-style IPA and went down well, being the first hoppy beer I'd tried since leaving Armenia some five months earlier. I followed that up with their only other offering, the Tintin Toit (a witbier, fancy Dutch talk for “white beer”), a tasty and hazy wheat beer .

 

The following afternoon, after a day of strolling the streets and parks of central Bangalore, it was back to the task at hand. Analysing my options, the nearest bar was Communiti. It had a nice breezy outdoor area, plenty of indoor seating and friendly staff. The waiter brought me a menu. And there it was - IPA! Not just one, but two!! First up was the English IPA (which I felt tasted more like a North American IPA in terms of hop profile), closely followed a rather tasty (but slightly less hoppy) wheat IPA.

My third foray into the Bangalore craft beer scene was Arbor. I will say at this point, Arbor produce what is IMHO the best beer in India, the Betel Juice – a pale ale that was hoppy, complex, and had flavours of lemongrass and betel nut. Definitely a beer I could drink again. So I did. Twice more. Their other IPA, the Raging Elephant, was also a top-notch effort, a very hop-forward beer. I also managed to sample their rauchbier (a smoky beer), a porter and a pale wheat ale. All things considered, probably the most impressive range of all the Indian breweries I encountered.

So thanks Bangalore. I'm not a "box-ticker" when it comes to travel but this was one box I was happy to tick - IPA in India, check!


 

 

Delhi

You'd think that Delhi, second-largest city in India at nearly 20 million, would be prime territory for some decent beers. Nope. At this point I learnt a little something about India. There are 29 states in India but Delhi does not belong in any of them. Much like Washington DC and Canberra, Delhi's position as capital means it's important to remain impartial and, therefore, does not belong in any state. Instead, it's what is known as a Union Territory (along with Chandigarh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Daman and Diu, the Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Pondicherry, and the Lakshwadeep Islands, just in case this question ever comes up in a pub quiz). And the relevance of this? Seems Delhi politicians have been overly conservative on the matter of beer. Brewing apparently falls into the category of a polluting industry so isn't allowed (the irony is gobsmacking, not allowing a small-scale microbrewery to operate in one the most polluted cities in the world? More likely that a small brewery can't provide the same level of bribes as a big industry!) Swayed by an apparent impending change in bylaw, three bars in Connaught Place had invested in brewing equipment but, after interminable delays, only Ministry of Beer remains in the game. I made the short walk from Paharganj to Connaught Place, only to find their brewing equipment still under wraps. The waiter explained they were ready to brew but still waiting for Delhi politicians to sort their shit out (my words, not his) and finalise the bylaw.

 

He also gave me some valuable advice - “If you want a microbrew, you've got to go to Gurgaon”. Cool. I check the map – Gurgaon was in Harayana, the next state! But not all was as bad as it seemed. Gurgaon is connected to the World Heritage site of Qutab Minar via the same Delhi metro line. Which just so happened to be where I was heading the next day. As I found, it's basically a satellite suburb of Delhi and, much like Bangalore, is an affluent IT hub (by this stage I was starting to spot a pattern – IT hub = plenty of thirsty Indian hipsters).

A bit of internet research on the metro turned up a place called After Stories. Seemed ideal - 200 metres from a metro station, beers brewed on site, and, best of all, a happy hour daily until 7pm where all microbrews (plus a small range of bar snacks) were a very reasonable 99 rupees. The bartender wandered over to take my order – being the procrastinator I am, I'm still deciding. Next thing I know, a free tasting flight appears in front of me! Between this, and the IPL cricket on the big screen, I was already liking this place.

 

 

All up, I tasted a cider (far too sweet, but I guess that makes sense given the quantity of sugar the Indians throw into everything), a witbier with a strong orange peel flavour, and a black witbier (the pick of the bunch, with a well-balanced wheat and roasted malt flavour).

With that, it was time for the hour-long metro ride back to my Delhi hostel. At least I can now say I travelled interstate in India for the sole purpose of having a beer!


 

I found myself back in Gurgaon a few months later. Kashmir was my last destination in India, but before I could head to Nepal, I had to deal with an overnight layover in Delhi. Having checked into my airport hotel, and with no need for any sightseeing due to my previous six night visit, I decided to head back to Gurgaon to see what other microbreweries I could find.

I ordered an Ola (the Indian version of Uber) and before I knew it my driver had arrived and I was on my way. A quick glance at a map of Gurgaon showed Sector 29 to be the place to head, with around six brewpubs in the space of a block. He dropped me outside Warehouse Cafe and I wandered in. I grabbed a menu and had barely been sitting for 30 seconds before I noticed someone standing next to me. "Are you on your own? Come join us!". Ranjan introduced me to his three friends - the group ranged from 20s to 60s but what they had in common was a love of motorcycling. Regular weekend trips, plus the occasional longer journey. And Friday night beers. Friendly blokes too, definitely better than drinking on my own.

They poured me a glass from their pitcher – an earthy and tasty Belgian Wheat, their favourite and a good choice on their part. After a couple more of these, I also tried the dark dunkelweizen (nice but the malts tasted a little under-roasted). After a few hours, they stood to leave. I asked the waiter to settle my bill - "But sir, it's already been paid." Top blokes!

 

We walked out of Warehouse Cafe and headed for the food stalls across the street. But they weren't interested in food. No, Ranjan and friends had one last surprise in store for me. Up to this point, I'd avoided pan masala - flavoured Indian chewing tobacco, beloved by men all over India (shame they have to spit the leftovers all over the street!). But this was no ordinary pan. The vendor prepared a leaf, smearing sweet paste and pan tobacco on it, plus sugar, then he lit the leaf - this was fire pan! Luckily the leaf shielded my tender mouth and the flame was out before any damage could be done. And the verdict? Surprisingly nice, not at all hot and the leaf was actually quite pleasant.

Their night over, mine still had legs. I'd come all this way and was keen to sample what else Gurgaon had in store. As it turned out, not much. Seems there is little variety - every menu I perused offered a lager, a Belgian wheat, a dark beer and occasionally a pilsner. After a quick half pint of a barely average lager at Downtown Living Beer Cafe, I figured I'd try one more place. Could I find an IPA on my last night in India? Turns out there is no hoppy ending to this fairy tale. The best I could find was Cervesia Lager at Cosmopolitan Brewing - hoppy by Indian standards, but if this was New Zealand or North America I doubt they'd even bother drawing attention to the hop content.

With that, I ordered an other OLA cab and my foray into Indian beers was over.

 

 

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