India, second most populous nation in the world (and within thirty years, probably the most populous), should be an international brewing powerhouse, exporting quality beers by the container load. Asia’s first modern brewery was setup in the Himalayan mountain town of Kasauli in 1855 and still brews today under the name of Mohan Meakin Limited.
Traditional beer, prepared from rice or millet, has been brewed in India for thousands of years. With an already ripe taste for alcohol and British colonial interference to upgrade Indian tastes to international levels, the Indians were poised to be brewers par excellence – or at the very least, major brewers in Asia. What the hell went wrong?
Try as I might, I couldn’t dig up any export data on Indian beers, probably because there isn’t much beer that’s being exported. I performed a quick and dirty “reality test” instead. I asked a number of people to name me five Indian beers; and next, the last time they’d seen one of these beers in a local store (outside India, of course).
The only Indian beer – and I mean ONLY one –that people could consistently name is Kingfisher, which happens to be India’s largest selling beer brand domestically. In India, both a domestic and export version is sold. When is the last time I personally saw a Kingfisher for sale outside India? At a tiny Indian restaurant in Hua Hin, Thailand. Once. So rare was it that my wife and I ordered one. When we revisited the restaurant months later, the restaurant was no longer carrying it. You would think in Thailand, so close to India and with an affluent Indian community, that Kingfisher would be more prevalent. Nope. It’s nonexistent. Indians are renowned for wanting to pay the absolutely lowest prices. None of them would dare pay a premium to sip an imported Kingfisher. I am not even sure if the brand is for sale in Thailand anymore.
In the much larger beer market of the United States, Kingfisher is available, but you have to look for it. The only place you were likely to consume it was at an Indian restaurant. Whatever you might think of its quality, an Indian beer is part of the experience of eating at an Indian restaurant. I cannot remember ever buying (or seeing) a six pack in a grocery store for casual consumption at home.
For kicks, I scoured the internet for “Top Indian beers” just to see if there was perhaps an export powerhouse brand I just didn’t know was Indian. Besides Kingfisher, there’s Haywards, Royal Challenge, Kalyani Black Label, Kings. Heard of any? On another site listing the “Best Beers Available In India,” not a single beer listed was Indian in origin.
Right there, you’ve got part of the answer as to why Indians aren’t beer export kings: no one outside of India knows the brands and the tastiest brands in the country are foreign brands made under license.
No doubt, much of the cause is cultural. 81% of the country is Hindu, and about 13.5% is Muslim. Religious Muslims don’t drink, and while Hindus aren’t prohibited from chugging, it’s not traditionally a big part of their culture. I’ve been to only two Indian weddings in my life, and both were dry affairs – the only two dry weddings I have ever attended.
The modern Indian state has never embraced alcohol like an old friend. Gandhi found alcohol distasteful. When the Indian National Congress came to power in 1937, they instituted a policy of prohibition. The Indian state Bombay is located in, Maharashta, went alcohol-free in 1949 and only abolished prohibition in the late 1970’s. Officially, you still need to get a permit to drink alcohol.
When Indians do drink, they want it cheap. Whiskey in India is a lot cheaper per gram of alcohol. At the times Indians do chug a beer, they want it to be a strong one, over 5% in ABV, while the rest of the world, in love with pale industrial lagers, prefers beers in the 5% or under range. Beer consumption is but a blip on the screen in India, averaging just 1.6 liters per person in 2012. Pundits predict ‘big’ things for the Indian beer market. By 2017, it is expected to be a
Rs 430 billion market (about US$7 billion). Compare that to the United States. With less than a third of India’s population, the USA had a $246 billion market back in 2012, with Americans consuming, on average, 110 liters per person.
Still wonder why Indian beer is so bad?
India has screwed itself on the beer front. The country would only be spurred on to brew better beers if the people demanded it, but what Indians want is stronger, not necessarily better, beers. And they’re not willing to pay more for them. Thus, the way to succeed in the beer market is to offer super strength beers at ultra low prices . What does that mean for quality? Not one helluva lot.
India could have evolved into a brewing powerhouse had the nation developed a love affair for finer alcohols. The country was in a unique position to produce world class beers for low cost that other nations would have been happy to import. Instead, India’s become a nation intent on getting buzzed the cheapest and the quickest way, not ripe terrain for good breweries, let alone craft breweries.