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Business trends

Bangalore's microbrewers bring innovation to alcohol

Burgeoning brewpub scene goes alternative and local to stand out

The Biere Club's head brewer Rohit Parwani tastes craft beer at the microbrewery in Bangalore. (AFP/Jiji)

BANGALORE -- Bangalore is known as the "Silicon Valley of India" for its concentration of tech startups, but the city is also on the cutting-edge of the country's craft beer boom.

Craft beer is still a tiny part of India's $3 billion beer market, but annual growth is predicted to be in the double digits, spurring a race to woo customers in a country where per capita beer consumption is still below 5 liters.

While major players like Kingfisher and United Breweries are keen to tap the small but fast-growing segment, craft beer remains dominated by a slew of smaller brewers, particularly when it comes to nonbottled sales.

Trends in Bangalore may be particularly worth watching, as the fierce local competition spurs an arms race of flavor, innovation and marketing. According to John Eapen, a local brewing consultant, there are 53 brewpubs in the city while the total number for all of India is around 150.

Eapen sees craft beer as the fastest-growing and most promising segment in the beer sector. "The movement in India is barely over 10 years old. The first brew pub opened in Gurgaon in 2008 and shortly after that in Pune and Bangalore. Now we have brew pubs in multiple cities," he said.

The reason for this growth, he says, is simple. "People want to pay a little more for quality products and that's what craft beer is. It is made in small batches, with better ingredients and it costs more since it is a premium product. And, people are liking it because there is a range."

He also pointed to rising incomes as another factor in craft beer's growing popularity.

One way Bangalore's brewers are attempting to stand out is by using unconventional ingredients.

Brewsky in South Bangalore is experimenting with a malt made from ragi, a type of locally grown finger millet, in place of conventional wheat-based malt. The aim is to raise the millet content of its millet beer from 30% to 100%, which would result in a gluten-free beer -- a boon for drinkers who are allergic to the wheat protein.

Co-founder Manepally Narayan, who is also a member of the Craft Brewers Association of India, says organically grown grains are healthier than conventional grains, but that their use in beer is still in its infancy.

One reason is getting the taste right. Malted millet, for example, can be quite bitter, which means brewers are still working on getting the recipe right.

But being different can pay off. Sakshi Sagaraju, co-owner of Bangalore Brew Works, says customer response to its new quinoa beer, released last summer, has been positive.

"Customers love the fact that we experiment and introduce new variants," she said. "The beers have been received well and hence [they] continue to get repeated seasonally."

There are about 45 microbreweries across India, and the figure is expected to grow by about 100 over the next few years, according to a report by the Global Agricultural Information Network, a research organization run by the U.S. government.

Microbrewers currently tend to focus on restaurant sales because they are waiting for the market to mature before they take the further step of acquiring a license for bottle sales, according to the report.

Those that do make the leap can potentially look forward to attracting foreign investment. Bira 91, one of the few craft brewers concentrating on bottled sales, attracted investment from Belgian investment firm Sofina last year, which has also invested in companies like Flipkart. Sequoia Capital India, a subsidiary of the American venture capital firm, has also invested in Bira 91.

Stepping up to bottled sales is the logical next step, according to Eapen, but he had added that it would also take a lot of money to set up brewing and bottling facilities. "You'd also need a lot of experienced people to do that. But, as they move forward, they are definitely going to expand in that direction. It happened in the U.S. and it is definitely going to happen here."

For now, brewers may have their hands full meeting Bangalore's thirst for on-tap beers. Consumption of craft beer at restaurants and pubs in the city totals 300 liters to 600 liters per day per establishment, and the figure is expected to rise.

Novel ingredients are just one way they are attempting to attract customers. Local sourcing is another. Last year several breweries in Bangalore seeing a marketing opportunity, announced plans to produce millet beers to support local farmers, a move that dovetailed with the state government campaign to promote agriculture.

Rohit Parwani, brewmaster that the Biere Club in Bangalore said that word of mouth has brought in fresh faces asking specifically for beers with local ingredients, particularly the ragi brew.

"We make some of the more robust seasonal beers in the land, and that is owing to the quality ingredients we buy from quality sources," he said. "We innovate for the people who want to indulge in such innovation."

Using local grains can be good for business, but they are not cheap. According to Manepally, procuring malted grains from local farmers is three times more expensive than using imported versions. It will also take time for local farmers up their production capacity and quality levels.

But for those farmers who can produce the quality and quantity of grains that brewers are looking for, there is money to be made.

Vivek Cariappa is among those benefiting from the craft beer boom. He has been growing organic crops for more than three decades on his 20-acre farm in the city of H.D. Kote, about 200 km from Bangalore. About a year and a half ago began supplying malted finger millet to Biere Club, which began incorporating the malt into its beers about a year ago.

Biere Club brewmaster Rohit Parwani says the Bangalore brewery has procured about 1.6 tons of malted finger millet from Cariappa, along with mangos and organic jaggery -- a type of sugar -- that it uses in some of its beers.

"An overwhelming majority of our patrons love the ragi beer," Parwani said. "There are obviously some outliers who do not take to it so well, but that's part of what you get for being a brewer."

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