Making a beeline for beer

Features, Back of House

Hotelier India finds out whether the Indian hospitality industry is ready to revisit a beverage that has for long been taken for granted as one that flows silently from tap to mug.

What’s usually amber, most frequently consumed and highest margin for the hotel bar? What’s been long overlooked and viewed as a standard drink given attention only a little above clear, potable water? The tipple at the centre of this contrasting but mostly indisputable reality is beer and the context is Indian hospitality.

The last six years have seen a rush of diverse wines and spirits dot the Indian hotel bars, thickening the menus, enriching staff with knowledge, perspective and durable enthusiasm.

That’s the cruel irony about the talked up wine revolution in India. And yet, while wine has only launched a full scale invasion of the bar in less than 10 years, the poor man’s frothy drink has been around since the Brits pushed us around.

Beer speak in India goes little beyond draft or pint, domestic or imported. Consequently India’s annual per capita consumption of beer is a mere 1 litre whereas in countries like China, it is 25 litres. Worse, 76 per cent of all beer consumed in India is strong beer. So how did it come to this and is there a thick enough foam of hope capping the fluid, tepid interest in beer?

De-hyphenation of beer
Ankur Jain, proprietor of Delhi-based Cerana Imports who has been importing a wide range of gourmet beers for over four years now, says, “Beer in India, at this point, is still where cars were in 1991. We know what they are in a sense but not the variety of them.

The tragedy for the Indian beer drinker is that beer has been commoditised, produced on an industrial scale and the selling pitch has been low price and high alcohol.

Worldwide, the perception of beer is changing – it’s a gourmet drink and craft beers are preferred over industrial ones. The greatest irony for India is that it is in fact a more relevant market for beer.

It’s a tropical country where beer is traditionally the preferred drink. What’s more, many beer varieties sit well with our cuisine. So, the limited offering of domestic beer in that it’s predominantly lager and pilsner is an astonishing anomaly of our times”.

The main brick wall that faces beer in the on-premise segment where new trends are most likely to sprout, is that it is a mindset that has hardened over the years.

“Beer is seen as a commodity like any of the mass products that hotels consume and therefore it’s open to cost cutting, particularly in austere times like this. It is coupled with the bottom-end spirits, which are standard fare at many of the hotels.

While there is a premium import segment that is continually replenished, beer features sparingly in that list. This is what needs to change. Beer needs to be de-hyphenated from this clutch and added to the premium segment and it’s the food and beverage department alone that should be empowered to make decisions about the given property’s or chain’s beer portfolio.

Jain has livened up the market with import of beer sorts from Belgium Trappists to German wheat beers and ales and iconic American IPA and is now upping the ante with the import of seasonal gourmet beers, which will only be available during a specific time of the year and the import stock will consist of a few 100 cases.

Moorthy Mudaliar, F&B Director of the Four Seasons, agrees to an extent, saying that F&B staff need to take beer more seriously and that the time is now ripe for a more developed beer market.

“We are overhauling our beer list and looking at creating a dedicated section which will list beers according to styles or region. Quite a few initiatives are on the anvil and their central premise is that at Four Seasons Mumbai, we will not treat beer as a generic product.

We will be importing beers from micro-breweries in Western Australia to begin with and will further ramp up our range. The enthusiasm has to be tempered with a practical view on saleability, guest preferences and staff awareness of the beer.

Once this combination is gotten right, then beer can be as diverse and sophisticated a product as wine. It can take its place on the dinner table as it will in our case with a barbeque afternoon concept we plan to create very soon. This beer will likely be imported and be served through tap.”

Rishi Kumar, assistant Food and Beverage Manager, Taj Lands End proffers, “It is important to now diversify the beer offering and many hotels are beginning to realise this.

A few years ago, we created a promotional concept called Brewery Voyage wherein from April to June we showcased different types of beer ranging from French Saison beer to Belgian Trappist beers.

French beers took many of our guests by surprise since they only associated that country with wine and it was well received. We also serve the popular Belgian brand Chimay, a lager, at our Sunday brunch and plan on putting German wheat beer, Hoegaarden on tap.

We are in the process of creating a dedicated beer list in the style of a wine list but what is significant is that our mindset towards beer has undergone a change – beer is now premium and interesting.”

Bangalore based Nilarya Gourmet Beers, which imports a whole host of interesting beers including white beers and Abbey Belgian Ales is also at the forefront of decommodotising beer.

Its marketing head, Manisha Vinod, comments, “We were one of the first importers of specialty beer in India. While the perception of beer is changing, our beers are still targeted at the premium end of the beer market, purely because of price as well as the experience itself.

We are not a ‘chug a beer along with pop corn while watching a cricket match’. We are more the ‘enjoy our beers along with your meal and cheese platter’. Just our goblets have the consumers in India associate it with a premium experience.”

Another beer aimed at the premium end of the market is an iconic Japanese dry lager called Asahi which Sula introduced in 2007.

So why did India’s currently most successful wine company choose to introduce an imported beer to India? Cecilia Oldne, head of international business, Sula, says, “Well, we saw a void created by the lack of premium beer because Indians at the upper end of the economic spectrum like to associate with all things luxury and why should beer be left out? Besides, at that point, Japanese food was the rage. Japanese restaurants were cropping up all around the country, especially in Mumbai.

Asahi is Japan’s iconic beer and there was clearly a market in the waiting. This year we clocked 7,000 cases which is nearly 75% over last year (4,000 cases) so we’re seeing growth really take off.

While the hotels and restaurants are still the largest takers of premium beer, retail is picking up too.” One of Sula’s key strategies to promote Asahi is to pair it with Asian food and much like with wine, have several tastings. Sula holds close to 1,000 wine tastings annually and even a quarter of that for beer, could well transform the market.

Another recently launched premium beer and the first ever rice-based lager in Indian market will be sold on a similar strategy. Chinese beer Tsingtao was recently launched in Mumbai during the Chinese New Year celebrations by Bliquidz.

It’s project head Duttprasad Kapur said, “Promoting Tsingtao will involve both getting the message out that is a light, pleasant beer, which is smooth, does not contain glycerine and goes well with spicy foods.

So Chinese and Indian restaurants even will be targeted and beer and food pairings will be encouraged. This beer can also be used for cooking.” Kapur said that the company was already targeting sales of 500 cases a month with supply to institutions pegged at 60%.

Then there’s the country’s only home grown craft beer brand called Little Devil, which made rich history last year with not just the introduction of a range of five beer styles including wheat beers but they introduced the first home grown India Pale Ale (IPA).

David Home, CEO & MD, TVB Group International and chairman, says, “Our beers were very well received. We identified a huge void in the Indian market and are part of the new wave of beer companies that are taking the segment in a new, international direction.

There are challenges though because beer is largely viewed as a generic product. Nevertheless, our niche of consumers is growing. The expats choose us a lot and we’re priced much lower than the imports. Moreover this is India’s first indigenous craft beer venture. And we’re working on a sixth flavour soon.”

Pankil Shah and Sumit Gambhir who run Mumbai pub and restaurant Woodside Inn have imbibed a much vaunted practice of serving beers with the proper glassware.

“Indians to a large extent simply weren’t aware that beer can be as diverse as wine.” The biggest challenge, Shah, laments however, is that the price of the beer after mark up makes it widely more expensive than domestic beers, which at times sways decisions.

Yet, he points out that beers like Hoegaarden and Stella Artois in spite of the steep menu price have sold well because of brand recognition and unique taste.”

On the lesser-talked about retail end, beer importers lament the cartelisation within the off trade community that has mostly prevented niche products from entering the market.

Apart from that, the sheer design of most liquor stores that do not allow for product browsing and their poor standards of storage have kept gourmet beer importers at bay.

Temperature control boutique stores are few and far between and have a limited footprint that curtail sales that could be seen as sufficient enough to keep the import viable.

This, there is at least a rumbling in the hospitality segment on both the supply, marketing and demand fronts to suggest the coming of a beer revolution in much the same way that wine swept up the Indian tippler in the Noughties. There is every indication that this decade, while still fresh, might just belong to beer.

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