Will the beer we have in India find a mug in the world-famous Oktoberfest in Munich? Well, about 85 per cent of it might not, say some. For, a four-fifth of the domestic beer sold is ‘strong’—a unique Indian favourite with 7 to 8 per cent alcohol content. Brewers say alcohol, as a byproduct while making beer by adding yeast to barley or wheat malt to hasten fermentation, is never more than about 5 per cent by volume. So, how does it go up? “Some beer-makers simply add ENA (extra neutral spirit or hard liquor) to the beer. This is the reason strong beer has a medicinal whiff of ethanol when opened, gives the drinker an instant high, and a bad hangover later,” says Rahul Singh, a beer fanatic who is the founder and CEO of Beer Café chain of bars which now has 40 outlets in 12 cities. He says the alcohol content in some strong beer is so high that one bottle of 650 ml is equivalent to 150 ml of hard drink (as most spirits sold in India have alcohol of 40 per cent by volume), or about two-and-a-half Patiala pegs.
The beer industry froths at the mouth when asked about it. “Absolute rubbish! It’s simply not possible. It would be downright illegal to do so,” says Kalyan Ganguly, a veteran of the beer industry who headed United Breweries for two decades. “Besides, it is certainly possible to get higher alcohol content in beer. Something like Carlsberg Special Brew, which is sold internationally, I think, has 11 to 12 per cent alcohol.”
Beer becomes ‘strong’ when hard liquor is added, claims a scholar. The industry just rubbishes it: law doesn’t permit alcohol in a brewery.
Concurs Shobhan Roy, director-general, All Indian Brewers Association, which represents about 90 per cent of the country’s beer industry: “With high-gravity brewing, it is easily possible to get high alcohol content. Distillery and brewery licenses are given out separately in India and there is no way that hard spirits can be added to beer. Do you think global brands like Heineken and Carlsberg will do illegal business here?”
“Carrying pure alcohol in a brewery is not legal,” says Samar Singh Sheikhawat, senior vice-president, United Breweries, which commands a 52 per cent market share in India. “No major beer-maker would do it.”
Yes, it is possible to get higher percentage of alcohol from brewing, but for that it will take very high quality of malt and yeast that the Indian industry does not use, argue others. “If you want double the alcohol, you have to add twice the quantity malt, which is absolutely cost-prohibitive for the price strong beer is sold in India,” says Gaurav Sikka, managing director of Arbor Brewing Company, a popular brewpub in Bangalore. “There is this allegation that some breweries add sugar to the malt to increase the alcohol content. The beer-makers use the loose term ‘adjuncts’ which are added to beer but one can’t say what specifically goes into it,” he adds. “Look,” says Roy, “a beer-maker may add sugar or salt or anything else that is part of the brewing process and is permissible. Strong beer in India is perfectly legal and is made with all the necessary permits and ingredients.”
Pradeep Mehta, secretary general of CUTS International, a leading consumer advocacy and research organisation, also wonders why this oddity called ‘strong beer’ even exists. By definition, beer should contain no more than 3-5 per cent alcohol; it is not a hard drink.
The fact is that all—from truck drivers to stock traders—lap up the strong brew. All the four big global brands, Heineken (which controls United Breweries), SAB Miller, Carlsberg and AB Inbev that make up for up to 90 per cent of the Indian market (estimated at Rs 24,000 crore) have many strong beer brands. They may not have it in other markets but that is because in most countries it’s the light lager which rules. “What is unique to India is the popularity of strong beer. It’s there in Singapore, Australia and Europe too, but is a small part of the beer market,” says Sheikhawat.
Strong beer is popular in emerging countries in Africa, Central Asia and our subcontinent, says Ankur Jain, founder of Bira 91, the runway hit craft beer he launched in 2002. “In premium beer or craft beer, taste is the main criterion, but in strong beer it’s the alcohol strength,” he points out. “Now, with a lot of young people with disposable income, who meet to have a beer with friends after a hard day’s work, not to get drunk, the taste for craft beer is growing. It was a big surprise for us to see such a huge demand for Bira.” Bira too will be coming out with a strong beer soon, but Jain says it will be based more on taste and texture rather than just high alcohol content.
The beer-drinking culture in the country, so far primarily to get a hit (“testosterone, not taste” as Rahul Singh puts it) may be changing. Sheikhawat says even within strong beer, it’s the premium brands like Kingfisher Ultra Max, Budweiser Magnum that are growing fast. But it will still take a lot to knock off a KnockOut, dethrone a Godfather or tame a Thunderbolt.