Thanks to a widely reported youthful indiscretion, we now know that the tipple of choice of a certain Scout Willis (the 20-year-old daughter of Demi Moore and Bruce Willis) is a Pakistani beer. And if it is a Pakistani beer, then it could be none other than Murree beer. Pakistan’s only beer. Or to be more accurate, the only one that is legally licensed to be brewed in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. And hence the very beer that is soon to be exported, if the thawing of relations lasts long enough, by the truckload across the border into India, where from all accounts there is such a raging thirst for beer that not even the two billion gallons consumed last year can slake it.
Officially, Pakistan is a dry country. And I’m not talking about the weather. Yet, go to a society wedding, a smart party or even a private dinner at a posh residence and you’d have a hard time believing it. On offer are Russian vodkas, French cognacs, New World wines, Scottish whiskies and German lagers. Sourced from western embassies in Islamabad, or smuggled over the border from China or shipped in dhows from Dubai, and, here’s my favourite, filched from NATO supplies meant for diplomatic missions in Kabul (a source that, as you know, is subject to the vagaries of geopolitics), Pakistani cities are awash in bootlegged alcohol. In fact, conspicuous by its absence at these upper-crust venues is Murree beer. In true desi fashion, rich Pakistanis are sniffy about their own produce, much preferring to be seen holding a Carlsberg, or for that matter, any old foreign ka maal. (But now that Murree’s finest has got a Hollywood brat’s seal of approval, perhaps it too will become tres chic in Pakistan.) But given official prohibition and public disdain, how has the company survived?
The curious fact is that the company has not only survived but done rather well. Established in 1860 by the British in the hill station of Murree, expressly to quench the thirst of British soldiery posted there in the summer months, Murree Brewery was one of the subcontinent’s first public companies and even one of the first modern beer breweries in Asia. Its beer won a medal for excellence at the 1867 World’s Fair. Its shares were traded on the Calcutta Stock Exchange. But its golden age was the Second World War when, thanks to the thousands of Allied troops stationed in the region, demand for the beer skyrocketed to 1.6 million gallons a year.
But following Independence and Partition, with most of the brewery’s erstwhile customers now either sitting on the Indian side of the border, or else sailing home to Britain, demand fell. The company received a body blow in 1977 when, to placate the religious right, the then prime minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto banned the sale and consumption of alcohol. Bhutto’s successor, the Islamist zealot and all-round killjoy General Zia-ul-Haq closed down the brewery for two years but the Supreme Court overturned the order on the grounds that the owners, a Parsi family, were legally entitled to run the business since they were not Muslims. Murree Brewery was back in business. Albeit a diminished business.
According to the new laws, only non-Muslims were allowed to drink alcohol and that too, at the production of an identity card. All the old liquor shops were shut down and replaced by tiny outlets—often a barred window in a hotel back room—selling only to the Christians, Sikhs, Hindus or Parsis who together make up three per cent of Pakistan’s total population of 180 million. Each non-Muslim customer is legally allowed a monthly quota of either six bottles of whisky or a case of beer. Given that Murree Brewery produces 820 million half-litre bottles of alcohol a year, it must mean that the three per cent drink like fish. Or, as the (Muslim) GM of Murree Brewery laughingly observes, the other 97 per cent don’t mind it either. The snobbery of the drawing room wallahs and the strictures of the mullahs notwithstanding, Murree beer has legions of fans among the moral majority as well.
Since Pakistan is a country of devout Muslims, the export of alcohol, even to non-Muslim countries, was expressly forbidden. But perhaps so pressing is the need for foreign exchange or so favoured is India’s MFN status that the commerce ministry has relented and allowed Murree Brewery to export its wares to India and Britain. (Incidentally both countries boast sizeable Muslim populations.)
But let’s not quibble. Instead, let’s celebrate the suspension of hostilities between the two countries, the opening of borders and bottles, the clinking of glasses, the outpouring of good cheer and the making of merriness. And perhaps as Pakistani beer-laden trucks rumble towards Amritsar, Indian trucks weighed down with buffalo beef (of which India is one of the world’s largest exporters) will trundle towards Lahore. Now wouldn’t that be a fitting exchange?