Mumbai’s New Brews Clues

Published in The Hindu — July 7, 2018.

It’s a good time to be a beer-drinker in India. There are numerous accounts of how refreshing a chilled glass of the beverage can make any day better, more so when the quality is just right. For instance, Vir Kotak, the young entrepreneur behind the new beer brand Thirsty, makes a selection based on his mood and the setting. “If it’s a cold evening in New York, I really want an IPA,” he says. “But if it’s lunchtime on the beach, I’m happy to have a wheat beer. Sitting with friends on a rainy day, a really nice crisp lager works.” In recent years, beer options in India have multiplied with a slew of homegrown beer brands, and Thirsty is one of them.

Kotak first broached the business of beer when he began importing China’s iconic Tsingtao Beer on a whim. “My family owns a shipping business and many years ago, I was doing a shipment for a telecommunications company from Qingdao,” he recalls. “Tsingtao Beer is like their Kingfisher, but it tastes much nicer. Lots of long interesting evenings later, our partners out there said ‘why don’t you get [Tsingtao] to India?’ I knew nothing about beer but I said ‘yes, of course, why not!’” Cut forward a few years, and he was importing Schneider Weisse from Germany and wine from Spain as well. It was time, Kotak decided, to do something more.

Beer and there

After a couple of years of R&D, Happy by Thirsty, a Central European lager, entered the market in 2017 in a bright sunshine-yellow can. Then earlier this year, Thirsty Simona, a German-style wheat beer, followed in an elegantly branded pint bottle. Both have been well received in cities across India. “We knew we’d done a good job with the quality and the branding, but we didn’t expect it to be received the way it was,” says Kotak. “For me, it’s been more exciting when people love Simona because I’ve spent a lot of time with our brewmaster creating the recipe. It’s really, truly, a high-quality craft beer. It’s bottle-conditioned — there’s live yeast in it — and it’s something that’s done as per German quality standards of how a German wheat beer should be made.”

Surprisingly, Happy and Simona were both initially crafted and manufactured in Bosnia. “To get the quality at the price point that we were looking for, it was easier to do it in Europe,” Kotak says. But recently, Thirsty acquired The Barking Deer in Mumbai’s Mathurdas Mills compound, and has started brewing the two on premises. For now, the locally brewed variants will only be available in Mumbai, in kegs and on tap at various outlets. “Thirsty Simona is going to be interesting because it’s a very distinct taste,” explains Kotak. “When you do a craft beer it’s not going to be exactly the same [as in the bottle] — it’s an expression of Simona.” The newly acquired space in Mathurdas Mills will launch in September as Thirsty City 127. “It’s a craft alcohol experience,” Kotak says. “We’re not a brewpub. We’ve got a killer cocktail menu and we’ve got what we believe are the best craft beers in India. It’s like fine-dining for alcohol.” The beer menu will, of course, include more than just Happy and Simona. There will be a Belgian-style witbier called Sexy Pig, a “sexied up” version of what used to be The Barking Deer’s Flying Pig. There’s also an IPA called Lennox; a dark chocolate stout called Ninja; a tart apple cider called Sweetlips; and a summer-ready refreshing ale called Kick-Ass Coach.

A welcome change

It’s obvious with the options now available, that India’s beer landscape has changed drastically over the last few years. Kotak attributes this to a functional shift adding that different state governments (like Maharashtra) have allowed for microbrewery operations. That wasn’t the case five years back, and it allows people to have small operations rather than large commercial breweries. But he also acknowledges the change in consumers. “We’ve been used to having this very mass market strong or light beer,” says Kotak. “But an awareness [has developed with] people travelling or studying abroad. It’s an age of a post-globalised world where people get their cues from what’s happening in other places.”