India’s Beer History

Most of us are familiar with the ancient drink, soma: a divine elixir favoured by the seers during the Vedic Age. But the egalitarian intoxicant of the masses – the stuff the working class quaffed after a hard’s work – was a drink called sura. Brewed from wheat, rice or barley and fermented using yeast, the old world drink pretty much fits the description of your average beer. Sura even gets a mention in the Vedas and the Ramayana. It was Indra’s (the God of storms and thunder) drink of choice; and the go-to drink for the Kshatriya clan.

Beer Brewing is Adivasi

While brewing beer at home is only now becoming mainstream, tribes in Jharkhand, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh have brewed their own rice beer for decades. The potent concoction, Handiya is flavoured and fermented with assorted herbs in earthen pots. A swig or two (or three) can keep you cool in hot summers and is believed to have medicinal value. Someone must have told the elephants in the area, because they seem to have taken a shine to it. The pachyderms are known to go on drunken rampages under the influence (not unlike drunken homosapiens).  

The woes of the parched British Raj ended in the late 1700s with the arrival of ‘India Pale Ale’– a stronger, hoppier, long lasting brew made exclusively for British regiments in India

Pale and imperial

Like many things in India’s past, beer too, has a colonial chapter. When the good lads and lords of the British Empire landed on Indian shores, they realised that the beer they had brought along on the ship hadn’t survived the gruelling six-month journey past the equator. They also figured that the Subcontinent was too hot to brew more of it. The woes of the parched British Raj ended in the late 1700s with the arrival of ‘India Pale Ale’– a stronger, hoppier, long lasting brew made exclusively for British regiments in India by London brewers like Hodgson.

Draught beer and peanut masala, anyone?

Beer drinking kickstarted as an urban trend in the sixties, when Bangalore-based United Breweries launched its now-omnipresent Kingfisher beer. Cold KF draught dominated the garden city’s lively pub scene. Young working professionals, journos and advertising types would wash down a hard day at work with pitchers of beer, spicy peanut masala with Dire Straits and Deep Purple in the background.

Hip brewpubs that whip up fresh, straight-off-the-tap brews have given humble beer a makeover Oprah would be proud of.

Talking about a craft beer revolution

While Kingfisher is still the most widely consumed beer in India, it’s now considered old-school by the recent wave of craft beer tipplers – a growing bunch of adventurous beer-sampling Indians who know their Hefeweizen from their lager. Hip brewpubs in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Pune that whip up fresh, straight-off-the-tap brews have given humble beer a makeover Oprah would be proud of. The drink has gone from down-to-earth to cool and experimental and is available in an explosion of flavours like mango, lavender and pumpkin. Bottled craft beer is equally in, with brands like Bira gaining a loyal following.

Written by Rajita Gadagkar
Rajita is a feature journalist and writer. She contributes to several magazines, including On Stage and Man’s World.

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