Growler stations are likely to proliferate in Maharashtra in the coming months.
Throughout the dry days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Meenakshi Iyer made the most of her modest stock of whisky and gin, but when her city opened up the Pune-based food critic eagerly sought pints of craft beer during her first cautious restaurant visit.
A few months on, access to locally brewed beers has turned much easier. She simply walks into a neighbourhood store — with a menu upfront and taps at the back — to fill up and take away a litre of fresh cider or wheat beer to sip over the weekend.
“Because of their small batches, microbreweries are able to experiment more, and you get to try a variety of beers,” explains Iyer, noting that the retail outlet is useful for busy beer lovers. “They even have a way to recycle empty bottles for discounts so that is a bonus.”
Craft beer, which in pre-COVID times was savoured unhurriedly in groups at taprooms, has undergone major shifts in the last year. Growler stations, such as the one Iyer frequents, have added an over-the-counter dimension to its consumption. Several microbreweries have shown enough faith in retailing to have launched such stores in tony areas such as Pune’s Koregaon Park and Kothrud, or Andheri and Powai in Mumbai. Suburbs like Baner and Thane, where millennials aged between 25 and 35 years are increasingly moving, and smaller cities Nashik and Kolhapur are on the radar too.
More hops in the shops
The lockdown months, which at first hit boutique brewers badly, also led to the undoing of licensing inertia. Even as tipplers hankered in vain at home, more than one lakh litres of beer were poured down the drain by boutique breweries as restaurants remained shut and chiller costs became unaffordable. While many slowed down and connected with families and themselves during the pandemic, Manu Gulati, founder of Effingut Breweries spent it on countless Zoom calls with excise authorities, meetings with bottle makers, and trips to look for commercial real estate. An association of about 20 local breweries including Gulati’s was able to push for retailing permissions last August.
The industry has been burgeoning in Maharashtra, often led by well-heeled, widely-travelled executives who quit their day jobs to dive into the specialty beer business. The state has had a relatively progressive policy, allowing microbreweries here to keg offsite and sell through their own brewpubs or partner restaurants, whereas microbreweries in most states were required to brew and serve on-site. New licensing allows for sale of 1-litre growlers. “Craft brewing is a passionate hustle,” says Gulati. “It was about survival for us. The take-home shop gives the government more revenue and helps us stay alive.” His brewery opened five ‘Effingut 2 Go’ stores and plans to add two more in April.
There is a bit of history to the “growler” which, like a lot of the craft brewing culture here, was inspired by the scene in the United States. Brewers there in the 1990s began offering jug-like bottles by that name. It was a nod to the loud gurgle heavily-carbonated beer would make in tin pails carried back from the local watering hole by late nineteenth-century drinkers. Growlers by Indian breweries are a work in progress, with several still using PET bottles while waiting to switch to amber-coloured glass of a suitable grade. Being non-pasteurised, these beers typically stay good for three days to a week. Various brands are experimenting with proprietary filling techniques to get brews safely into bottles and prolong their shelf life.
The shops themselves look pretty standard, like a Naturals Ice Cream or Nature’s Basket but for craft beer. Tasting isn’t allowed on the premises so customers have to rely on counter staff to explain the nuances only in words. Still, there is a steady trickle of walk-ins, at least on weekends. Drifters Breweries sells about 800-1200 litres a month at its standalone stores, says co-founder Nayan Shah, which is enough to make back the investment in two years. The interest generated at his shops is translating into walk-ins for his brewpub and vice versa.
Not everyone is convinced of the format’s prospects beyond the pandemic. “Beer is about instant gratification,” reminds Chatty Girija, beer podcaster and enthusiast. “You have it in one go. Unlike whisky or vodka that you can take home and have for months.” The advertising professional has tried and liked craft growlers in the past but for home drinking, she says most cost-conscious Indians including herself would prefer value-for-money commercial beers. Indeed, whereas ordering in craft beer works out cheaper than drinking it in a restaurant, it is still a premium option at Rs 500 a litre on average. Besides, with episodes of growlers filled at less than optimal pressure bursting, Chatty says filling and packaging growler needs to be standardised soon.
Navin Mittal, co-founder Gateway Brewing Company is also cautiously optimistic. Ten years after it was established, the microbrewery which manufactures out of Dombivli will open a single store in April — at Colaba close to the monument from which it takes its name. “We are still waiting and watching out for the pandemic’s second wave. We lost a lot of money and employees have suffered initially,” he says. If the first shop works, Mittal plans to open a beer cafe too.
All told, growler stations are likely to proliferate in the coming months. Dhananjay Naik, founder of three-year-old Hapi Brewing Co, says his chain will extend to about 21 locations in the city by the end of 2021. He is enthused by repeat customers who account for 30 percent of walk-ins at his Thane outlet. Most prefer easy beers like the Belgian wit or Hefeweizen to more hoppy ales and stouts. Naik expects such shops will inspire beer education and innovation. “People see the variants of beer and get it filled and sealed in front of them. That tells them it is made by local people and without preservatives,” he says, with a heady measure of pride.