Can India Shake Off Its Colonial Hangover? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Can India Shake Off Its Colonial Hangover?

Can India Shake Off Its Colonial Hangover?

By Sanjena Sathian

A man on a motorbike rides past the factory of United Breweries Ltd (UB) that manufactures Kingfisher beer in Thiruvalluar district of the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu April 3, 2012. Indian tycoon Vijay Mallya, scrambling to raise funds to rescue his ailing Kingfisher Airlines Ltd, is considering the sale of all or part of his stake in his flagship beer business to Dutch brewer Heineken NV, said people familiar with the situation.


Because we are what we drink.

By Sanjena Sathian

The list of locally brewed beers on tap at the Biere Club includes: an American rice, a Belgian wit, an English stout. On a cool weekday afternoon, as American ’90s pop-rock hits play, a few relaxed tech workers swig networking drinks. Sipping each somewhat generic drink out of the tasting-flight shot glasses, you might not realize that you’re drinking in India, but for the single seasonal on-tap: a mango beer, made with fresh fruit.

Change in India comes in spurts — some anticipated, some not, some weird. After all, this is a country where an election was won on the promise of, finally, opening up long-closed markets. It was just this year that Wal-Mart said it planned to expand in India, and only more recently did you see a boom in higher-priced hair salons. Now comes the world of booze, and as shown in this watering hole in the city of Bangalore, the pub capital of the country, beer is becoming all the rage. And why not? Among the billions here, half of the population is under 25 — and thanks to yet another cultural earthquake, beer guzzling is now OK. Indeed, young hipsters “don’t mind being seen drinking — they’re no longer hiding their alcohol” from aunties and uncles, says Cedric Vaz, executive vice president at United Breweries Group, which owns a number of brands, including Kingfisher, India’s most popular beer.

Just the hint of any business opportunity in a market this big draws all the big international names.

But as with anything rising in Asia, this is a complicated trend. The numbers show the start of an impressive drinking binge, with the beer market hitting $5.2 billion in 2014, up 14 percent from 2010, according to a Datamonitor survey. But sitting at his pub, the day-to-day showrunner at Biere Club, Vishal Nagpal, says he’s not jumping out of his shoes with all of this. After all, the country still has some pretty strong ties with the strong stuff — whiskey, scotch and the like. It all dates back to its colonial ties, so Nagpal isn’t even betting on the beer movement himself. It’ll be hard to convert people here, says Nagpal, “as long as Indians drink to get drunk.”

As foreign as it seems now, beer is actually no stranger to the country. It dates back to Vedic times, to a drink called sura, made from rice and various grains. Rice beers — classic in Asia — are a longtime tradition among some indigenous groups in the country. And don’t forget the Brooklyn favorite: India pale ale, created by the British during 18th century colonial times and imported to the subcontinent by Englishmen hankering for home. An 1893 newspaper article factoid from The Calgary Weekly Herald for your historical fodder: Some 4 million gallons were produced in the country during the previous year.

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Kingfisher is the most popular beer in India, where beer is on the rise but far from the drink of choice.

Source Prashanth Vishwanathan/Getty

The question now, of course, is whether it become more than a historical footnote. Not surprisingly, just the hint of any business opportunity in a market this big draws all the big international names. Anheuser-Busch, SABMiller and reportedly Carlsberg are among the entrants selling and making beer within the country. “To be an international player and not be in India is just not on,” summarizes Vaz. Adds Diwik Singh Chhalani, a beer-seller with a focus on imported brands at beer company BLiquid: “It’s always been good business to manufacture in India” — it’s cheap labor, cheap land. 

Still, international players have to enter India on India’s terms — which are limiting. Beer is a state-by-state market here. Each of India’s 29 states maintains its own legal infrastructure regarding alcohol, meaning it’s often not worth it to import across state lines, let alone from, say, the Netherlands or Mexico to the country, Vaz says from his office just up the road from Biere Club, behind one of the city’s plushest malls. There are other troubles to surmount too: Alcohol in India is a “dark” advertising market, so no official ads can promote its consumption. Brands get around this by advertising their subsidiary products, like music, water or even airlines, in the case of Kingfisher, says Samar Singh Sheikhawat, senior vice president at United Breweries.


On top of that, beer is still less bang for your drunken buck than many an average Indian can shell out. A casual brewski with the bros isn’t exactly Indian drinking culture; alcohol is consumed “exclusively to get buzzed,” says Sheikhawat. In many senses, this still “isn’t a beer country,” laments Vaz; Indians consume fewer than 2 liters per person, compared to 37 liters per person in China and 70 in the U.S., according to Datamonitor. And lastly, even for all their troubles, foreign beers may not stand a chance against local favorites, says Vaz; in Asia, it’s homegrown that tugs heartstrings. 

For those who do imbibe, though, Nagpal summarizes what sells well for his customers: fruity, sweet stuff to complement the hot weather and spicy food. And strong beer. Very strong — it makes up 85 percent of the market, according to Sheikhawat, and that’s not about to change, given its bang-for-buck. Datamonitor also suggests the higher number of female drinkers sees some increased interest in more premium brands, which is in line with international trends. And then there are the ladies’ nights in every major city — let’s just say there’s plenty of encouragement to go around. And all this is happening particularly in the south of the country, says Chhalani; spirits are an old Delhi anglophile habit, he says, adding that at least there, beer is poised to stay. “India’s kind of shaking off the colonial hangover.”

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