When the first beer was shipped by the British to India in the 18th century, it arrived at East India Company ports like Calcutta and Bombay, sour, flat and undrinkable after the hot three to five-month journey across the oceans. Clever brewmasters back home added hops and alcohol to prevent spoiling, lending a distinctive bitterness. Thus the Indian Pale Ale, or IPA, beloved of beer aficionados was born.
Though brewed specifically for export, IPA became hugely popular in Britain and then around the world. In the 1840s, the Dyer Brewery in Kasauli began producing its own IPA in India under the Lion brand.
But although IPA is perhaps the subcontinent’s greatest contribution to the long, rich history of beer, India Pale Ale has not been brewed in India for decades.
This is slated to change by November of this year with the opening of Mumbai’s first microbrewery: Seven Islands Craft Brewery. (Microbreweries are boutique, alternative beer makers; they have taken the US and UK by storm.)
For two years managing director Gregory Kroitzsh, who moved to India from the United States four years ago, has been working to bring India’s burgeoning microbrewing industry to the nation’s largest, wealthiest, most cosmopolitan city. In September 2011, he leased a space in a Lower Parel mill compound (near Café Zoe and Blue Frog), and several months later brought master brewer Ben Johnson to India from Alaska. Now, licences and construction permitting, opening is merely months away.
Both Kroitzsh and Johnson see Mumbai as a perfect market for more robust, exciting beers. Kroitzsh cites the inspiration of Sula, the Maharashtran vineyard that has almost single-handedly given birth to Mumbai’s nascent wine-drinking culture.
Moreover as Kroitzsh points out, Mumbaikars already have a taste for beer; the challenge then is to expand it.
Domestic lagers like Kingfisher and Carlsberg – among the only affordable beers on the market thanks to sky-high excise taxes – make a less than ideal accompaniment to the powerful flavour of most Indian foods. “We’re going to tailor the beers for the Indian palate,” says Johnson, “but at the same time, push the consumer.”
When it opens for business, the Seven Islands Brewery will boast a pub/restaurant serving a range of contemporary pub dishes, designed for pairing with house brews. These will include a rotating selection of seasonal or experimental beers and three constants: a blonde ale, a Belgian-style witbier, and – two-and-a-half centuries after the first Company men guzzled those first hoppy pale ales on a small island fortress called Bombay – the city’s first IPA.