Outside, the temperature is in the forties. So it is with quite some anticipation that I take a big gulp of the cloudy brew. A melodrama of sensuous energies follows: shocked neurons record the sudden chill in the mouth, a yeasty aroma wafts up to the olfactory nerves and the sweet, sour and bitter receptors in the taste buds become overexcited. The biochemicals playfully refuse to terminate the sensation and remain in the mouth as a pleasant aftertaste. What I am swigging is Bira 91 White.
Bira 91 is a craft beer, the first that has been conceived of by an Indian company. Cerana Beverages recently launched its two offerings: Bira 91 White is a wheat beer, while Bira 91 Blonde is a more traditional wheat-barley brew. Craft beer is the buzz across the world. These are typically produced in small volumes, with the emphasis on flavour, quality and traditional brewing methods. Craft beer's popularity has been established in microbreweries that have cropped up in Indian cities. But as Ankur Jain, CEO of Cerana Beverages, who sold his healthcare management startup in New York in 2007 to return home and dabble in the beer business, will tell you, microbreweries do not produce artisanal beer in "product format", i.e. the beer is brewed and dispensed on site. Cerana has gone a step forward in craft beer culture in India by deciding to sell draft and bottled Bira 91.
The big difference in Bira 91 White comes when the libation first touches the tongue. It is sweeter and markedly more acerbic, or citrusy, than the normal beer. The bigger surprise is in the lack of bitterness that usually marks beer. This is where the handcrafted aspect of the business come in. Jain hopes to make "taste triumph over testosterone", an allusion to the overwhelming preference for strong beer in India, "strong" being alcohol content of over 5 per cent by volume and usually 8 per cent. "The urban drinker now wants taste rather than just a high," points out Jain. So Cerana worked for a year to get a flavour that would find favour with Indian drinkers. "It isn't like beer," a beer drinker tells me, "it has such a strong orange flavour." The beer is brewed and bottled in Belgium, but production will start in India in a few months.
The beer is not made in India nor does it have Indian barley or wheat. It was "imagined" in India. Bira the name evokes Indian sensibilities. While it could be the way a north Indian would colloquially pronounce "beer", it also has connotation in other languages. The text logo has a reversed B - "to show a spirit of rebellion against the conventional", Jain explains. The 91 denotes India's country code. Tanmoy Mukherjee, chief marketing officer, Cerana, discloses that the hops used in the two beers come from Lahaul-Spiti in Himachal Pradesh. "The people there were growing hops, but none of the Indian companies was buying it. They sold it to middlemen who exported it," says Mukherjee. Also, as a concession to the widespread use of wheat in India, Bira 91 White was conceived as the first full-fledged wheat beer from the country. Both the beers go well with Indian food, the White with anything from spicy salad to seafood, the Blonde especially disposed to an alliance with meat curries.
The two beers are sold in 330 ml bottles - "we will never sell it in 650 ml bottles because we want each bottle to be an individual drinker's" - at retail stores in Delhi. They will be available from next month in Bengaluru and then in Mumbai, Kolkata and Pune. Bira 91 White costs Rs 175, while Blonde is yours for Rs 150. Once production starts in India, the price could slide to below Rs 100. Ah, a discount on the marked price - now that is truly in the Indian spirit.