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Inside India’s Secret Movement of Homebrewers

A small but growing community of people has been geeking out in their kitchens, producing small-batch beers and secretly meeting up to swap tasting notes.

by Reshmi Chakraborty
06 August 2019, 10:52am

In 2013, when 36-year-old Sapan—a software engineer living in the city of Pune—decided to start brewing beer at home, he and a friend went to great lengths to procure malt, which wasn’t easily available back then. Their search led them to a factory in Gurgaon in northern India which could sell them only a 40-kilogram bag of malt, despite the duo needing no more than a couple of kilos each for their brewing experiments. But gradually, Sapan discovered the homebrewer network in his city, where he could share and swap both, ingredients and advice. He also discovered supportive professional brewers who were generous with advice and even supplies if needed.

From having “no idea that you could brew beers at home” to being “known for his dark beers,” Sapan has come a long way, much like the small but closely collaborative community of homebrewers in India.

With sourcing of ingredients becoming easier through online stores and the fact that the miniscule houses of urban India are not a hindrance to brewing that requires only a small space, homebrewers are a growing community in India with at least 100 “active homebrewers,” according to John Eapen, a Bengaluru-based beer evangelist and owner of popular beer blog, Tales of Froth.

This community is bringing the Indian spirit of jugaad (creative improvisation) to their brewing as well—using a large pot to boil the wort (what the malt converts to) instead of the more professional and expensive boil kettle; making a mash tun (to convert the grain into sugar for fermentation) out of a portable water cooler with a tap, and turning a nylon sari into a brewing bag (to drain the wort and the easiest way to brew). This jugaad extends beyond equipment too, with brewers making beers with everything from lemongrass to jamuns (black plum).

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A brewing bag (left) to drain the wort, and milling the grain

Getting Their Geek On

Brewing beer at home requires hard work and at least a passable interest in science—from density measurements to changing water chemistry. The basic ingredients like malt, hops and yeast are available on online stores in India now, though some prefer to get it on their overseas travel. To put it simply, the first step of brewing takes four to five hours and includes turning the malt into wort through a process called mashing. The wort is then boiled to a certain temperature, followed by adding hops for bittering, then cooled instantly (many home brewers use a simple ice bath for this) followed with yeast added to it. It is then left to ferment in the fermentation tank which usually comes in the form of a big water dispenser with a tap attached. The entire process has to be precise and super-sanitised, to avoid the beer getting infected at any stage of brewing. The fermentation can take from three weeks to a month, after which your beer is ready to be bottled and chugged. You can experiment within the basic process endlessly, depending on how comlex or creative you want your beer to be.

As Ruta, 36, an astrophysicist from Pune and one of the few women who brew beer in India, says, “It’s like cooking, with lab-like procedures thrown in.” Ruta, who once made a Hefeweizen, a traditional wheat beer, infused with cashew apple, thinks it helps to be systematic while brewing. “Keep following the procedure of your experiment and keeping track of the data as you progress.” If that sounds like a science experiment, that’s because it partly is.

For Sapan, homebrewing is not just about the love for good beer but also the DIY process that comes with it. “It’s very easy now to step out and get good craft beer and home brewing is a lot of effort but I love working with different ingredients, figuring out the equipment and the whole process of innovation that goes with it.”

Sapan likes experimenting with native Indian spices and grains and has got creative with cardamom, cinnamon, ragi (finger millet) and buckwheat. “Jamuns (Indian plums) make excellent beers,” he says.

Bonding and Brewing

A collaborative community of homebrewers has grown mainly over WhatsApp, with city and pan-India groups. The Bangalore Brew Crew has about 50 members, while the Pune group—which conducts a HOPS (Home Brewers of Pune Shahar) meet every month—has around 30-40. The Delhi WhatsApp group has about 80 members at various points, says Gopal*, a lawyer turned homebrewer.

What’s hampering the increase in numbers is the lack of visibility. Varying excise laws across different states ensure that homebrewers prefer lying low. “Excise laws in India can be vague and left to the excise official’s interpretation,” says Mohit* a homebrewer from Bengaluru, who doesn’t wish to be identified. Gopal* adds, “Even Singapore, with its set of strict laws, allows you to home brew if you fulfil a set of conditions. But in India, it’s all a grey area. The cops may not be able to file a case against me for brewing but can for keeping excessive alcohol.”

We asked around to find out what the law exactly said but it turned out that it wasn’t clearly defined. “There is no specific law on homebrewing in India,” says Sapan. It is illegal to sell or distribute alcohol without a license in India. Even if it is for personal consumption, the law varies across various states on what the permissible amount for storage is. Also, the laws talk about possession and not production, making the legality confusing. Mohit* points out that in 2012, a Mumbai-based lady who made liquor chocolates had her home raided under the Bombay Prohibition Act. He adds, “It’s best to do this quietly, even if it really is about the love of creating something we are passionate about rather than anything sinister.”

Given the discreet nature, meetups happen in people’s homes. The rules are clear. Everyone gets the beers they have brewed and no outside beers are allowed. The beers are tasted and critiqued, and notes exchanged. It’s a bit like a chefs’ meet, in secret.

Making it Happen

Making beer at home isn’t extremely expensive, say all the homebrewers we speak to, unless you invest in specialised equipment. The basics—including an alcohol thermometer, a hydrometer, a small refrigerator with temperature control—can cost around Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000. There are some home brewing kits available online in India as well, though most homebrewers VICE spoke to made their own DIY equipment. You always have a choice of investing in fancier and much more expensive equipment. “But if you’re going for the basics, you can make beer for as low as Rs 60-70 a litre,” says Sapan. Most homebrewers make around 8-10 litres at a time, though the automatic brewing machines used by some can brew up to 22 litres.

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A coffee stout made by Sapan (left) and a beer brewed by Gopal

Apart from the easy availability of equipment, homebrewers are also finding easy access to legit information, thanks to the mushrooming of microbreweries. Many have even worked with them to create innovative beers. Mumbai’s Gateway Brewing Company has done Kaapi Stout and Pune’s Effingut Brewerkz has done a jaggery ale—both by roping in those with an interest in the science of brewing. “In 2016, Bangalore’s Arbor Brewing Company collaborated with beer enthusiasts to brew a 1,000-litre batch called Beteljuice, which was a pale ale with betel leaves and lemongrass,” says Eapen. The recipe for Beteljuice came from Karthik Singh, 29, a former homebrewer who has now moved on to brew professionally—a natural progression many homebrewers seem to be following.

“My entire foundation as a brewer is from homebrewing,” says Shailly Bist, head brewer and co-founder, Independence Brewing Company, Pune and Mumbai. “I started by homebrewing in the US (which was federally legalised in the ’70s, and is considered the foundation of the craft beer industry). Out there, it’s a strong counterculture. My homebrewing there completely shaped me as a brewer and all my learning came from there.”

Like Bist, the love for good beer is what led mechanical engineer and homebrewer Sameer Sohoni to join Great State Aleworks, a brewery in Pune. Brewing at home used to be a weekend activity for Sohoni, who quit his job in January 2018 to intern at the brewery. His homebrewing experience of five years went a long way in helping create the base. “When it comes to the process, brewing remains the same, whether you do it on a big scale or a small homebrewing scale,” he tells VICE. “You have an understanding of how a certain hop might affect the beer, what environment the yeast needs to ferment properly, how to control the right temperature, and what is absolutely necessary when it comes to sanitation.”

Singh, now head brewer at Yellow Submarine, Bengaluru, started brewing at home back in 2014. His professional journey started off after he collaborated with not just Arbor Brewing Co but also a couple of other brewpubs in Gurgaon and Bangalore. “Homebrewing opens you up to other career options if you love this and I have been lucky enough to have some good mentors,” says Singh. Some like Sapan have continued with their day jobs but also taken on consulting gigs. He helped set up Kimaya Brewing Company in Pune, and his Vanilla Porter is on their menu.

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Karthik Singh first started off as a homebrewer before moving on to brew professionally—a natural progression many homebrewers seem to be following.

Even if on a small scale, a trend seems to be afoot. Bist adds that in Maharashtra, more than half the breweries have been started by people who have been homebrewers. “Breweries like Independence Brewing Company, Doolally, Great State, Gateway are all products of people who were homebrewers and passionate about beer.”

The homebrewing community may lie low for now but sooner or later, the froth is likely to spill over.

*Names changed on request

Follow Reshmi Chakraborty on Twitter.