The largest beer manufacturer of India, United Breweries (UB), recently launched its first craft-beer called ‘Kingfisher Ultra Witbier’ in Panaji. Gurpreet Singh, head of marketing, UB, believes that Witbier tastes a lot different from other beers in the same category. In an exclusive conversation with The Goan, Singh explained how his team arrived at a different taste, the research that went into it and what’s the current craft beer scene in India
Q: Why did it take so long for United Breweries to enter the craft beer market? You guys are the trendsetters otherwise. This is the only case, where you are catching up with the trend.
Gurpreet Singh: Ten years ago, when micro-breweries started coming up in India, we closely observed the trend to check if we should get into this space or not.
While micro-breweries offer a very interesting opportunity as far as beer making is concerned, essentially they are a restaurant business. But, we are a beer manufacturer.
If we had entered that space, it would have meant us to enter into a franchise operation. At that time, we thought micro-breweries weren’t the right category for us to get into. When it came in bottled beer space, we were interested. We also started analyzing where the taste buds of India were heading.
Q: What did your research show about the taste buds of Indian consumers?
GS: A lot of young consumers like the beer which is less bitter, more refreshing. We saw that the wheat beer space was exploding with options. Only when the volume of wheat beer started growing we got a direction in terms of launching our beer.
So far in India, craft beer is all about wheat. Upwards of 80% of all craft beer sold in India is wheat beer. The opportunity for craft was small but the opportunity for wheat beer is there. For a year and a half, we were working and experimenting with different flavours of wheat beer to come out with Witbier.
Even within wheat beer, we had to decide — Should it be cloudy or not? Should it only have the taste of orange or should it also have coriander, nutmeg and other spices? We also realised that while a lot of beer manufacturers are experimenting with craft beer, the Indian palate has not adapted to it.
At some point, it will adapt. As of now, Indian consumers are seeking differentiation and wheat offers you that because it looks and tastes different, it’s less bitter and it’s a bit on the sweeter side.
It will also appeal to segments, like women for example, who don’t normally go for lagers. That is why it took a little time for us to launch Witbier because we wanted to see how the craft space was evolving.
Witbier tastes a lot different from other wheat beers in the market. It is less bitter and it is far more sessionable. Most wheat beers taste great when you have the first glass, but can you have six of them? Very unlikely. But, you can do that with our beer.
Q: Tell us precisely what is craft beer since everyone keeps on talking about it?
GS: Globally, craft beer is different from what is emerging in India. In countries like the US and Germany, craft beer is all about being local. In every locality in those places, there is a different brewer who makes his own beers and people in that area prefer going to him.
Such beer making is more artisanal, which means it is not very standardised in terms of process or ingredients or even the taste.
In India, however, we have bottled beer manufacturers and they are making their versions of craft beer that they have had in other countries. These are very interesting products and they have certainly opened the doors for bigger guys like us.
In India, you don’t have a brewery in Ponda catering exclusively to Ponda consumers. All the craft beers in India are made in big breweries and small batches. In other words, these are craft-style beers and not craft beers in the strictest sense.
Q: How is Goa’s craft beer market different from Bengaluru’s or Delhi’s?
GS: Unlike other states of India, Goans have an undying love for regular mild beers. This is because of the society, community and how people live their lives here.
In Goa, locals don’t have beer only on Friday or Saturday. It’s an everyday phenomenon.
Unlike other states, beer in Goa is not served only at important functions. You’ll see beer in all get-togethers. Culturally, Goans are at an advantage in terms of beer consumption.
In Goa, it’s all about sessionable beers, which means people want their friends and family to be around them while having beers, bonding with each other, telling stories and having long sessions of drinking. Only a mild beer allows you to have long drinking sessions. A strong beer doesn’t.
That’s the reason the market for mild beer is huge in Goa. We have huge expectations from Goa’s market because Witbier is a mild beer.
Q: At some point, are you looking at making Witbier at your Goa plant?
GS: That will take a long time. We have ramped up our Mysore plant to cater to what we believe will be Goa’s demand in 2021. In fact, we are going to service markets of Goa, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Delhi and Haryana from our Mysore plant.
We have ramped up that plant so that we can quickly expand without delays to cater to the expected demand in the summer of 2021.
If this demand explodes in the next six months itself, then we will look at where we go in terms of our second or third brewery.