On a recent visit to Mela Kothi, a resort not too far from the National Chambal Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, we took a boat safari on the gharial and mugger-infested Chambal. It came as a surprise that this very same water is considered among the finest for brewers. A reason, in part, for White Rhino, India’s newest craft brewery, to set up in Gwalior. Five years in the making now, its launch has coincided with an increasing consumer preference towards freshly brewed and craft beer.
To quote Michelle Obama, White Rhino has chosen to “go high” by using high quality, imported malt. They have also been able to coax to India as their master brewer James Garstang, who has worked with a few highly regarded breweries in the UK. The pricing is therefore premium, and they are aiming at discerning beer drinkers and bars / restaurants that have an eye for craft beer. The first two styles of beer launched are a Lager and a Wit (Belgian Style Wheat beer), both excellent, though I must confess that at a recent tasting, I preferred the Lager (note – White Rhino has since then released a V2 for both beers, which I have not yet tasted). Don’t take my word for it, pick up a bottle, or if you live further afield, find someone to get you one!
Wheat beer in India is a natural choice, not just for the brewpubs mushrooming across the country, but also for the craft brewers. Ishaan Puri, a director at White Rhino, explains, “Wheat beers are low in hop character (bitterness) and have a flavour profile for which one doesn’t really need to acquire a taste. The flavour tends to be neutral to mildly floral and citrusy, and it’s very easy to appreciate even for those who aren’t accustomed to European lagers, IPAs (India Pale Ale), stouts, etc.”
You may start a brewery, but will people come? Says Bengaluru-based beer blogger, John Eapen, “there are dedicated craft beer aficionados who take a serious interest in it and there is a growing awareness of craft beer across the country. It is here to stay. However, brands that are only revenue-focused and don’t pay attention to the quality and consistency of their product will fall to the wayside as consumers demand better quality beers and develop their palates to appreciate a plethora of craft beer styles.”
Words that are definitely music to Ishaan’s ears as his next launch is to be an IPA, slated to be the first bottled craft IPA in India (I chose to disregard the short-lived Little Devils attempt, many years ago). IPA is a style of beer which is all the rage the world over; in part due to its extra hoppy character that lends this style of beer its characteristic bitterness and can be dialed up or down, depending on the recipe. Hops are plants that are members of the cannabis family and are used to add aroma and flavour to beer and in the case of IPA to protect it from infection.
IPA is believed to have a close link with India. According to urban legend, it was originally developed in the 18th century to quench the thirst of British garrisons stationed here. The addition of hops helped the beers make it through the 18,000-mile sea voyage in good shape.
It’s going to be a brave launch, especially for a mint fresh brewer like White Rhino, but as Ishaan says, “We’re releasing the IPA because we feel it’s our duty to the craft beer movement in India. It is about educating consumers and building a community, which is very important for craft beer.” Initially, it will be a limited release in Gurugram only. The Wit and the Lager are already available in Delhi, and soon to arrive is White Rhino on tap.
At one point, the White Rhino, the second largest land mammal after the elephant, was on the verge of being poached to extinction. Ishaan’s choice of the name and logo was because, like the animal, he felt their venture, too, was rare, in its unwillingness to cut corners.
The White Rhino is now a conservation success story in Africa, with its numbers back on the rise. Here’s hoping that the beer’s fate is the same.