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Imported Beers is there Opportunity for Growth?

Pradeep Gidwani

Owner & Founder, Pint Room

It was 2010, that we started seeing the growth of imported beer brands in India, and this development largely coincided with the changes that were beginning to take place in the brewing world start of microbreweries in Gurgaon, India, and also the starting up of Beer Cafes that started up.

That’s when we first saw Hoegaarden and Stella Artois from Belgium; they were the only two beers available on tap. Between 2010 – 2012 imported beer really started growing and we saw brands like Leffe, Murphy’s Irish, Fuller’s London Pride, Erdinger, Chimay, Schneider Weisse, Weihenstephaner, Brooklyn brewery brands, Marston’s Pedigree etc. For the first time Indian consumers had a real choice and started seeing beer styles that they had never seen before. Wheat beer started gaining quick acceptance. Connoisseurs started enjoying fine ales and stouts. These brands were expensive because of high import duties and local taxes, but at least consumers had a choice and imported beer brands soon started finding their way into top end hotels, bars and retails particularly in major urban centres of India like Delhi, Gurgaon, Mumbai, Pune & Bangalore.

The import of beers in India is just about beginning to evolve, still at a very nascent stage.

If we look back, till about 2009, largely 2 brands – Heineken and Corona were available. Imports were largely available in 5 Star Hotels, Embassies and also sold Duty Free to ships.

Around 2013, Bira is a brand imagined in India and brewed overseas changed the game. They started importing beers at extremely attractive prices and a good choice of wheat and blonde styles helped them gain quick acceptance in the India market. Around the same time FSSAI regulations came into play and due to the rather complex regulations a lot of imported beer brands like Hoegaarden and Stella went out of the market. Few others who were also not selling volumes decided that it was not viable to continue operations in India and they also stopped imports.

Post this long hiatus, we have again witnessed a surge in imports. Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, Leffe from AB InBev came back quite aggressively in 2016. During this period other brands like Shepherd Neame – Britain’s oldest brewer also started selling in India, in Mumbai and Pune regions. Indian consumers really got a taste of genuine English Ales.

So people are seeing more imported beers in India now.

Three key trends stand out – first one is that the market has evolved and there are various styles of beers being imported into India – Wheat of course dominates, but we now have Stouts, English Ales, Blonde’s, Tequila flavoured beer, Cider’s, etc. The second key trend is the evolution of draught beer or “beer on tap” – today we have Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, Bira Wheat & Blonde, Erdinger Weisse & Dunkel, Fuller’s London Pride, Shepherd Neame Double Stout & Spitfire, Witlinger, to name a few. The third trend was that these imports started making way to other cities across India – small volumes, but at least started making their presence felt in places like Kolkata, Hyderabad, Chandigarh, Goa in addition to the Mumbai and Pune, Delhi NCR & Bangalore markets.

What the imported beer evolution that it has done is definitely exposed Indian consumers to a wider taste profile. This has led to microbreweries in India which were earlier just serving Lager /Strong Lager / Dark and Wheat beers to start experimenting and producing more and varied styles of beers. Doolally and Independence Brewing in Pune, The Biere Club & Windmills Craftworks in Bangalore started brewing new styles / flavours of beer thereby giving Indian consumers more choice at more affordable prices.

So, beer in India has now evolved to Wheat Beer, Stout Beer, and Fine Ales. Women consumers have started enjoying various styles of beers. Beers are now becoming more and more the preferred beverage of choice. Clearly, we have to thank imported beers for creating this change. The second thing that imported beers did was to get more brewers to start producing craft beers in India. Gateway Brewing in Mumbai and Bira started producing locally in India and recently we have seen White Rhino launch their Wit and Lager in Delhi / Gurgaon region. So, overall a great development for the beer industry in India. Imports have therefore clearly paved the way for evolution of varied styles and getting Indian consumers to appreciate a wider taste of beer. There has definitely been an opening up of minds and palates.

So we have a natural growth of imported beers – various styles / draught beers. On the other side we are witnessing “handcuffs” being put on this natural growth phenomenon. Extremely regressive import duties over 100% and rather high local state taxes on top of the import duties have pushed price points of imported beer way beyond what most Indians can afford and probably the most expensive in the world. Most imported beers retail in bars and restaurants for anything between `450–600 while a locally brewed beer retails for anything between `100 to `150. This has pushed imported beers out of reach of many Indian’s unfortunately.

Complex FSSAI regulations make new brand entry a hurdle. This is compounded further with high “brand registration fees” in most states thus making it unviable from stage one itself for small volumes of craft beers to be imported. Lopsided state polices like the one that has just recently been announced in Haryana, giving a monopoly to one company to sell all imported beer in the state will further handcuff the imported beer market growth.

Clearly there is a requirement for good quality imported beers, this is a natural phenomenon in any country and any category but it is sad that the Government policies continue to be the biggest obstacle for growth.

What we need to see in India is the opening up of the Indian market. We have good quality brands that are now produced in India and the government should no longer worry about protection – those days are gone. We have seen from other categories that quality sells and now brands from India are delivering good quality. Secondly, beer should be delinked from spirits and allowed to sell as a consumer product that is lowering of taxation, allowing beer to be sold freely and in grocery stores. This will lead to a revolution and we will see world class craft beers – Chimay which is a Belgian Trappist Ale, Weihenstephaner (world’s
oldest brewery) from Germany, fine IPA’s and from USA and craft beers from Australia, etc.

I would say it’s a pity, these world class beers that are approved by the world, and selling in European bars, do not pass approval by our “High Indian” complex regulatory standard. If they are good for any part of the world, they should be allowed in India as well. That’s what pretty much happens across the world. I think the restrictions should be simplified. We say India is a world class country, but we don’t give world class products? I feel the government should start opening and not control alcohol or any other sector. Why should the Government play any role in deciding consumer choice?

Clearly, the world is now one integrated small village and global trends will come into play, imported beers in India will continue to grow and create more choices for Indian palates.

Cheers! Prost! Salud! Gan Bay! Sante!

What we need to see in India is the opening up of the Indian market. We have good quality brands that are now produced in India, and the Government should no longer worry about protection – those days are gone. We have seen from other categories that quality sells and now brands from India are delivering good quality.


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