Urban Indians are developing a taste for freshly brewed and bottled craft beer.
Dhruv Munjal, Ranjita Ganesan and Nikita Puri spread out across Delhi NCR, Mumbai and Bengaluru to meet the growing tribe.
The paltry early evening crowd at Factory by Sutra doesn't seem to fluster assistant manager Milap Thakur. It is Saturday at Gurugram's sector 29, the city's new and wildly popular carousing zone, and Thakur, a gangling, bearded man in his late 20s, is preparing for one of his incredibly busy workdays.
Factory, a microbrewery that opened last year, has quickly established itself as a favourite among locals, with visitors dropping in by the dozens every evening.
At the bar where Thakur briefs his staff, a couple of bartenders pour out three different types of freshly brewed beer -- wheat, lager and dark roasted -- in shot glasses.
"Customers can try all our beers before ordering one," he says.
Within half an hour, the dimly lit restaurant is crammed with mostly youngsters; several tables have tall pitchers of beer plonked on them. More modishly dressed people make their way up through the beer-barrel-themed elevator.
"We serve other drinks, too. But people come here only for beer," says Thakur, visibly hassled by the crowd pouring in.
Over in Mumbai, at the Lower Parel outlet of Woodside Inn, tables begin filling up by 7 pm as people from local offices arrive for post-work discussions. A glass of beer sits next to their burgers and Macbooks.
Woodside Inn is known for having a drastic 25-tap wall, among the biggest in the country.
It is housed in a part of Todi Mills nicknamed "the beer gully", close to Barking Deer, the city's first craft brewery that sees otherwise serious professionals getting up on chairs to dance.
At Arbor, one of Bengaluru's best-loved breweries, the interiors are a blend of tavern-style long benches, and smaller tables with metal chairs for a more intimate setting.
Tall glasses of cold beer dominate all the tables: there are no pints or towers on the tables here. Instead, one glass is replaced by another as guests stick to long-time favourites, like the Smooth Criminal.
As suave as its name, the ale's smoothness lies in its core ingredients: honey and lavender flowers.
The Indian youngster is clearly smitten by the yeasty and frothy goodness of beer.
According to a report by BMI Research earlier this year, India's days as a beer-consuming lightweight may be coming to an end, mainly due to young and increasingly affluent customers, and changing attitudes towards alcohol.
India's per capita beer consumption last year was 4.6 litres, ridiculously thin when compared with the Asian average of 57 litres.
"Despite this, we believe India holds significant long-term growth potential as a beer-drinking culture," BMI said.
Overwhelming throngs at guzzling joints seem to be proving the prophecy right.
In Gurugram's sector 29 itself, the number of microbreweries operating in the area has risen to around 25 in the past year. A decade ago, that number across the country was a lowly two.
On weekends, traffic snarls leave the space crippled.
Nishant Sinha, a 29-year-old who works as a sales manager at a multinational, says that he visits the beer hub every weekend. "I like to experiment with new beers -- each place has different offerings here. So, I try out a new one every once in a while."
"The guests we get are generally between 25 and 40. That's the age fuelling all lifestyle businesses," says Gaurav Sikka, managing director at Arbor.
Drinkers such as Sinha show little reluctance in spending heftily on beer. Despite almost all fresh beers being expensive, their consumption is often copious, owing to their light and smooth texture.
"It comes down to spending power, too. None of these places would be doing so well if people weren't willing to shell out the bucks," says Neel Kamal Tyagi, manager at sector-29's Walking Street.
Sayantan Mukherjee is discernibly passionate about all things beer.
Before choosing to take up the job of brew master at Gurugram's Prankster, he spent nine years brewing beer in Nepal. The musical din at Prankster forces Mukherjee to step out and talk, in a narrow lobby embellished with beer posters.
"Aroma", "enzymes" and "yeast" are terms nonchalantly interspersed between his sentences. "Reinvention" is something that is also repeatedly brought up.
"Beer is the future. Whether it is fresh, craft or even old-school beer, the takers will only grow," he says.
At Prankster, the bespectacled Mukherjee is brewing Irish dark roasted, Munich lager and apple cider beer, a quirky new flavour added to the menu only a few months ago.
The ecstatic response to microbreweries has been complemented by a steady influx of new bottled craft beer brands in the market.
Apart from the hugely favoured Bira 91, which was launched two years ago and sold over 700,000 cases in 2016, brands such as Witlinger and White Rhino are trying to make their way up in a market where drinking out is quickly becoming an elemental part of the social milieu.
"When we were creating White Rhino, our goal was to carve out a segment for discerning consumers who are willing to pay a little more for a better product, and we've been very successful at that," says Ishaan Puri, the company's founder. White Rhino, brewed and bottled in Malanpur on the outskirts of Gwalior, is truly India's first domestic craft beer.
And it is the taste -- something almost unthinkable only a few years ago -- that is driving these brands as well as microbreweries to deliver better products.
"Before developing Witlinger, we were aware about the change in drinking patters in India. Consumers were not merely drinking to get intoxicated but they were drinking to enjoy the drink," says Anuj Kushwah, founder and managing director, Kaama Breweries, the maker of Witlinger.
For instance, Mittal S, a Mumbai-based executive, says that while she prefers wine, she has warmed up to craft beers because "they taste crisp and light". She likes the Spark, a Belgian wit brewed by White Owl near her office, or heads to Doolally for a German-style Hefeweizen.
Most tellingly, she is willing to spend ₹275 for a pint, which is not much more than the price of a glass of bottled lager.
Nikunj Arora, a 25-year-old legal intern from Delhi, has ditched his old buddy, Kingfisher Premium, and gleefully embraced the White version of Bira 91 -- its slightly sugary taste is something he relishes. The fact that it is more expensive than Kingfisher, and he quaffs several of them in one ago, doesn't seem to deter him.
Young guzzlers do still go in for pitchers of Kingfisher and happy hours deals, but their preferences later move to handcrafted drinks, made in small breweries with workers manually peeling oranges or mangoes.
"Those in their second or third job, typically earning more than ₹30,000 a month, want a better product. They can afford to explore and try new things," says Navin Mittal from Mumbai's Gateway Brewing Co.
A blend of sweeter aftertastes and ambrosial textures has ensured that there is a clear emergence in demand for good quality beers, typically in the around 5 per cent alcohol by volume bracket.
"From a moral perspective, beer is easily accepted," says Woodside Inn co-founder Pankil Shah. "We have been drinking it for longer than wine or spirits. Cough syrup probably has more alcohol."
Sales of craft beer, according to the All India Brewing Association, are growing 20 per cent year-on-year.
Even for some of the more expensive foreign beers, sales have been brisk.
Anil Agarwal, CEO of Delhi-based Hema Connoisseur Collections that imports the German beer Erdinger, says that business has gone up 30 times in the past five years.
"Many people are veering away from whisky. It is 'cool' to be having beer and wine now," feels Agarwal.
Apart from the cultural sanction, there are the facts that craft beer seems healthier, and people are willing to spend more on a fresh product. A resolute obsession for organic beverages is feeding this change.
At Gurugram, brewers say that the sale of fresh beer thumpingly outnumbers that of bottled beer. "On most days it's 70:30 in favour of freshly brewed beer," reckons Thakur.
Wheat beer, for instance, is preferred for -- apart from a cloudy texture -- its high protein content.
But in a dynamic, burgeoning market, no one is willing to revel too much in their success: constant innovation seems to be swiftly becoming more of a compulsion than choice.
Sikka believes that besides quality, it's the "bold and innovative varieties" that bring people back.
One of the newest brews at Arbor include a batch of the Salted Caramel Porter, a robust drink that tastes like caramel malt, and has sea salt and jaggery as the influencing flavours.
With summer swinging its might across the country, mango-infused brews are in high demand, like the Aam Aadmi Ale that is currently on the taps at Toit Brewpub, another one of Bengaluru's favourites.
"That's the beauty of micro brewing and craft beer," says Arun George of Toit, "We are constantly experimenting, trying to use local ingredients [fruits, spices], in an attempt to come up with innovative beers."
Gateway's effervescent White Zen, its most popular drink, and the bitter Doppelganger are available on tap in as many as 85 pubs and restaurants. A customer affinity for adventure has even encouraged Mittal to invent new drinks with seasonal, local ingredients such as cardamom and saffron.
The commitment to quality, too, remains honest.
"We have never been interested in expansion at the expense of our quality," states Puri. "The people who drink our beer would never forgive us if we suddenly started churning out mediocre beer just for the sake of being in different markets."
The fact that the new craft beer brands and microbreweries only have a niche following has ensured that the big boys aren't sweating. Moreover, with India being a market chiefly steered by strong beer, which accounts for almost 80 per cent of total sales, there is little perceptible worry.
The overall beer industry, however, has been witnessing a slump, with sales down 2 per cent in FY17.
"When it comes to the newcomers, the competition is negligible. The market has slowed down considerably in the past year or so, because of prohibition and the Supreme Court order on sale of liquor on highways," says Samar Singh Sheikhawat, senior vice-president (marketing), United Breweries. "In the mass market, the real potential is in the stronger easier-to-drink beers."
Late last month, UB, which has a 52 per cent share in the Indian beer market, announced the launch of Kingfisher Storm, a strong brew slated to take on Carlsberg, which has rapidly acquired a 15 per cent share in the market in the past few years.
Mahesh Kanchan, director (marketing), Carlsberg India, says that excessive regulation and the complex nature of the Indian market is also a problem in the case of mainstream beer.
"Chilling capacity is another worry. While competition is good for the market, we need to make things simpler," he argues.
At boisterous pubs and restaurants teeming with beer drinkers and brewers, however, competition is a reality far removed from their lives. For most of them, beer drinking -- and making -- is a community-building exercise that involves cultivating experimental cultures and educating fellow customers.
And, experts opine that this youthful community will only grow. In a rigid whisky-drinking country, beer may have finally arrived.