Why does India prefer beer to wine?

Asks if the much vaunted view that wine is not the best drink to pair with spicy Indian food true

Has beer overtaken wine as young India’s drink of choice? To continue the question, what can the wine industry do about it? But first, some figures. Bangalore has about 85 brewpubs. It doesn’t
have a single wine bar. Go into The Bier Library on a Friday evening and you’ll have to wait in line for a seat. Why is this so?

“Beer is accessible, less pretentious, lower priced, available in a single serve, made by Indian brew masters for Indian palates and suits Indian food,” says Devesh Agarwal, past president of the Bangalore Wine Club and founder of The Wine Connoisseurs group. Now, his wine friends fear that they may lose him to beer.

The other difference between beer and wine has to do with expertise and ingredients, says Agarwal. Beer is made by local brew masters and uses foreign ingredients (hops, malt, etc). Wine, on the other hand, uses local ingredients — the grapes are grown in India — but relies on foreign winemakers for expertise. Local brew masters tweak the drink to suit the Indian palate. Foreign winemakers force the Indian palate to change for the wine. Is this a sustainable situation in a country with as robust a culture of food as India?

A long time ago, an American wine writer, in response to a reader’s question on “which wine goes with Indian food”, answered “Beer.” When I first read this, I felt enraged because I thought the American wine writer brought with him biases about Indian cuisine and our country’s relatively new appreciation for wine. After all, beer came with the British while wine is only a few decades old in India. But now, maybe it is time to accept the truth that wine perhaps is not the best libation to go with our spicy Indian food.

But this doesn’t mean that wine is a lost cause in India. For the wine culture to grow here, we need to look at non-European cultures that have created a love for wine. Take the US for instance. It had total prohibition, it is considered a “new world,” but within a short period of time, it has created an ecosystem for wine. One reason is because early winemakers didn’t treat wine with the preciousness and reverence that it is accorded in India. Sure, wine appreciation needs to happen, but for that a wine palate needs to be fostered. The way America did it was by simply nudging more young people to drink more wine. They created wine spritzers, wine coolers, Sangrias, put wine in tetrapaks, and bottled cheap wine in gallon jugs — all of which got more young people to pour themselves a glass.

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In India, only now are we putting wine in tetrapaks, but it is an important first step. What does a youngster want when he drinks? He wants a tasty glass of alcohol that he can afford. Wine in India starts at Rs 900 a bottle. You can get a can of beer for Rs 150.

In Europe, particularly in France, Italy or Spain, wine is considered part of the family meal. We all know that. Pouring a thimbleful of wine into a child’s glass just so he can say “Cheers,” is normal in families. India, on the other hand, has a cultural aversion to alcohol. A significant portion of our population is teetotal. Even though this is slowly changing, beer seems to be reaping the benefits faster than wine.

There are a few small steps taken to popularise wine. The last time I visited Grover Vineyards, I tasted wine infused with paan-like flavours. I expected to hate it, but found it familiar and delicious. It would likely go very well with a South Indian banana leaf dinner. Grover is also playing around with other Indian flavours. It is likely that other large wineries are doing the same.

The great thing is that wine doesn’t need to crack the entire Indian market in order for it to gain ground. Most urban Indians these days are well-travelled and love non-Indian cuisines. We may go home to our ghar-ka-khana but are quite happy eating bread and cheese or pasta — foods which naturally work with wine.

The focus, I feel, should be on making wine popular with young people. In order to do that, wine bars are a great way to go. Put on some good music, create some cool vibes and pour wine at a price point that a first-time employee can afford.