B&W: AUGUST FEATURE
A TASTE OF INDIA
Rupee’s brewers look to fill a void
WORDS /SAM PFEIFLE
You can be forgiven if you grew up in Maine and never tasted Indian food. A little research says there are only — maybe — 10 Indian restaurants in the state. Many of them have popped up somewhat recently.
The grand-daddy of them all is Bombay Mahal, founded in Brunswick by Raj and Bina Sharma back in 1991 (they also used to own Portland’s Tandoor and Bangor’s Taste of India, but gave them up over the years). It has everything you could want in an Indian restaurant: Crisp and flaky papadam, fluffy and chewy naan, creamy spinach dishes filled with fried cheese, curries that will melt your tongue if you’d like, cool lassies to wash everything down with.
It does not, however, have a particularly robust beer list. Basically, you can get an Allagash White, a Shipyard Export, a Dogfish IPA (naturally, there’s an IPA) — solid options, all, but Indian restaurants aren’t exactly known for their 50+ taps. You can also get a Taj Mahal, however, an “Indian beer,” that only comes in 22-ounce bottles.
And they’re lucky to be able to get that.
“A lot of distributors don’t feel the need to distribute it to Southern Maine,” says Vanit Sharma, son of Raj and Bina. “It’s a loss for them. So they said, ‘You’re more than welcome to come pick it up in Massachusetts.’ But that gets pretty old.”
So, with he and his brother Sumit both home helping the family during covid, they decided to do something radical: design and brew a craft beverage just for the Indian restaurant space, both to be sold in their own restaurant in Maine, but also to be distributed regionally, nationally, and potentially beyond.
“We’ve always been interested in exploring that,” Van says, “but being back because of covid, that just ignited an interest in exploring it further.”
But they weren’t brewers. Far from it. They needed help. Luckily, just down the road from their folks was Maine brewing legend Alan Pugsley, who was instrumental in getting Gritty’s and Shipyard both off the ground, and whose Pugsley’s Brewing Projects International has helped brewers from the U.S. Virgin Islands to California. Plus, as a Brit, he loves a curry shop — the British have so embraced Indian cuisine there’s even a “Brit-Indi” variation.
“He’s British, we were born there, and so it was kind of one connection after another,” says Van. “He was down to come up with a product that was best suited for Indian food — something to pair with spicy, world cuisine. There are lots of beer brands on the market, but not much that pairs well with Indian food.”
Nor is there really anything for the Indian market that’s even close to craft. Kingfisher and Taj Mahal are massive brands brewed by United Beverages and not even sold in India. Cobra is probably the closest, as it started as a pet project in the U.K., but then it exploded. And you can’t get it in the United States anyway.
“When Van contacted me,” says Pugsley, “the first thing we did was go up to the restaurant and taste a whole variety of commercially available lagers that are typically available — Kingfisher, Cobra, we had a whole bunch shipped over from England.”
Van had been working in London before the pandemic struck and couldn’t stop thinking about how just about every pub on every corner had its own special local brew, but every Indian place had the same couple of options. That smelled like opportunity.
“I personally love Indian food,” Pugsley says, “and it’s true: You always have a commercially available lager, but it just doesn’t taste that little extra special.
“So we did a tasting and identified the sort of flavors they were looking for and tasted some food and put together a lager that would be suitable,” he says, “crisp and drinkable, and quite different really from a lot of the beers that are out there, with all the hops. It’s subtle and balanced, using raw materials like maize and rice, and five different malts in the end.”
They also designed it to be low in carbonation, Van notes, since Indian food can be heavy and no one wants a bunch of carbonation in their belly to go along with that.
Ultimately, though, it has to succeed as an enjoyable, great tasting beer if it’s going to compete with giant commercial brands and break into major Indian food marketplaces like Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, DC, and Texas.
“It’s crisp, but it’s not too dry,” says Pugsley, extolling its virtues. “It’s got a great mouth feel, a little hops bounce with the malt. It’s really just a refreshing lager that goes not just with Indian food, but anything spicy. You want something to help with the spice, but not disturb the flavors of what you’re tasting. We did a test batch and we’re glad to say that after the tastings, with family and friends and lots of Indian food, this is where we want to be. This is spot on.”
And like a lot of lagers, it’s relatively low-alcohol, coming in around 4.75 ABV.
The only thing left was what to call it.
As a couple of kids who grew up as one of very few Indians in the Portland public schools — “in third grade you study Native American tribes,” Van remembers, “and that made it hard to understand that we’re from India and not Native Americans” — it was important to Van and Sumit that everything from the name to the design of the 16-ounce can be celebratory of their Indian heritage. They’re also conscious and celebratory of the fact that they’re some of the few people of color in the brewing industry at all.
“We did focus groups,” says Van, “R&D, polled over 200 people on potential names, researched trademarks.” In the end, they settled on Rupee, the name of the currency used in India, but also Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Mauritius, and Seychelles. They liked how it nodded to their parents’ entrepreneurial spirit and their own ambitions of making waves in the Indian restaurant space.
“There’s been basically no innovation here for decades,” Van says. “We want to be a household name when you’re thinking about Indian food and still be really proud from a heritage standpoint.”
This summer, any day now, maybe even by the time you read this article, you can try it for yourself. Just swing by Bombay Mahal, maybe get started with some samosas and pakoras, and settle in with a Rupee. It should make everything go down easy — even if it’s your first time.
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