How Does The Indian Made Bira Stack Up?
Since Bira 91‘s launch in 2015, the country has literally gone ape shit about this Indian imagined Craft Beer and for good reason. It’s the first successful pan Indian Craft Beer since Geist.
I tried my first sample of Bira in August 2015 when Bira’s CEO, Ankur Jain had a few samples of the Bira Blonde and White sent to my doorstep. The Beers were a refreshing change from the somewhat mundane selection of lagers one is normally subjected to here in Karnataka. The Beers were well made and well suited to Indian palates and came at a premium price but still cheaper than several imports. You can read about my initial impression of Bira in these posts:
In the months to follow, Bira’s popularity grew and prices fell resulting in a much expected boost in sales across major metros but also created a supply chain issue for various reasons. Consumers across the country were encouraged to post where they were finding Bira using the #FoundBira hashtag. Stocks came in waves and sold out quickly. Thirsty Bira fans were quick to snatch up cases once in stock. The Bira monkey had its foothold. Branding and Marketing – absolutely brilliant and as a result, B9 Beverages, Bira’s parent company was quick to find another round of much needed international funding.
Bira had been contract manufactured in a Belgian brewery but it was time to bring the Monkey home and produce both beers locally if the brand really wanted to spread its wings across the entire nation.
Shifting production sites is no easy task not just from a logistical stand point but from a quality control stand point. Beer is made from 4 ingredients – Water, Malt (typically Barley), Hops & Yeast, as well as other spices and additives required. Matching the water profile by far is the trickiest. Malt, Hops & Yeast are typically standardized in the Craft Beer sector with most manufacturers importing these from Europe.
Bira is still being contract brewed but this time out of a factory close to Indore, Madhya Pradesh. Regent Beers & Wines Ltd houses Bira’s current production line. The location is central meaning country wide distribution will not be a problem. Hopefully this will solve previous supply chain issues and ensure a wider distribution network.
Bira have still stuck to 2 variants – The Bira Blonde (Lager) and Bira White (Belgian style Wit) in 330 ml bottles however they also decided to launch both variants in a can format – 500 ml.
Producing in India means better price points for consumers and now Bira variants sells around the Rs 100 mark across India making them extremely competitive when compared to local commercial brews such as Kingfisher Premium that retails here in Karnataka for Rs 75.
So how does the Indian made Bira stack up with the previous batches made in Belgium. Fortunately, I had a sample of the Belgian made Bira white to compare with it’s Indian made counterpart.
For the Blonde, I had to rely on previous tasting notes and my mental memory of the taste profile.
Before we get into the differences in flavor profiles, let’s look at some of the other subtle differences.
Bottle Design & Labeling
There’s a change in the shape in the bottle. The new bottle seems thinner, lighter in color with Bira 91 now embossed in the glass along with the Bira Monkey logo.
Please note that these changes hold true for the Bira Blonde bottles as well.
There is a marked difference with format of the rear label – information is now monochrome and more compact.
The Indian made Bira now has labeling on the cap which the Beligan made Bira bottle crowns did not have.
Both had similar color profiles however the Indian made White was clearer and slightly lighter in color. Head retention and carbonation were the same across both samples.
The Beligan Bira has the tell tale aroma of a typical Belgian Wit – a mix of sweet and spicy – citrus notes form the orange peel with some spice notes from the coriander and an overall floral/perfume like aroma.
The Indian made Bira was quite different. Dominated with a citrus aroma with little or no spice character and no floral/perfume like aroma whatsoever. Smells very different.
The Belgian Bira is light to medium bodied whereas the Indian one is much lighter in composition and feels a tad watered down.
The Belgian one is sweeter, crispy and citrusy and smooth on the palate with low bitterness. The Indian one is far less sweeter, crispy, more citrusy resulting in a tinge of sourness and finishes less smoothly and is also low in bitterness.
One thing I did notice was the Belgian Bira is opaque for a reason – it is unfiltered with a yeast residue/sediment in the bottom of the bottle and in suspension. The yeast strain used for a Belgian Wit contributes to the overall flavor of the Beer and hence not filtering is the preferred route.
In the image above, you’ll see the sediment in the Belgian sample whereas the India sample has no sediment at all. This definitely has played a part in altering the flavor profile.
The Indian made Bira White is certainly palatable but feels quite flimsy when it comes to aroma, body/mouthfeel and overall flavor.
On examining the ingredients, both have the same set of ingredients. I am not sure if the orange peels used are local or imported and I believe local coriander would have been used.
There is absolutely no difference with the Indian batches from the can – both were exactly the same.
I spoke to Bira’s head brewer in Indore about this and as suspected the Indian batches have been heavily filtered and pasteurized resulting in a different flavor profile.
Not a bad attempt by Bira to recreate the White but there’s still some catching up to do to match or exceed the standards set by prior Belgian batches.
Bottle Design & Labeling
Please see the notes for Bira White.
The Indian made Bira is similar in color to the Belgian ones however head retention and carbonation do vary quite a bit. The Indian made Bira seems to have low head retention and lower carbonation.
The samples of Bira I’ve tested went flat quite quickly which was quite surprising.
The Belgian made Bira I remember had this distinct sweetness in addition to the maltiness. The Indian made Bira is malty but the aromas from the adjuncts used do make their presence known and there is no sweetness present.
On the palate, light bodied as expected with plenty of crispiness and manliness but less sweetness and the finish albeit bitter is different from what I remember the Belgian Bira to be. There is a definite difference in flavor profiles.
This Beer is definitely easy to drink and in terms of flavor now very similar to some of the mass produced Beer out there in the market such as Miller’s High Life.
The question we must ask ourselves is how is this Bira Blonde different from a commercial lager in terms of flavor? Does it stand out enough to be labelled a Craft Beer?
There’s a difference in the grain bill of the Belgian batches vs the Indian ones. Maize was being used in addition to Barley for the Belgian batches but the Indian batches now also have Rice added in addition to the Maize used.
The introduction of Rice helps lighten the Beer’s flavor, mouthfeel and color and could explain why there is a difference in flavor.
I’ve always been a fan of Bira and this isn’t going to change. This brand has achieved what not many in the sector have and we’ve all heard of and at times experienced teething issues. They are bound to happen and I am confident that Bira will iron out these flavor issues and come out with batches even better than those produced in Belgium.
India’s Craft Beer scene is still in its nascent stages and all of us have a long way to go and there is bound to be lots of learning along the way.
As consumers, please remember that and do your best to support the local Craft Beer movement from brewpubs to brands such as Bira, White Rhino & Witlinger. These guys are the pioneers setting the stage for India’s Craft Beer scene.
Cheers and Stay Frothy!
JJ The Keg
All Images Courtesy: Tales Of Froth