Though it is the time for resolutions traditionally, I shall treat it as an occasion for a certain confession. Something that I time and again look back at warmly and almost always mop off my mind as a standard slip-up of the growing up days. Well, what slips-ups one usually does in young adulthood, more so in the early ‘90s in a place which is even today considered a tier-3 city in the distant North East… perhaps taking the first drag from a borrowed cigarette, the first sip of a beer — guiltily laughing more with friends than drinking it — along with, of course, owning your first pair of high heels, a box of eye shadow and lipsticks, pink and red.
So, here I am, talking (okay, confessing) about my first encounter with that fizzy swig, which — I so clearly remember still — had put me in a rather tight spot. I had to decide, to nip it or not. If no, you are among friends and then instantly you become not quite one of them. If yes, then what kind are you? “Fast?” Oh, what a common word it was in my college days! And how I hated it. (I still do.) Really, such a meaningless term to label someone society considers stray.
Anyway, my first sip of beer (a shady-looking tall bottle of Asia 72) was in a dingy, hole-in-the-wall kind of a place on a busy highway. I didn’t find it too different from having a sip of, say, Eno, seriously! And then waited endlessly for it to ‘hit’ me. Well, it didn’t, and I was so baffled and remember thinking what all the fuss was about.
Many, many summers later, far away from that dusty tier-3 city, I can straightaway identify with Pradeep Gidwani when he tells me, “Our idea is to take beer out of the bar or a club scene, the dark and pokey corners where you don’t want anyone see you entering.” Gidwani, to whom often goes the credit of bringing to India brands like Carlsberg, Foster’s and Tuborg, started The Pint Room in Ambience Mall, Vasant Kunj, New Delhi, two years ago. Perched on the concept, “easy drinking, the way coffee is drunk.”
So The Pint Room has no dim lights, no pokey dark corners, no heavy door that shuts the world. Rather, it has sides that give a good view of the glitzy mall. Shoppers can see what is going on in the sizeable hall with plain wooden tables and easy chairs and sofas in red. “I want to give it a good hangout zone kind of feeling. The idea is to create a beer culture in our cities, places where people can relax with no fuss. Look at Europe; you have so many options like that. Beer is drunk even in business meetings, my point is, and let’s keep a low-alcohol drink like beer out of the bars. After water and tea, it is the third largest beverage consumed in the world,” he says. A bar, he rightly points out, “has barely six months’ longevity. Then the crowd moves on to the next one in the news.” Being an insider for decades, Gidwani didn’t need to take the market research route — he “knew what works” — nor did he take “the route to hype the place.”
The Pint Room, which now has an outlet in Mumbai, stocks 40-odd brands from across the world. “The widest variety you can have of beer in India, no five stars have it,” he says. He walks me through the place, points at the beer taps, says, “We have six beers on tap, the only one in Delhi to have such a variety.”
The refrigerators are kept on 24/7, “unlike in many bars.” Here he recalls a memory, “When I was with Kingfisher, I would go on checks to outlets and would take out the bottle at the bottom of the freezer. Almost always, it would be warm, which meant they switched off the refrigerator at night. Often such bottles have flat beer; it affects the taste.”
So what sells at The Pint Room? “I find customers keen on trying out new brands. I have beer for Rs.150 also but customers often go for the ones that cost Rs.450 for a 330 ml bottle, or even Chimay, the popular Trappist beer, which costs around Rs.2,000 for a bottle, or maybe Tsingtao from China. So the idea clearly seen here is not getting drunk but a willingness to taste new products and have a good time,” says Gidwani. To help customer understand the origin and taste of each beer, he hands them a guide too.
Does it also mean that today’s customers are not loyal to a brand, like it used to be before? “Well, earlier you never had the choice,” he replies. “But there will come a time when customers will get used to the brands and choose their brand,” he adds.
During the chat, he raises vital arguments. “Country liquor is the biggest segment in India, 70 per cent of the market, and yet the least amount of taxes are levied from it. The quality of country liquor is hardly checked, so we regularly have cases of death, blinding, etc. due to its consumption. This sector also leads to things which are at the root of various social issues, and yet the Government doesn’t levy heavy taxes on them.” He gives the instance of Russia here. “On realising that vodka is leading to social issues like drunkenness, etc., it charged heavy taxes on it, which led people to switch to low-alcohol drinks like beer. Today, Russia is the fourth largest beer market in the world. You can always hike taxes on beer slowly. But our Government clubs low-alcohol drinks like beer, which has 92 per cent water, with spirits which have 42 per cent alcohol.”
So, a beer that enters India is levied heavy taxes. “First, you have to pay about 110 per cent duty to Customs and then 50-100 per cent tax to the State Excise Board, plus 20 per cent VAT and 4.94 per cent service tax.” This is the reason, he says, a low-alcohol drink like beer has only one and a half litres consumption per capita in India. “A small country like Vietnam has 25 litres per capita consumption.”
But then, Gidwani is “a passionate beer lover”, has “invested a lot” in The Pint Room and seems game to fight the odds. Undeterred, he is planning to open two more outlets in Mumbai, one in Pune and one in Bangalore.