By Ananaya Banerjee
After craft beer, Indian millennials have something new for their palates: mead, an alcoholic beverage that is created by fermenting honey with water and sometimes infused with fruits, spices, flowers or tea to achieve a particular flavour. Interestingly, this drink, which is on the brink of breaking into the Indian market, is already quite a hit in the US, as per a recent report by the American Mead Makers’ Association, which has hailed it as one of the fastest-growing alcoholic beverages in that country. If one taps into the numbers, the report holds out. In 2003, there were around 30 commercial meaderies in the US. Today, there are more than 350. Reports, in fact, estimate that a new meadery opens every three days in the US. If we talk about India, Maharashtra, in 2016, became the first state to formally recognise mead as a category under wine. And the credit for that goes to Pune-based friends and business partners Nitin Vishwas and Rohan Rehani, who the same year approached the Maharashtra State Excise department for a licence to start their venture Moonshine Meadery—India’s first meadery, which opened in 2016 in Pune. The meadery today produces 5,000 litres of mead per month, which is available as of now in Mumbai, Pune and Nashik.
The two 33-year-old co-founders, both engineers by qualification, stumbled on the idea of opening a meadery in 2015 when Vishwas came across an ad on meads in an in-flight brochure on his way to Munich for a work assignment. At that time, he was employed with McKinsey & Company. After coming back from Munich, he discussed the idea with Rehani, who, at that time, was working in Jamnagar, Gujarat. The two decided to first try their hand at making mead themselves. “It started as a home-brewing project initially. We wanted to push the envelope in terms of what is doable in alcohol,” says Vishwas. “When we brewed and sampled our batch of mead, we had no idea what it was supposed to taste like.” But even though their brew didn’t have the desired taste, “it definitely had potential”, says Vishwas, who worked with McKinsey & Company till 2015 after which he joined Abbott India as associate director. He resigned from his position at Abbott this month and is now invested full-time in Moonshine Meadery.
The two then turned to the Internet for help on brewing techniques, measurements and specifications. But the turning point was when Vishwas’ wife brought back home a bottle of mead from her trip to the US, giving the duo a reality check about the quality of product they wanted to create. “We realised the gap between our brew and the commercial ones being manufactured in other countries,” says Vishwas, adding, “That’s when Rohan quit his job and threw himself into it completely… I, however, kept double-hatting for a while,” says Vishwas. Rehani shifted to Pune in 2015.
After quitting his job, Rehani pursued special courses on bee keeping from the Central Bee Research and Training Institute, Pune. Later in 2015, he interned with Colony Meadery in Pennsylvania, US, to understand the nuances of mead-making and learn the required skills to open a successful commercial venture. By the end of the year, the two were ready to launch their venture, funded with the help of friends and family. “One of our main reasons for bringing mead to India was the fact that Indian cuisine pairs extremely well with it, as the flavour of honey on the palate balances out the spices and masala in the food,” says Vishwas.
To the uninitiated, mead as a drink may sound like an absurd concept, as it’s basically honey mixed with water and yeast. Mead, however, is known to have been around for ages, with its earliest mentions traced to Greek, Roman, Nordic, Chinese and even Indian mythology and folklore. Rehani and Vishwas, though, have brought in the newest and best knowledge of the process into their product. “The process that we understood was a cusp between beer and wine. There is no ‘boil’ process in meads. It is, however, similar to how grapes are fermented to make wine,” says Vishwas.
So what’s the differentiating factor between each type of mead that they produce? “The percentage of alcohol the mead is allowed to have and what it’s infused with,” says Vishwas, adding that the beverage can have an alcoholic content of anywhere between 6% and 20%. The alcoholic potency can be tweaked by raising the ratio of honey to water, he says. Moonshine Meadery, which produces low-potency brews, experimented with a variety of ingredients—from tea leaves and flowers to seeds and citrus fruits—before zeroing in on and bottling its first two flavours: apple cyser (which imbibes the taste of apples from Kashmir) and coffee mead (which has coffee beans from coffee estates in Chikmagalur, Karnataka). The alcohol content is 6% in both.
The founders want to capitalise on the craft beer boom in India and that’s why, they say, they collaborated in the past with craft breweries such as Mumbai-based Doolally and Pune-based Independence Brewing Company, older players in the field, which have an established market in these cities. After their first commercial stakeouts, which were at pop-ups and craft beer festivals in Pune, Mumbai and Nashik in 2016-17, they made their way into the breweries of Mumbai and Pune. By mid-November last year, restaurants and a few select craft beer outlets in Pune, Mumbai and Nashik were serving their meads at Rs 220 for 330 ml, which were well received. The founders now plan to expand to all major Indian cities within the next two years. “Once people develop a taste for it, they’ll look forward to buying a bottle of our mead from a liquor store instead of seeking only a glass or two at a café,” hopes Vishwas.