Brewed in Bangalore

Zac O’Yeah reminisces about a Bengaluru of yore where seedy taverns served ‘beeru’ by the ‘pintu’, in this extract from his travel memoir.

Published : May 29, 2023 07:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Happy hours in Bengaluru.

Happy hours in Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: K. Murali Kumar

The name Bengaluru is, according to folklore, slang for ‘beer galore’ that harks back to the colonial era. And it isn’t far off the mark. If you were ET and landed anywhere in town, like I did, in the 1990s, there’d be a handy watering hole next to your UFO as attested to by statistical data (three per square kilometre was the norm). Therefore this city attracted lots of aliens who wished to get ‘Bangalored’ as it was called in those days. Slide in through the darkest door in sight, find a comfortable seat away from the sun, and within seconds an unfussy waiter brings a 650 ml lager while other clients mind their own bad habits.

With the outsourcing boom resulting in a hike in disposable income, those jolly yesteryear pubs were torn down. Today, if I happen to be thirsty, I must locate the discreet elevator that takes me to a mall rooftop where, invariably, there’s a hoity-toity cocktail lounge, where fruit-infused beer-on-tap is misspelt ‘biere’ and hard-selling waiters force me to sample overpriced, over-perfumed microbrews.

Cover of Digesting India.

Cover of Digesting India. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Being an aficionado of unfashionably seedy taverns where ‘beeru’ is served by the ‘pintu’, I’m unapologetically backward-gazing these days. For example, I spent so many years lounging in the cane chairs at Dewar’s in Bamboo Bazaar that drunks mistook me for the portrait of Queen Elizabeth that hung behind the bar. The come-as-you-are, become-as-drunk-as-you-must Dewar’s, born in 1933 and gone in 2010, was like a caring mother, a seafaring father, a homely bungalow where labourers in loincloths mingled with us khadi-clad intellectuals and everybody felt safe as the sturdy rosewood tables were too heavy to be used in bar battles. And the rattan chairs too light to cause harm with. The beer snacks were excellent, too. According to the grapevine, the extravagantly generous breadcrumb-coated fish fillets and other dishes like mutton balls and dry brain fry were introduced by an Irishman; after a few pegs to clear the historical haze, regulars recalled his name as Mr Dinky, but he went home to Dublin some years after independence, maybe in the 1960s.

Sarovara in Lavelle Road was another unpretentious beer hall. Across the street from the Bangalore Club where non-members were not welcome, it offered a passé ambience and great prawn fry to go with the chilled brew. Ultimately, the building was sold to some random luxury hotel and today one can only revisit it by watching the gangster epic OM (1995), the Kannada equivalent of The Godfather—its larger-than-life ‘Machchu Longu’-type bar fight directed by Real-Star Upendra was shot at Sarovara and its gardens. Yes, in those days pubs used to have lavish gardens.

Others that vanished post-2000 include the already-mentioned Victoria Hotel that had cool verandas for an afternoon beer, overlooking its vast green grounds (nowadays occupied by Central Mall), and the nearby Carnival, half-garage, half-dive catering to the pub city’s trademark drunk drivers—get a fix and get your two-wheeler fixed at the same time. Less known but equally stunning watering hole Kishore (picturesque gingerbread bungalow at 95, M.M. Road) recently reopened as the non-boozy but charmingly named Beerappa’s Foodcourt while others are most likely awaiting demolition such as the art deco Highway (40, Broadway Road), which used to be a favoured drinkery among ruffians who conducted their wheeling-dealing in the Russell Market’s so-called thieves’ bazaar.

“An era of gold-coloured inebriation is simply over, its legacy more or less lost. ”

An era of gold-coloured inebriation is simply over, its legacy more or less lost. It all began with a Scotsman who founded the Castle Brewery in 1857, giving Bengaluru’s beer an over 160-year-pedigree. Ale was an expensive cargo to ship from England, not to mention that ‘old Blighty beer’ sometimes went bad on the way so that whatever reached Indian shores had frequently turned fairly foul. One report calls imported beer ‘thin and sourish’ and therefore it made sense to start breweries across the country. At that time, the town’s population had just crossed 130,000, half of them living in the Cantonment’s infantry camp, (half in its neighbouring walled old city,) making Bangalore the biggest ‘English’ town in southern India, which was enough to warrant a beer industry. As the demand for potable drinks grew, another called Bangalore Brewing Company was built to cater to army needs in the 1880s on the spot where UB City shopping mall sits today. These, and another three, including the famous Nilgiri Brewery that had been set up some distance away in cooler climes at Ooty, merged into the United Breweries in 1915, known for its classic UB pilsner which remains a perennial favourite. Business thrived and huge barrels of beer were carted across south India.

Excerpted from Digesting India: A Travel Writer’s Sub-Continental Adventures with the Tummy: A Memoir À La Carte by Zac O’Yeah, published by Speaking Tiger Books in May 2023.

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