The White Rhino in the room

David Jesudason meets the Indian brewery with global vision


“Kingfisher accounts for 50% of sales in India. It’s a monopoly,” says Ishaan Puri, founder of White Rhino Brewing Co., a craft outfit based in New Delhi. Ishaan knows exactly how difficult it is to break into a domestic market that has a huge demand for macro lagers above all different types of beer. 

“White Rhino is Indian’s first real homegrown, domestically brewed craft beer. We set up in 2016, but the market is not very craft beer literate. Duties are high, so craft beer costs a lot in India. Kingfisher dominates and the main market is for strong beers [Kingfisher and Carlsberg both have strong beer brands for the Indian market]. 85% of the market is strong beer. People don’t really know much about beer styles. But in pockets of the metro [areas] they are now more familiar with different styles – Bangalore and Pune have the best brew pubs in the country.”  

We meet in Gladstone, a pub in Borough, South London, that reflects the best of both India and Britain with its excellent fusion food (chicken tikka pies) and booze (craft, cask and Indian rums). It was here a few weeks before our interview that I spotted White Rhino IPA in one of its fridges and was immediately struck by how this was the first example I’d seen of a de-colonialised Indian Pale Ale.

Brewed using Indian spices, here finally is an IPA that isn’t marketed as a romanticised British imperialist drink and, of course, it tasted amazing. This isn’t a product brewed for history’s greatest plunderers – the East Indian Company – but an IPA that aims to smash into a heavily keg-based market, as well as being so good it’s exported to Britain. This is not a niche product.

“I want it to be a world beer,” says Puri. “Look at how successful Asahi and Peroni have become by not positioning themselves as Japanese or Italian beers, but as world brands. Our IPA, Pale Ale or Lager are perfect candidates for someone who wants to keep a slightly offbeat, non-conventional, beer on their menu.” 

White Rhino also brews a Witbeer which, like all the European classics in its line-up, is given a unique Indian twist by Puri, who went to brewing school in Sunderland about a decade ago. 

 “We use coriander from Rajasthan,” he says. “One of the varieties is called Eagle and it is stored immediately after harvest. It gives you a nice darkness and lemon. 

“It doesn’t taste like a generic Belgium wheat beer, and that’s what I wanted to achieve. I wanted to make a beer with a slight Indian identity. I knew wheat beers would do very well in India because they don’t like bitterness.”

He might have a point, because the wheat beer accounts for 80% of his sales in India and this shows how Puri has adapted quickly to match his customers’ needs. But the first Belgian ale that he tasted was Hoegaarden about 20 years ago and this is what started his quest to improve the beer in India.

“We had nothing at the time like that in India,” he says. “When I was in school it was just Kingfisher. So I started experimenting. Dogfish Head was becoming big then and Brooklyn Brewery, Magic Hat and Sam Adams. I’m from the second wave of the craft beer movement – we’re talking East Coast – and these beers were the ones that influenced me.”

Hoegaarden and the US East Coast may have been inspiring forces, but his beer voyage took an unexpected turn for three months in Sunderland when he learned about British brewing. This was his cask initiation and he talks fondly of this period, where he and his fellow students submitted a beer for the Newcastle beer festival. 

“The beer was served using sparkler,” he says. “If there’s a little carbonation in the beer already and it’s been allowed to condition in the cask, then served through a sparkler you do get a nice head and a nice soft mouth feel to the beer. I started liking cask beers a lot and I learned you need to manage and treat them well.” 

As a brewer with these very British tastes – he also seeks my advice for pubs that pour a good pint of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord in London (very few, sadly) – it means knowing you can put them to good use, but you still must always place the consumer first. Especially because cask is something Puri is very keen on but the conditions, including India’s climate, mean its not conducive to moving volumes in the domestic market.

“Cask doesn’t sell,” he says. “In a microbrewery here 5%-10% of customers might drink an IPA – you can always allocate a small tank to an IPA. But all this is very challenging because of registration fees.

“These fees are very high, and if I launch a new IPA in my home state where I’m brewing, I pay a fee, then I also have to pay a label registration fee in every other state I sell the beer in.”

This arrangement makes it tricky to even be a moderately successful craft brewer in India and, to make matters worse, there’s no bottle shop culture as most ‘off licence’ trade is at state-licensed liquor shops. These are volume-heavy establishments where it isn’t a pleasurable shopping experience to say the least – one Indian friend even says she doesn’t feel safe shopping there as a female customer. 

On the right: Ishaan Puri, the founder

Whatever the case, the people who own these shops have to pay a lot for the licence to sell booze – a leitmotif in the country it seems – and therefore there’s no time or profit to be made curating beer for a customer when there’s so much pressure on volume sales.   

So the answer for Puri is to sell his great beer in the UK market, where his White Rhino lager and IPA is distributed by James Clay, and is how it ended up being displayed proudly in the Gladstone. 

It’s already been proved highly successful at high-end restaurants, such as Lucky Cat by Gordon Ramsay and two Michelin-starred Restaurant Sat Bains in Nottingham. And in Crystal Palace, Joanna’s dispense their beer without White Rhino having set foot in the place, proving the brand’s word-of-mouth popularity.  

“Most of our customers are restaurants and bars,” Puri says. “And we are in talks with a few about adding White Rhino on draught.”

I suspect that Puri will be successful and White Rhino will start to become ubiquitous, especially because the IPA is really fresh and with lovely Indian scents. Maybe it could even be the start of something incredible; an Indian Pale Ale we can all drink that has been marketed without glorifying colonial times. 

Puri certainly would be the right person to popularise this ethical IPA with his Indian persona but deep links to this country. In many ways, he’s like White Rhino’s IPA: taking the best bits of India and Britain but with a strong influence from the US craft beer scene. 

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