When Bina and Raj Sharma started serving Indian food to the Mainers at the Bombay Mahal in Brunswick in the early 1990s, they had to travel to Boston or New York to get the ingredients. Suppliers simply did not see Maine as a viable market. Indian beers, like the Taj Mahal or the Kingfisher, were just as difficult to contend with. Today, the Sharmas no longer have to endure those long journeys to cook their meals, and they can source specially crafted beer to accompany their meals in good condition, thanks to their sons, Van and Sumit.
In collaboration with Maine brewing legend Alan Pugsley, young Sharmas crafted Rupee, a beer specially designed to accompany the spicy and hearty cuisine of India. It is a helles lager made from malted barley, rice and corn (typical of Indian beers) and three types of hops: Hallertau, Saaz and Saphir. Golden in color and medium bodied, its aromas are fruity and earthy. The sweetness of malt and corn is tamed by the hops, providing a balanced finish. The rupee’s full mouth feel sets it apart from more effervescent mass-produced Indian lagers. And at 4.75% BAC, it’s designed to “drink easily,” as Pugsley puts it.
Pugsley is British by birth and therefore no stranger to Indian cuisine. When Van and Sumit were looking for a brewer to help them develop their beer, they contacted Pugsley, who lives down the street from their parents’ house.
“What Tex-Mex is to America, Indian food is to the UK,” notes Van Sharma, so a British brewer would know “what we were trying to do with beer and curry” . Pugsley is also, as Van puts it, a “legend in the beer arena”. Indeed, he was there in the early days of craft beer in Maine as the first head brewer of the DL Geary Brewing Company (which served its first beer 35 years ago, almost to the day), and few shortly thereafter he was co-founder of Shipyard. Brewing Co.
Pugsley joined the Sharmas at the family-run restaurant, where they experimented with a range of beers and Indian dishes in different styles and levels of spice. After defining the recipe, they went looking for a partner to brew beer in Maine. It has proven difficult, however, due to the pandemic. Ultimately, they found a willing partner at Boston’s Dorchester Brewing, which brews profusely under contract.
The Sharmas named their beer after the motto of India because it “helped tell the story we wanted to tell”, aligned with “our vision to create an Indian beverage brand, which is part of our culture “.
They have global ambitions for their beer, worthy of the family’s global history. The brothers recall times from their childhood, visiting their Punjabi grandfather, Pritam-Dass Sharma, a member of a four-generation farming family in India and an amateur brewer of rice and corn. . Their father, Raj, grew up in India; their mother, Bina, is from Kenya. After living in Cologne and London, they moved to Maine after visiting a family friend here, inspired by “the natural beauty and warmth of people,” according to Van.
But growing up in Maine in the 1990s wasn’t always easy for the brothers. âBeing the only Indian child in school has had its ups and downs,â he recalls. “People struggled to pronounce our names and confused us with being American Indian, as you learn about local Indian tribes in grade school at this age.” The fact that “our family-run Indian restaurants made us stand out even more.”
The brothers attended Boston University. Sumit, now 28, then moved to Colombia, where he taught English, before moving to Melbourne, Australia, at the start of the COVID pandemic. Van, 31, has lived in the UK for almost eight years, working in sales and with a London-based restaurant and hotel start-up. Their parents hoped they would return to Maine, and during the pandemic, the brothers agreed. Van remembers helping his brother book one of the last flights from Australia before its borders closed.
Back in Maine, the brothers had the opportunity to pursue this idea – making a beer specifically for Indian cuisine – which they had been feeding for some time. They returned to a state that was more racially diverse than the one they had left and inundated with craft beer (although this racial diversity is hardly evident in the craft beer world, especially in the Maine).
With age, they had also acquired a different perspective on their own history. “As you get older,” Van observes, “you become much more proud of your origin story.”
For Sharmas, it’s both a global and a local story, rooted in Maine, where, as of this fall, you can find rupees in Indian beverage shops and restaurants around the world. And like any beer, Rupee expresses an invisible historical geography, stretching across space and time: a beer inspired by German brewing tradition and Punjabi homebrew, designed with a British mainer, and made for the kitchen. Indian.
Ben Lisle is Assistant Professor of American Studies at Colby College. He lives among the breweries of East Bayside in Portland, where he writes on cultural history, urban geography, and craft beer culture. Join him on Twitter at @bdlisle.
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