“Murree Beer is made from high quality Australian barley/malt and European hops. In my humble opinion, it tastes better than any Indian beer,” says Isphanyar M Bhandara. Bhandara, a Parsi, owns Murree Brewery, which is one of the subcontinent’s oldest public listed companies. The brewery was set up in 1860 in the eponymous hill station in present day Pakistan by Edward Dyer, father of the infamous Reginald Dyer, who ordered his troops to fire on protesters at Jallianwala Bagh, in Amritsar, in 1919. Besides Murree Brewery, Dyer senior also set up Asia’s oldest brewery, in Solan, Himachal Pradesh — now owned by Mohan Meakin — and was the man behind several distilleries across the sub-continent.
In the early 1900s, Murree was the beer to have in north and east India, and the brewery exhorted readers to swig its beer with these slogans: ‘Have Murree and be Merry’, and ‘Eat, Drink and be Murree’. Murree Brewery was listed on the Calcutta Stock Exchange until the 1950s, and was popular among the British and Allied Forces who were stationed in Calcutta during WW-II.
The Bhandaras bought the brewery, which had shifted operations to Rawalpindi, in 1947, and stayed back in Pakistan after Partition. They soon discovered it wasn’t easy making beer in the country. The big blow came in 1977, when Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto imposed Prohibition (while the consumption of alcohol in banned in Pakistan, the ban does not apply to foreigners and non-Muslims), and since then, with the rise and rise of religious fundamentalism, the environment in the country has not been exactly conducive to brewing alcohol. Bhandara is guarded in his response as he tackles the question of what it’s like to be Pakistan’s only brewery.
“We might be the only brewery but that is of no consequence to us. We strive every day to improve our quality to the best satisfaction of our customers while keeping the prices affordable.” But, evidently, he is worried. Some time back, he told Reuters, “Each day we are allowed to survive, that is a blessing.” So, quite naturally, Murree, which sells around 90,000 hectolitres annually, has been looking beyond Pakistan. Bhandara says it is talking to a European brewery to brew and market Murree in the European Union, and the brewery also achieved some boldface fame in the US in 2012 when Hollywood actor Bruce Willis’s daughter, Scout, was caught allegedly drinking a can of Murree beer on the subway in New York. India, which saw the sale of over 300 million cases in 2015, though, remains the preferred destination for the Pakistani brewery.
“We cannot advertise beer/liquor products in Pakistan whereas there are no such restrictions in India,” says Bhandara.
In 2013, Murree, which also makes gin and whisky, was in talks with Bangalore-based Indigo Industries, and planned to launch the beer in northern and eastern India. But the project, says Bhandara, was stalled. Despite the rocky relationship between the two countries, the 43-year-old says that he is still looking for a partner in India, but thinks “India doesn’t seem to be interested.”