There’s bajra in my beer!

  • Craft breweries in India are mixing millets in their beer recipes, opening up new possibilities to popularise the climate-resilient and eco-friendly grains that were once a staple in much of India.
  • A Pune brewery is using bajra, or pearl millet, to make craft beer. In Bengaluru, craft breweries are using ragi, or finger millet, to make beer.
  • Difficulties in processing millets, supply chain barriers and lack of suitable technologies are preventing the hardy grain from achieving scale in beer making.

As you sip the freshly brewed craft beer, there is nothing to indicate the pale brew is generously infused with bajra, or pearl millet, a grain that has been grown in India since millennia. In a modern twist to the ancient grain, bajra is being turned into fine ale by using modern brewing techniques. The Millet Ale, crafted by Great State Aleworks, a brewery in the western Indian city of Pune in Maharashtra, carries with it a taste of innovation.

“In our latest batch of Millet Ale, we used about 56 percent bajra (120 kg). We also brew a New England IPA style of beer in which bajra constitutes 30 percent of the grain bill,” says Nakul Bhonsle, founder of Great State Aleworks. “We are now on our third batch and we eventually want to get to 100 percent bajra as the grain in our beer. Over time, we want to see if we can substitute the wheat in our most popular beer, the Belgian Wit, with locally-sourced bajra.”

Beers are typically made from malted barley and wheat. But this easy-drinking ale with pearl millet pays homage to its roots in the western state of Maharashtra. The grain travels about 140 km from farms in Satara district and makes its way into the large steel tanks at the brewery in Pune, where it is blended with other key ingredients to produce the Millet Ale. Pearl millet is a staple cereal in Maharashtra, where bajra is used to make bhakri, a flat, unleavened bread. But a focus on crops like wheat, rice, maize and soybeans has pushed millets to the margins. That is again changing.

Great State Aleworks in Pune, Maharashtra is using pearl millet or bajra as one of the key ingredients to make its signature Millet Ale. Photo by Aditi Tandon.
Great State Aleworks in Pune, Maharashtra is using pearl millet or bajra as one of the key ingredients to make its signature Millet Ale. Photo by Aditi Tandon.

Glamourising the climate-resilient grain

With increased attention on climate-resilient crops, alternative foods and trends like organic, gluten-free and so on, traditional millets like ragi and bajra as well as sorghum are seeing a revival of sorts. A few craft breweries in India have seen that as an opportunity and are mixing millets in their beer recipes, throwing up another demand for these eco-friendly, climate-resilient grains.

In Bengaluru, India’s Silicon Valley and craft beer capital, there has been interest in brewing beer with various types of millets. Millet cultivation in Karnataka has seen significant growth in the past few years. In the last edition of the state’s Organics and Millet Festival, breweries served up millet-based beers. Craft beers made by Bengaluru’s Toit Brewpub, the Biere Club and Brewski are among those that have used ragi, or finger millet, a staple millet in southern India. These experiments received a state push as well, with Karnataka’s agriculture minister at that time, Krishna Byre Gowda, encouraging craft brewers to use local ingredients that would support the smallholder farming economy.

Curiously, unlike Africa, where too millets and sorghum have been grown since prehistoric times, they have not traditionally been used to brew ale in India, except in some parts of the northeast. In central and peninsular regions, fermented rice is the standard brew, along with liquor made of mahua flowers.

In modern times, jowar, or sorghum, was first used in conventional lager beer production during World War II, and it has since continued either as a substitute to barley or added in varied percentages.

A millet farm in India. Photo by J'ram DJ/Flickr.
A millet farm in India. Photo by J’ram DJ/Flickr.

Bringing millets back

More than 90 million people in Africa and Asia include millets in their diets, and 500 million people in more than 30 countries depend on sorghum as a staple, according to the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT).

Most varieties of millets are climate-resilient and grow fairly easily in dry areas with high temperatures and low rainfall. The increasing vagaries of the climate, more severe floods and frequent droughts, and their impact on agriculture are some of the reasons that millets are making a comeback, says Amrita Hazra, a scientist at IISER-Pune and founder of the Millet Project, which works on food and agriculture diversity. Hazra was inspired to consider the various uses of millets while she was studying in California when the U.S. state was undergoing the fourth year of a very severe drought and farmers were keen on diversifying crops.

One of the main attractions of millets is that they use much less water to grow than most cereals. The more frequent droughts in many parts of India, including Maharashtra, have made people think about millets anew.

Craft breweries in India are experimenting with millets in their beer recipes, exploring the potential for mainstreaming the climate-resilient and ecofriendly ancient grains. Photo by Aditi Tandon.

Though cultivation has increased, there’s a long way to go. “If you look at the numbers, millets are tiny in the overall crops that India grows, and also compared to wheat and rice,” says Hazra.

India, Niger and China are the largest producers of millet in the world, accounting for more than 55 percent of global production. Millet production is estimated to be 27.8 million tonnes, with India being the largest global producer with a 41 percent market share. In comparison, wheat production in India stood at almost 100 million tons in 2018-19.

Pearl millet, or bajra, is about 50 percent of the global millet production and India produces about 8.3 million tonnes a year, the highest in Asia.

Brewing with millets

Hazra, in her sojourn in the U.S., had worked with homebrewers using millets. She spoke of it with Bhonsle of Great State Aleworks, who was enthused to try it out at his now almost two-year-old brewery in Pune. Craft breweries typically produce smaller quantities of beer and are independently owned, in contrast to commercial breweries.

A series of experiments with processing and brewing followed. A few trial batches later, Bhonsle and his team worked out a suitable proportion and process to make bajra a part of their beer. “Bajra has the potential of replacing wheat malt, as it gives the similar sweetness, haziness and other properties of a good beer,” he says.

Scientists studying millets also vouch for it as brew. “Sorghum (and millets) is an excellent raw material for brewing. It is cheaper, gluten-free and produces good quality alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages. Unlike barley, it can be grown in a range of environments, including hot dry areas with limited water,” says Ashok Kumar Are, Principal Scientist (Sorghum Breeding) at ICRISAT. “They can be very much mainstreamed for use in brews.”

Local sourcing

After trials with store-bought seeds, Great State Aleworks zeroed upon local varieties of bajra seeds from a farming community in Maan taluka (administrative sub-district) in Satara district, facilitated by Taru Natural and Organics, a network of 10,000 small farmers involved in natural farming and mainstreaming of traditional grains, which also supplies millets to 70-80 restaurants in Mumbai and high-end grocery stores.

“In Maan, they have frequent droughts. The main thing that grows there without water is jowar (sorghum), which we already source from them. But now that there is this demand, they have started growing bajra too. It is a good market for the farming community. As we add more market linkages, their community grows and benefits,” says Ruchi Jain, founder of Taru Naturals and Organics, emphasising that the push for millets is especially important in Maharashtra, where there are regular droughts and a dire need for climate-resilient crops.

Read more on how millets in diets can overcome micronutrient deficieny and agriculture-related emissions.

“Making millet beer is a great way to get the grain back into focus,” says Hazra. “From our work in the U.S., the strategy we developed was to use millets to make food that is more contemporary. Making a bhakri (flat bread) is so far away from everyday food. So we came up with millet risotto and millet soup, and that’s how we ended up with millet beer. This strategy makes millets more accessible to the youth. It’s close to the youth vocabulary today and they are the ones that will carry on the habit.”

Barriers to scaling

While the goodness of millets is hard to deny, there are still on-ground challenges holding back the grain from the popularity it could gain, especially as an ingredient in making beer.

“In its current form, millet is not the best grain for making beer. You have to play around with it. It is, in a way, a relatively new grain for brewing,” says Hazra. “But actually, the first beer ever made, maybe around 8,000 years ago, was apparently brewed with millets!” In the current landscape, barley and wheat have taken over the industry. “But it is also because we have adapted all our processes and machinery to using wheat and barley in beer,” she says.

Millets also have lower accessible carbohydrates compared with barley. While this makes millets a better food due to its slow release of carbohydrates, that’s a disadvantage when brewing beer. “For beer, you actually need the carbohydrate to be accessible, which the yeast will start to eat and make ethanol. But that process gets retarded when the carbohydrate itself is not easily available. So you land up needing larger quantities,” says Hazra.

Another disadvantage is that there are no organisations malting millets in India — the chief reason why millets have not taken off as common ingredients in craft beer. In malting, the grain is germinated and roasted to make the carbohydrate more accessible, which is needed for brewing. There are only three companies in the world malting millets, says Hazra, which is the main bottleneck that’s preventing more Indian breweries from accessing these locally-sourced and indigenous grains for brewing.

Bhonsle and his team experimented by using unmalted, cooked bajra directly. But it is not an ideal scenario for scaling. “We had the opportunity to experiment, which is why we could arrive at the recipe we have now,” he says. “Other than the lack of facilities, there is also a lack of easily available information. Why would breweries invest in experimentation with millets when other grains are available and may work better?”

“If India had a malting facility for millets, and for any grain for that matter, which provided good quality malted grains that could be used to brew beer, craft breweries would happily opt for using local grains in their beers,” he adds.

A study by agricultural scientists C.V. Ratnavathi and U.D. Chavan on the use of sorghum in beer reflects similar challenges in making the grain a significant part of beer ingredients. “While the production of lager beer from barley malt along with sorghum as a cereal adjunct poses no problem, lager beer brewing from 100% sorghum is confronted with problems relating to equipment, sorghum malting, mash gelatinization, saccharification, lautering, wort fermentability, body fullness, and acceptability,” the study says.

Grain processing machinery and technology is usually designed for wheat and rice and not so much for millets which have a different profile. Photo by Aditi Tandon

Reorienting for millets

As climate change becomes a reality, the push for mainstreaming hardy grains like millets is increasing. However, current technology and equipment to process grains are primarily designed towards processing the more popular wheat and rice.

“Technologies don’t exist for large scale processing of millets,” says Hazra, who has been working with entrepreneur Vikram Sankaranaryanan, who is involved in manufacturing equipment designed to process millets. Realising the bottleneck, governments in Andhra Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh are also considering millet-processing units (grader, de-huller, de-stoner, etc.) to support the promotion of the grains.

But even if the processing hurdles are overcome, millets end up getting stuck because of weak supply chains and the lack of market linkages for millet farmers, says Jain of Taru Naturals and Organics. “We have to create a robust supply chain. We need robust scalable business models,” she says. On a national level, the push for millets as part of the public distribution system is a work in progress.

“Maybe millets need to be glamourised, like the U.S. did with quinoa,” suggests Jain. “If we can make our millets aspirational, there will be a growing demand from consumers.”

“For situations like drought, uncertain rainfall, increase in temperature — which are in fact happening now — we have to be prepared and it makes a lot of sense to go back and invest in millet-like crops. They are still accessible and available with people, with farmers. You don’t need to go to seedbanks. You are still working with people who have saved these seeds,” recommends Hazra.

Read more about mainstreaming traditional grains in our Conserving Agro-biodiversity series.

[With inputs by Sahana Ghosh]


Banner image: A craft brewery in Pune has made an unlikely match between traditional grains and modern brewing techniques to create a bajra-based beer. Photo by Aditi Tandon.

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