Sunday, 29 July 2012

murree brewery: pakistan's true brew

the brewery's logo in the whisky maturation cellars

as a little girl growing up in pakistan, i thought doctor’s brandy was so named because it could only be obtained by prescription.  this naiveté can be explained by a combination of facts – a teetotaller uncle who would consume brandy for stubborn coughs, and bhutto’s prohibition, which provoked the local population to use medical certificates to secure alcohol. so it was with much surprise that i recently discovered that doctor’s brandy is actually a french brandy, produced under licence by murree brewery in pakistan.

murree brewery liquors
murree brewery beers
2012 has proved to be an interesting year for pakistan. alongside the staple flow of pessimistic news, one of its most successful businesses, murree brewery, has captured the imagination of the local and international press. for the latter in particular, the existence of murree brewery is a paradox. the telegraph opens on the line ‘pakistan is one of the last countries in asia where you would expect to discover a flourishing – and legal – brewery, especially these days’ in an article titled ‘ale under the veil: the only brewery in pakistan. the economist follows suit on how an unlikely outfit in pakistan is flourishing under the banner ‘hope in the hops’. even the guardian cannot help itself with its description of murree brewery as ‘a raj-era oddity in an increasingly conservative islamic country’ under the more neutral title of ‘pakistan and india start new era of trade co-operation with a beer’.

murree brewery, however, is far from an oddity and a contradiction. since its inception in 1860, the only period when it ceased productions was after bhutto’s declaration of prohibition of alcohol. a subsequent court order led to the resumption of operations on the basis that bhutto’s laws breached the rights of minorities. aside from this it has always enjoyed the support of the government, military or otherwise. the greater paradox perhaps is that a powerful leader like bhutto, who loved his drink, felt compelled to appease the religious right through prohibition. until his ban in 1977 alcohol was freely available in army messes, clubs and from licensed stores.

but that of course is not the pakistan of today.

as history shows, neither prohibition nor religion has ever been able to curb the desires of those who drink. in pakistan, the rich turn to a dense network of bootleggers who sell foreign whisky, vodka, beer and wine at inflated prices. the poor often decant from the bottles of the rich, the police accept bottles as bribes, and villagers brew their own spirits despite the serious risks of blindness and death.

leaving the politics of prohibition and drinking aside, i was most curious about the workings of the brewery and thought it would make an interesting addition to comeconella. the excursion to the brewery became a family one, as they were as curious as i was.

murree brewery bottling hall
murree brewery
staff canteen, murree brewery
the brewery has an illustrious history from the time of the british raj. founded to provide beer for british troops stationed in the sub-continent, it was initially based in murree, a hill station that was a popular getaway as well as the summer seat of government during that era. however, the advent of ice-factories in the plains made it possible to relocate to the cantonment town rawalpindi - and that is where it has remained since. murree brewery has been run by the bhandharas – a prominent parsi business and political family - since 1947.

retired major sabih-ur-rehman, special assistant to the chief executive, isphanyar bhandara, was generous with his time, explaining in detail the manner in which the brewery brews its beer. the process of beer making is complex and includes carefully selecting and grading the grains of barley, malting, fermenting and finally maturation. the barley for beer making is imported from australia, because indigenous barley is unsuitable for the purpose. murree brewery is one of the few breweries in the world that does its own malting. the beer it produces ranges in strength from murree lite, with 3.5 % alchohol content, to murree’s millennium brew, which has 7.5 % alcohol content. the most popular beer is the pale amber coloured murree classic that has a hint of bitterness. 

the brewery’s vodka, whisky and gin have become increasingly popular, as the shortage of international brands has led to a serious spike in prices. fruit flavoured vodkas include the local kinoo (a fruit from the tangerine family), peach and pineapple. we sample the most recent addition to the murree family – a mildly creamy irish cream. it is served to us in slightly irregular herat glass shot glasses. the only missing element on a very hot afternoon is ice, for the irish cream itself is excellent. it is milky but less creamy and sweet than bailey’s, and would make a really refreshing nightcap. an oversized beaker of draught beer also makes an appearance, presented in sturdy beer mugs bearing the brewery’s logo. the honey coloured brew makes a perfect summer afternoon drink. 

pakistanis who drink are an enterprising lot who have worked out an intricate system enabling them to procure alcoholic drinks. this is complemented by an element of snobbery as they prefer to drink foreign products. when it comes to spirits this reluctance may have been because some of murree’s vodkas and whiskies were rough around the edges. but now the brewery has upped its game and the new triple distilled vodka is smooth and as good as some of the vodkas abroad. the same can be said of the 21 years old whisky. the popularity of murree classic speaks for itself. the shortage and sky rocketing prices of foreign alcohol are a blessing in disguise and it is likely that the licence to export will also encourage further finesse in murree brewery’s liquor and beer.

a marriage of old and new, the brewery’s exterior is obviously historic. tall buildings with high ceilings painted a yellow brown recall the architecture of the raj. the hand-cast and painted typefaces of the signs are another reminder. the bottling hall bears its badge of establishment as the year 1943. it is a substantial sized room with modern machinery where bottles of beer are filled and labelled in sequence. there is a constant whirl of activity and the air is dense with moisture and the smell of yeast. i am particularly taken by quality control when filling the bottles. large rectangles of cold coloured light illuminate empty and filled bottles. those with defects such as cracks and dust are promptly removed. all staff wear blue shirts bearing unmistakably british brewery logo.

beer bottling hall
beer bottling hall
beer bottling hall
beer bottling hall
beer bottle labels
beer bottling hall
in contrast the whisky maturation cellars are dim and have an air of cool dampness. symmetrical lines of oak wood casks line the walls. a red or white stencil typeface marks the date on which the maturation process started. the excise and customs authority of pakistan are the sole custodians of the locks on the vats and are called in when the vats need to be unlocked. it is in the whisky cellars that one really feels the history of the brewery as the place has a quiet composure and age, most unlike the modern equipment and hustle bustle of the bottling hall.

whisky maturation cellars
whisky maturation cellars
the locks on the whisky casks
whisky maturation cellars
this is an interesting time for murree brewery as it has won its first export licence. this is of course not without complication, as the license only allows exports to non-muslim countries, ruling out places like the united arab emirates. however, if all goes well, beer diplomacy in the shape of beer exports to neighbouring india is a much bigger prize. in eastern europe the czech žatec brewery produces murree beer under licence, using its recipe, and plans are underway to expand the network of export into western europe. soon beer lovers will be able to enjoy murree beer, bringing back to life the slogan ‘have a murree with your curry!’ that some in england may remember from the ‘90s.

while we were discussing the brewery’s ambitions, the chief executive isphanyar bhandara drops into the office. he has a restless energy that makes him incapable of stillness, and is most likely the driving force for his vision for the brewery’s next chapter. when asked about future plans he breaks into a loud laugh and says ‘we all know that beer and pakistan do not rhyme.’ but despite its contradictions, murree brewery wants a new script - one that will see her beer beyond borders, to countries where it was never allowed before.


  1. Such a great post, M - full of personal stories, history and gorgeous photos. I didn't even know that we made whisky in Pakistan. How sad - how far we have come from our days of freedom in the 70s. x s

  2. Thanks S. It was a really fun trip! My brother took some colleagues from work from overseas. They make three kinds of whisky and I think there is a separate line of blended whisky as well. Have you seen NFP's series on Another Pakistan in Dawn. I think that's more our Pakistan...

  3. Good Post, Sad a common man has to buy the products hiding as a theif , i wish its all legalized in Pakistan