May 25 – A thawing in Indo-Pak relations appears to be gathering pace with news that Pakistan’s Murree Beer – a colonial hangover from the days of the British Raj – are forming a joint venture in India to brew and sell the Murree brand in India. It will be the first time since partition that Pakistani beer is available in India.
The fact that the beer company is still in existence at all is something of a miracle. Alcohol is banned in Pakistan, except for those claiming medical use or for Christians and visiting Western businessmen. It is officially only available in hotels, and even then people have to provide either identity or a medical certificate. Only 3 percent of the population is legally allowed to drink.
“But many of the other 97 percent also drink,” as Sabih-ur-Rehman, managing director of Murree Beer points out. This is illegal, but provided by the underground network. However, consequences can be grave – Pakistan suffers huge numbers of deaths each year due to alcohol poisoning with industrial strength spirits often passed off as a gin or whiskey on the black market.
Pakistan has recently committed to getting rid of a host of restrictions and tariffs with India after it granted India most favored nation status for the first time last year.
In principal, Murree Brewery has much to gain from trade liberalization. Indians drank about 2 billion liters of beer in 2011, and the market is growing as an increasingly affluent middle-class looks for unusual beer brands. The joint venture with an Indian brewery comes as India also announced that it would lift its longstanding ban on direct foreign investment from Pakistan.
“The Indians are going to really take to this,” said Sabih-ur-Rehman. “We are one of the most historic brands in the world and they still remember us in India.”
Murree still makes its beer in one of the company’s original 19th-Century breweries in Rawalpindi. The company was founded in 1860 and was part of a network of breweries across the subcontinent established to satisfy the parched throats of the soldiers of the British Raj. In the 1970s, the hardline rule of Zia ul-Haq saw Murree close down for two years. Nonetheless, the company, which is listed on the Karachi Stock Exchange, remains one of the country’s biggest enterprises. It is also making its second concerted effort to break into the UK market with lager brewed under license in the Czech Republic.
Murree has a proud history of punning slogans. In the 19th Century it used the catch-line: “Eat, drink and be Murree.”
Its latest foray into Britain is being promoted with the appeal to “Have a Murree with your Curry.”
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