Understanding Indian Palate

December 7, 2019

Copied with permission from https://www.arishtam.com/product-page/aristam-homebrewing-guide and https://www.amazon.in/Arishtam-HomeBrew-Probiotics-Indias-homebrew-ebook/dp/B07WSXSCQY


In the land of contradictions, making a product with mass appeal is very daunting. While alcohol is openly served as Prasadham to God Kal Bhairav and in Kali temples, drinking in front of parents or spouse is demonized (Asura). Invitation for a drink is synonymous to welcoming someone to the inner circle. Yet, frequent or excessive consumption is frowned upon. While some industry experts believe, women constitute 40% of the beer and wine market; yet there is no reputable research report on their consumption pattern.


When it comes to food, aping the west may not work. American brews typically have an overpowering dominant palate. In contrast, Indian prefer a bouquet of flavors with minor tweaks. A small survey at a roadside tea stall is one of the best experiments in Indian taste buds. Many customers order for Masala Chai (spicy hot tea) but rarely do they specify which kind. 99% of the constituents in the three variants are the same across cardamom tea, tulsi tea and ginger tea. A successful tea-brewer is one that successfully alters its recipe based on climate, time of the day and even the fatigue level of its patron.


No discussion about Indian foods can be complete without our experiments with metabolism rates. When our parents classified food as “Garam/ Hot” and “Sheetal/ Cold” they were often not referring to the serving temperature but its impact on our metabolism. In Europe, we sometimes come across spicy Christmas brews with spices meant to increase metabolism. However, Indian diets, spices and entire cuisine is often dictated by the weather. Understanding these preferences and biases is the key to hone the food-craft skills for the Indian market. Since this preference is unique to India, there are not many literatures beyond Ayurveda, to guide us. Ayurveda put more emphasis on medicinal properties rather than taste, so we are on our own in this journey.


Attaching a tag of a special occasion is always a good idea. By limiting the availability of a particular style, we make them special and seal the bond with festivities. A mere sight of bhang and Ghujia brings out the colorful Holi festival moods. Egg nock and warm spicy wines can invoke the Christmas mood. Similarly, Ghewar and Feni are associated with Sawan (monsoon festival), and Kheel and Bateshe with Diwali (festival of light).


This association is also called Olfactory Memory. A power tool in the hands of a brewer. It is believed that 86% of the humans have memories triggered by foods and aromas. I always compared beverage to an heirloom mother’s recipe, with the power to retrieve pleasant memories and to take the consumer into a time travel. The magic of the combination of simple ingredients leading to a unique signature of colors, aromas and tastes; is what continues to fascinate me even to this date. A brewer/ wine maker, like a chef, is an artist who wields the power to transform the Moods, Experience and Expression by doing minute tweaks in their recipes.


Goût de terroirs Taste of the soil, talks about the harmony of environment, climate, culture, language and ethnicity. A fine cuisine with locally sourced ingredients is much balanced and is cherished more than one that is a mix and match from different parts of the world. For most people Chili is a red spice but, as a chef, you would know that each region has its own local variety and taste so different. Try tweaking the recipe based on the demographics and conducting blind tests before commercializing your product. There are over 50 different kinds of mango and based on the client’s ethnicity, one can predict which one is their favorite. Like hops, almost all spices and grains have a subtle regional characteristic which should be leveraged.



Bench Testing


Industry spends millions on demographic, ethnicity and socio-economic analysis to constantly tweak their product and maintain its appeal. While all of us are seeking the Holy Grail, product of universal appeal, it is often elusive. They best strategy used in industry is the bench test. In this tasting experiment, a neutral flavor beverage is dosed with various permutation and combinations.


It’s best to draw the tasters from the intended target audience to taste out the batch. I have seen couples and friends debate on what they like the best. So rather than focusing on what they like, focus on what the audience wants, their values, beliefs and needs. Please note that the ambience, temperature, music, glassware, accompanied food and even the table cloth color has a bearing on what flavors and aromas pair the best. So, it is best to keep them as close to the intended mass market as possible. There are ASBC (American Society of Brewing Chemists) guidelines on how to carry out tasting experiments.


It might be a good idea to incorporate some herbs to combat weather (that prevent sunstroke, pneumonia from being drenched in the rains or wheezing from a late night bike ride in winters). We are very sensitive to our food’s ability to regulate our moods, climate, perspiration and skin pores. This is the reason why most successful microbrewery have seasonal brews.


Simply adhering to FSSAI (Food and Safety Standards Authority of India) regulations on packaging and getting the product tested by accredited labs is often not adequate. Refrigerated supply chains that developed countries take for granted is not present in India. Most milk dairy outlets don’t have adequate cold storage to stock the day’s supply of milk and stock it in open plastic trays by the roadside. If milk which is prone to spoilage in hours is handled so carelessly, our product could actually be tortured due to erratic power supply, exposure to sunlight and thermal shocks.


Packaging teas leaves, spices and powders are relatively easy as compared to fermented food. The flavor profile of powders does not change as drastically as packaged liquids. This is because the complex bio-chemical reaction continue in the bottle and age the product. The lab simulated accelerated ageing models are not comprehensive for luxury wines and beer. Therefore, before launching any product, do 6 months of intense testing. Test the consistency of the reference fresh batch with a 15 days, 1 month, 2, 4 and 6 month old batches for acceptable degradation levels in taste, color, carbonation, clarity and other sensory notes.


The glass bottles are heavily reused and recycled in India. It means that after about 6-10 cycles, bottles will develop micro-fissures which can explode if the pressure built up is excessive. Similarly, if the interior coating and treatment of aluminum cans is not right, the acid in the fermented food will leach out. It is difficult to make a perfect brew but packaging it is even more challenging. Conducting field trials and talking to experts is the best way to overcome the hurdle.


People say, ‘don’t judge the book by its cover’ but that is exactly what they do. Today, if we presented a bottle to a friend, rather than thanking us or exchanging pleasantries, he would instead question: “Desi hai ya vilyaiti?” (Is it Indian made or imported?) Trailblazing artist, like yourself, will need to combat these biases of the customers. Quality, presentation & perseverance always pays off in the long run. We have to attach some prestige and uniqueness to the brew: Humans often don’t value what we have and are familiar with but think that what we don’t have is better and covet it. Even the Great Wall of China was not valued by local Chinese until it was branded it as one of the 7 wonders of the World. Add a bit of mysticism around the food, present it beautifully and educate the patrons about the process and novelty before they can even take a whiff of our bottles.


Today’s millennials view their food and drinks as a style statement. Not only food is personalized but also is a reflection of their personality. Food should appeal to the sense of adventure and cultured tastes of its consumers; it is more of a style statement.


जिह्वे प्रमाणं जानहि भाषणे भोजने तथा ।

अतिउक्तिरतिभुक्तिश्च सत्यं प्राणापहारिणी । ।


(The tongue has two purposes eating and talking. However, both in excess are detrimental to one’s health).


Please be mindful of the social messaging, serving size and addiction forming ingredients in the beverage. Using shortcuts can boost the sales but will not be sustainable.


Before concluding, I would like to leave you with this thought. Customers are now more and more involved & aware of the food production, harvest, processing and cooking. They are demanding sustainable produce free from pesticides, antibiotics, dyes and chemicals. Locally produced ingredients with lowest carbon footprint are in vogue. The words like gluten free, low sodium, glycemic index are now ubiquitous on the product labels. The alcohol industry is also undergoing a similar transformation. India traditionally had been a land of whiskey and hard drinks drinkers but as people are drinking in moderation, the consumption of IMFL/ spirits are lagging behind the craft beer sales. Drinking is more for social bonding (lubricant) rather than as an intoxicant.


Yet again, I remind my readers that this book is not to promote drinking but to refine their production techniques and increase awareness of the magical possibilities combining simple healthy ingredients. India being a land of diverse cultures, there is no single beverage style that fits us all. Adapting to our nuances and acknowledging our idiosyncrasies is essential to scaling the hobby. Do not do the mistake of judging every beverage by western standards. A successful brand needs to be in harmony with the taste, culture, preferences of its patrons.

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