Success story: Brewing thoughts, and more

Pakistan’s most known brewery has a history, and also a future.


When the British came to the South Asian Subcontinent they were thirsty. Thus, one of Pakistan’s first breweries was built for the British at Ghora Gali, Murree. It started operation in its current location, Rawalpindi, in the 1880s. Not long after, a second brewery was established by the company in Quetta in 1886. That building, however, crumbled in an earthquake in 1935, never to be restored again.

Established in 1860, the Murree Brewery came to serve the “beer needs” of the British, in turn bringing intrigue to local palettes, through its roasted, bittersweet malt-brew.

The brewery suffered a setback when Zulfikar Ali Bhutto attempted to garner mass appeal via religion. The sale and consumption of alcohol was limited to buying it with the help of permits.

A vestige of more liberal times, the Murree Brewery’s clientele began to depend on the licences. Loopholes were created for the buyers. Thus, those with permits, mostly non-Muslims, discovered the option of becoming middlemen. However, the demand for the products remained inelastic.

“It is not in our blood to value our heritage,” Chief Executive of the Murree Brewery Isphanyar Bhandara expressed.

“The Murree Brewery should be promoted as a tourist attraction. We are piled high in requests for visits from foreign dignitaries,” he said as he shuffled through some papers, pulling out one from a prominent ambassador, and reminded his special assistant, the moustached Sabihur Rehman who is a retired army man, to schedule the visit soon.

Sharp-featured and dressed in a crisp button-down shirt without the slightest wrinkle, the son of the late M.P. Bhandara has big shoes to fill.

Family feud

Recently, Isphandyar released a public notice relating to a conspiracy involving a gardener, his brother-in-law, several bank accounts and, of course, black magic - nothing short of a movie plot. Holding his brother-in-law, Rustam Sidhva, to allegations of money laundering, and vilification, Isphandyar is unrelenting when it comes to matters of business.

Goshi M. Bhandara, mother of Isphandyar, is a co-owner, therefore, and has an equal directorial stake in the company. The son and the mother have a tiff. Goshi could not be contacted for a comment, but a press statement released earlier in March by her redeems Sidhva.

The statement, published in an English daily, suggests that Sidhva’s help was sought in the absence of male relatives, as Goshi battled for her right in the company. She refutes claims that she is senile and under the influence of voodoo. Thus, the plot thickens.

Too taxing

The government’s recent introduction of the capacity tax - a tax levied on the potential of a plant, rather than on sales - puts the future of small beverage industries at stake. When the opportunity-based taxation policy was adopted earlier in 1991, it pushed out local competition, giving leverage to soft-drink giants. The tax has been criticised and often identified as a lobbying tactic by the multinationals that own majority shares within the beverage industry.

“The capacity tax is an attempt to weed out competition in the beverage industry and it needs to be reviewed,” said Bhandara and expressed that with much of the business enterprise struggling with utilities, gas and electric shortages, and a general climate of fear, the nature of such taxation was unreasonable and would serve to create joblessness.

In the last one year, the capacity tax has caused millions in revenue loss and is being reconsidered. Upon pressure from certain groups, the FBR sought a change in tax regime in order to curb tax evasion, which it has been unable to achieve.

The Murree Brewery’s non-alcoholic enterprise is likely to suffer more than its alcoholic production, unless the tax is revised to pave the way for a more inclusive and level playing field.

The men behind the brew

The Murree Brewery has over 1,700 workers of which many are third-generation employees. Daily wages are decent and the prospect of regularisation to full-time staff keeps most rooted to the redbrick building, where near-faded painted signage lends a sense of nostalgia to an otherwise modern façade. The workers clock in at 9am sharp, retreat into their apportioned roles, and re-emerge around noon for lunch when they break the tranquility of the outdoors with chatter and cigarette-smoke for 30 minutes.

Moving grain with a shovel in a dark room, Asif Mehmood’s silhouette catches the trajectory of light that comes in from the open windows. Mehmood doesn’t drink, but he does not mind the pungent, mildew odour that fills the room.

“I get paid by the hour, but I earn enough to sustain a decent living,” he says. Mehmood, who migrated from Rawat, has worked at the brewery for eight years, and like all daily wagers, he doesn’t enjoy many health benefits.

For Rana Mohammad Idrees, however, there is good news. Upgraded to a contract, the 57-year-old feels at home in the brewery and is thrilled at the opportunities that a confirmation brings: a bonus, medical insurance and security.  As all good tidings, these perks have come to him after 25 years of service.

Located opposite the heavily guarded residence of the Chief of Army Staff, the brewery has a relatively quiet presence, an attribute that has allowed it to escape caveat from a public disposed to religious extremes, not far from its peripheries.

Its gate is painted in the green and white, star and crescent of the Pakistani flag.

Popular demand

The brewery produces a range of non-alcoholic beers, juices and sodas, including Tops and Bigg Apple. It also offers flavoured malts, whisky, gin and vodka, though can only be procured by a limited clientele. The opportunities to advertise are obviously few.

Earlier in 2012, the daughter of Hollywood stars Demi Moore and Bruce Willis was caught drinking Murree Beer in New York City. While the underage Hollywood progeny may have gotten into some trouble, the 150-year-old Murree Brewery was more than thrilled to be in the spotlight, and embraced the free publicity to seek expansion outside of the restrictive conditions in Pakistan. As of 2013, the Murree Brewery has a franchise in Bangalore, in India.

Competition, if any

Murree Brewery’s competition comes from the Quetta Distillery, established in the 1950s and owned by the former provincial minister Faridoon Abadan, also from the Parsi community. Abadan was kidnapped more than a decade ago and was never found. His wife, Nilofar Abadan who was running the distillery in his absence was also abducted in 2011, and later released after paying ransom. Little else is known about the distillery; its precarious geography, however, puts it at a disadvantage.

With an influx of beer and liquor smuggled in from China through the Gilgit-Baltistan region and India through Tharparkar, Sindh, the real challenge for all distilleries alike -- including Indus Distillery in Sindh owned by Senator Hari Ram Kishorilal - is Pakistan’s porous borders and the government’s inability to curb smuggling of illegal goods, including its inflexible stance on the import and export of alcohol.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 1st, 2014.



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