For the last 9,000 years, people have enjoyed a good beer. It's used as a way to bond with friends and to toast each other's health and happiness. As the third-most consumed drink on Earth, beer comes in many varieties, which can also be a great means of cultural expression.

In Maine, brothers Van and Sumit Sharma created Rupee Beer Company to do just that. The beer is brewed with traditional Indian recipes and is designed to pair with the country's spicy cuisine. Founded to address the lack of Indian beer options available in the United States, the brothers hope to serve as cultural diplomats and introduce more of the country to Indian culture. Van and Sumit Sharma spoke about the beer and shared a couple varieties with GBH's All Things Considered host Arun Rath.

Arun Rath: So first off, let me dive in with this. People are very familiar with IPAs and IPA stands for India Pale Ale, and they're pretty much never Indian and frequently not pale.

Van Sharma: So that's a huge misconception, and it's probably one of the most frequently asked questions Sumit and I get. India happens to be in the name of an IPA. For those of you who don't know the colonial history of the United Kingdom, the Empire occupied India for almost 300 years. And British generals wanted their beer.

What they noticed was, when they were shipping the beer from ports in London to India, the beer would spoil on that journey, which was very long, around six months. So they started to add natural hops as a preservative to make that journey. And when that beer arrived in India, it obviously created much more of a bitter taste than a classic English-style ale that folks would be having back in the homeland.

So that's kind of the whole nuance of how when we think of an IPA, especially here in the United States. They tend to be a little bit hoppier, a little bit more bitter. And there are obviously nuances with East versus West Coast as well. We are brewing to a more iconic British-English style, which is less bitter and less hoppy.

‘We knew at some point we had to create an IPA, but we knew that on that journey when that time came, that it had to really go back to the original story. ... We wanted to do an English style, British-Indian style recipe.”
Van Sharma, co-founder of Rupee Beer

Rath: So how did this get going? Tell us about the conversation that that got actual Indians, Desis, making some IPA.

Van Sharma: Good question. I'm not sure where to start because it's kind of a large story, but Sumit and I are brothers and we grew up in the Indian restaurant business. I was born in London, our parents lived in Germany before that.

When we immigrated to the United States, we went to a very interesting place called Portland, Maine, in the ’90s. At that time, there weren't any Indian restaurants there, so our parents launched three of the first Indian restaurants in the state. Sumit and I attended Portland Public Schools and, believe it or not, for the largest city in Maine, we were still the only Indian kids in school.

But long story short, I went to Northeastern and Sumit went to Boston University, and after university, I moved to London and Sumit moved to Australia. When we came back to the United States during COVID, our parents put us to work since we didn't really have much going on. I was transitioning careers from my last startup. We noticed a really interesting problem that came up during COVID, which was a massive disruption in the supply chain of international beer — more specifically coming to Maine.

For anyone that's ever been to an Indian restaurant: Kingfisher, Taj Mahal, those are two legacy Indian beer brands that have been around for over four or five decades, and those were not available in the United States during COVID. So the entrepreneurs that we are, we wanted to solve a problem.

We knew that we were not experts at brewing beer, which is why we spoke to many people around the world that were experts in the science of the brewing. Locally, there was this amazing resource, Alan Pugsley. Essentially, he's a craft brewing legend. He's launched almost 100 different breweries around the world and one of the founders of Shipyard, which you may have heard of here in the Northeast. He's British and was living in Maine. So, it just made sense. A lot of things aligned and that's kind of the story — I don't if there's anything you want to add, Sumit.

Sumit Sharma: Yeah, that's pretty well covering everything in the short amount of time here.

Rath: I love everything about this story — and, obviously, I can relate to a lot of it. I know that being the only Indian kid in your town, going back to the ’90s — or in my case, the ’80s — you can kind of be embarrassed. I don't know if you guys went through this, but: your food is different, and you've got a strange religion. And it's so wonderful that you're able to embrace this. Does it feel like coming in a circle in a way?

Sumit Sharma: Yeah. I think when you're younger, definitely you may feel that. Like I felt that several times in my life when I was younger, feeling a little bit shy or embarrassed about the culture since it was so foreign and different to many of my peers. But yeah, now that we're doing this business and now that we're older, I definitely think there's more of a sense of pride in our culture and wanting to showcase that to others. Show them what the culture and the country of India is all about through beer, is how we chose to do that.

Rath: It's a great way to do it. Well, let's start sampling. You mentioned, as any Desi knows, there's the old joke, "A lager is the only thing that can kill a vindaloo." Shall we start in? You want to describe these?

Van Sharma: Yes. We brought two beers today. These are our year-round brews. We have three beers in our collection, but our flagship — our first product that we launched — is our basmati rice lager. Light, smooth. Super refreshing. This beer was initially designed with the help of Alan. We had a very specific brief, which was around creating a very light, less carbonated beverage that pairs exceptionally well if you're having a vindaloo, tikka masala or something like a korma. Whatever Indian curry or spicy food you're having, that was our initial scope. So I'll crack it open, pass along here. Cheers.

Rath: Cheers... that is really nice.

Two tall cans are held, one blue design that's a basmati rice lager and another red design that's an India Pale Ale
Sumit Sharma, one of the Rupee Beer Company founders, holds the company’s two year-round beers.
Elena Eberwein GBH News

Sumit Sharma: Yeah. So a little bit more about the beer itself. It's brewed to a traditional Indian recipe using basmati rice, which is obviously the number-one most common variety of rice grown in India. All over the world, you'll see it — not even just in India, but in the Middle East. If you ever go out for an Indian meal, basmati rice is the type of rice that you're eating.

The basmati rice, what it does is it really helps you bring a smooth profile to the beer. A really clean profile, not overly malty.

We also use maize in the recipe, and what that does is it helps add a subtle sweetness to the beer, which helps to balance out spicy flavors. And less carbonation than most standard lagers, and that was done intentionally because when you're having a spicy, heavy, world meal — such as Indian, Thai, Mexican, whatever it be — the worst thing is if you have a carbonated beverage, it leaves you feeling extra gassy, bloated.

Van Sharma: You'll be burping.

Sumit Sharma: Exactly. Also, on top of that, when your tongue is on fire from eating something spicy like a vindaloo, the worst thing to do is take a highly carbonated beverage. It just further amplifies the pain on your tongue.

So yeah, we wanted to make something that's smooth, has like a nice silky mouthfeel to it to help really wash away the spice when you're having something spicy.

Rath: It really does go down really smoothly.

Sumit Sharma: We should have brought some Indian food in here.

Rath: Yeah, I was thinking that I could go for a samosa.

Van Sharma: I know, I should have brought some.

Rath: Nice, a lager you and your auntie can enjoy.

Van Sharma: Exactly, sipping in saris.

Rath: So let's move on to our second beer here, tell us about this.

Van Sharma: So we mentioned this craze in the craft beer world around IPAs. We knew at some point we had to create an IPA, but we knew that on that journey when that time came, that it had to really go back to the original story. So yeah, we wanted to do an English style, British-Indian style recipe.

Sumit Sharma: A British-Indian style is subtle, so less hops, which is obviously what we're looking for when we're pairing with a heavier, spicier meal.

You don't want the bitterness from the hops to irritate your palate. Hops actually have acids in them, and your tongue senses the bitterness from those acids as pain, so it just further amplifies spice.

Rath: Man, you know your taste stuff. This is brilliant.

Sumit Sharma: I didn't know any of this two years ago, but a lot of upskilling our knowledge, working with Alan and just being in the industry.

Rath: Brilliant. All right, cheers.

Van and Sumit Sharma: Cheers.

Rath: Oh, yeah. That's really great. More full, a little bit fruitier.

Sumit Sharma: Exactly. So that's coming in from some of the different types of hops we use. We also do a dry-hopping technique, which is essentially when you take the hops — which give the bitterness to the beer — and you add them a little bit later in the brewing process. What that does is, instead of giving off a very bitter taste to the beer, it gives more of the aroma from the hops instead of the bitterness in the taste.

Rath: Gentlemen, this has been such a pleasure. I should also mention your brewery is here in Dorchester, right?

Van Sharma: Correct. So we launched about two and a half or three years ago, and I always think everything happens for a reason. When we were looking around for a contract home, to contract our beer, it just so happened that Dorchester worked out. So that's kind of how things align.

We both went university here, so we felt as if Boston had a really great connection. Also it's just a really famous beer town known for producing high-quality, good-quality craft beer.

Rath: That's awesome. And, I got to say, this is one of the best things to come out of the pandemic.

Van Sharma: Thank you so much. That means a lot.

Rath: Thanks so much. It's been great talking with you.

Sumit Sharma: Thanks for having us.