Brewing with millets has been a notoriously difficult project for most beer makers. But Great State Aleworks, a Pune-based brewery, has cracked the code. The Locavore team talks to Shivani Unakar, Project Coordinator of the Millet Beer Project, about their brewing journey and millet beers.
To the regular person, how beer is made is a mystery. While most of us may know the key grains used to make beer—wheat and barley—we know little of how they’re sourced and processed. Great State Aleworks, a production-brewery committed to creating innovative and locally relevant craft beer, is attempting to demystify the back-end of beer.
At The Locavore, we’re deeply curious about their recent Millet Beer Project, an attempt to make beer with various Indian millet varieties, compelling us to interrogate the little we do know about beer. While brewing with these grains might be unchartered territory for most, the principle backing their endeavours is familiar and deeply speaks to us: to champion local grains and their producers, collaboratively build knowledge, and share this knowledge openly. Their experiments with jowar and bajra have allowed them to discover work-arounds to the unmalted nature of most millets, and techniques to filter millet extract, while ensuring that the taste meets the standards of craft beer lovers.
Made with jowar, Salt of the Earth is the latest in the millet beer series, and a key part of our collaboration with Great State Aleworks under the Millet Revival Project. In the lead up to its launch, The Locavore team has witnessed firsthand the work that goes into creating such a distinct beer, and the appeal of such a series for beer connoisseurs in India.
We speak to Shivani Unakar, Project Coordinator, Millet Beer Project at Great State, who shares with us about this unique angle to working with millets. Excerpts from the interview:
What led Great State Aleworks to brew with millets, especially since this is still a relatively new practice in India?
Since our inception in 2017, Great State has been focused on crafting beers that showcase a variety of local and seasonal Indian ingredients. Around this time, we were introduced to Dr. Amrita Hazra who had moved back to Pune after working as a researcher in Berkeley. In California, Dr. Hazra had started The Millet Project with the goal of cultivating millets in the drought-hit farmlands of California.
She introduced us to the concept of brewing with millets—something that was already making headway in North America for gluten-free beer drinkers—and brought us samples of malted millets from a micro-malting facility in Oregon. Using this, we brewed our first-ever millet beer at our brewery in Pune. The result was a beer with a good sugar to alcohol conversion, light in flavour and body, with mild carbonation—we were intrigued! That’s when we started research towards brewing with locally grown millets.
So far, Great State has created six millet beers. Tell us a little about each of the beers.
By August 2017, we had already cracked a few recipes, and we released them slowly over the next few years. First, we released a Pineapple Ragi Ale and a Dry Hopped Bajra Ale, followed by Local—an ale brewed with 56 percent locally sourced unmalted bajra. In July 2020, we made Dryland, a Brut Bajra Pale Ale brewed with unmalted bajra from a drought-affected region of Maharashtra.
By 2021, we were convinced that millets deserved a more prominent place in our brewing practice. We conducted a branding exercise to tie our millet beer series together, which involved giving the limited edition millet beers larger-than-life names to draw attention to the millet landscape. We collaborated with some of India’s best artists to design unique labels for each beer.
Under the new series, we released four new beers, and brought back Dryland. Each beer uses a significant amount of either bajra or jowar as one of its main grains.
Beyond Your Wits, Equal Opportunity, and Collective Action all use unmalted bajra as one of their primary grains. While the former is our take on a Belgian witbier, Equal Opportunity is a lighter bajra blonde, and the latter a Farmhouse Ale. On the other hand, Moral Fibre, a pilsner, and Salt of the Earth, a cashew sour with 30 percent jowar, use jowar as their millet grain.
While millets were traditionally eaten in India, a large part of our population is no longer familiar with its taste. How have people taken to the flavours of the millet beers?
Our aim with these beers has been to incorporate millets in the brewing process while maintaining, as much as possible, the flavour profiles familiar to craft beer lovers. We didn’t want millet beers to be an acquired taste, but instead something that people could recognise and take to easily.
That said, our consumers have been excited by the idea that these beers have something different to offer. Some of the beers in this series have been so well received, we’re considering promoting them from seasonal beers to flagship beers available at our taproom year-round!
Making millet beers has involved a lot of trial-and-error for Great State, and we can only assume how much effort and patience this took. What are the main challenges you’ve had to overcome?
We’ve met a number of challenges in our R&D process. The first and biggest has been to understand how millets differ in structure and composition from wheat and barley— the primary grains used to brew beer. These differences impact every aspect of the beer, from the brewing process to the beer’s final characteristics, including its flavour, colour, cloudiness, and carbonation. At present, there exists very little research on whether one category can directly be substituted for the other in the context of brewing. So, we have had to learn a lot of it through trial-and-error at every stage.
For example, unmalted millets contain far more complex sugars when compared to malted wheat and barley. We’ve found this requires additional steps like cooking the grains and using enzymes to aid the breakdown of these sugars, which facilitates the fermentation process.
And then, structurally, millet husks are different from the kind of fibrous husks on wheat, barley, and rice. These husks help in the filtration of a sugary liquid called wort which is extracted from the grain, and then fermented. Breweries that work with millets in other countries have specialised filtration tanks that support this process, but our current facility is built for wheat and barley. So, in the absence of such equipment, we have been experimenting with techniques like using rice husks to aid in the filtration process.
Another challenge, as we look to scale up this project, has been in understanding how Indian millets differ within themselves. India has such a vast variety of millets and exploring this diversity, particularly in the context of beer, is something we have only begun to embark on.
Even today, six beers into this journey, there is so much we’re still learning through experimentation, such as how to develop certain characteristics in the beers, use more millet varieties, and push the percentage of millets used in every beer.
Which are the millets that you regularly use for your beers? What sets each of these millets apart?
We primarily work with jowar and bajra for our beers. The reason for this is simple: these are the largest in grain size among Indian millets, and the grain mills we use to crack the grains for the brewing process turn millets with smaller grain sizes into a powder, making the sugar extraction process much harder. However, this could be a challenge we are able to overcome through the use of different grain milling equipment, and is something we’re beginning to explore. We’re hoping our efforts will allow us to work with more millet varieties as well as other grains like buckwheat in the future!
Where do you source your millets from?
Over the years, we have procured millets from various sources, including local wholesalers, APMC (Agricultural Produce Market Committee) markets, and small-scale farmers through organisations like Kalsubai Farmer Group and Tillage. In 2023, we have been actively working towards building sourcing partnerships and supply chains that allow us to procure all of our millets directly from smallholder farmers in different parts of India so that a majority of the purchase price reaches the primary producer.
Great State has created an amazing millet beer handbook, which is also open-source. What does the handbook include, and what do you hope for it to achieve?
The Brewing With Millets Handbook is a documentation of everything that Great State has learned about brewing with millets through our own experimentation and inputs from fellow brewers over the years. It is a humble attempt to excite and encourage craft brewers in India to explore the use of millets in their own brewing practice.
This resource is far from exhaustive, as our trials continue to throw up new challenges and teach us new tricks. Instead, it includes notes on what worked for us and what didn’t, with the objective of fostering knowledge exchange among the craft beer community. Ultimately, our objective is to see more millet-based beers brewed in India, and our hope is that a resource like this can catalyse collective action in this direction.
What are some of the advantages of brewing with millets?
The major advantage we find is the scope for localising our grain supply chain. Today, a majority of the grain used to brew craft beer is imported. The more millets we use, the more we will be able to source grains from within India and move towards producing locally, as much as possible.
Tell us about the team’s favourites. What is each person’s go-to millet beer?
For our director, Nakul Bhonsle, Salt Of The Earth takes the cake, but he suspects the new one we’re working on will soon take its spot. Dinesh Thakur (Head Brewer) and Sameer Sohoni (Brewer) from our team swear by Dryland. Divyesh Patil (Operations Head) and Jyotsna Rallabhandi (Design Head) agree; Dryland is their favourite too. We all spent so much time tasting and fine-tuning this lovely beer, which is only made more compelling by the incredible label Orijit Sen created for it. It’s safe to say it has a special place in our hearts.
For me, it’s hard to decide. I think it’s going to have to be a tie between Beyond Your Wits and Salt of the Earth!
What do you envision for the future of the Millet Beer Project?
There is so much we want to do!
We’re currently exploring how we can engage more meaningfully with millet cultivation at the grassroots level, whether that is through sourcing, research, or documentation. We are also working to build a movement within the Indian craft beer community to encourage use of millets in beer through the open-source handbook, as well as knowledge-sharing dialogues, beer festivals, and other events promoting working with millets.
We’ve had incredible support from The Locavore’s Millet Revival Project in our efforts to incorporate millets into India’s craft beer culture, and build a new viable market segment for millet farmers. In the long run, we also hope to petition for support from state governments to incentivise the procurement of millets for craft beer. With access to a wide variety of millets and a growing need for the F&B sector to innovate with them, we believe the Indian brewing community can put the country on the global map for millet-based craft beers! And we hope the Millet Beer Project can help get us there.
This article is part of the Millet Revival Project 2023, The Locavore’s modest attempt to demystify cooking with millets, and learn the impact that it has on our ecology. This initiative, in association with Rainmatter Foundation, aims to facilitate the gradual incorporation of millets into our diets, as well as create a space for meaningful conversation and engagement so that we can tap into the resilience of millets while also rediscovering its taste.
Rainmatter Foundation is a non-profit organisation that supports organisations and projects for climate action, a healthier environment, and livelihoods associated with them. The foundation and The Locavore have co-created this Millet Revival Project for a millet-climate outreach campaign for urban consumers. To learn more about the foundation and the other organisations they support, click here.