Ales pair well with pizza, stouts and porters are nice with barbecue, and a wheat beer is lovely with salads, but for spicy foods like Indian and Thai, lagers and pilsners are the way to go.
That’s one of the big reasons why brothers Van and Sumit Sharma, whose family has operated Bombay Mahal in Brunswick for 30 years and who were the original owners of Taste of India in Bangor and Tandoor in Portland, wanted to brew their own beer that pairs perfectly with the complex spices and heat of Indian cuisine.
Rupee Beer launched earlier this year and is now on shelves at stores and in restaurants across the state, including at Damon’s Beverages in Bangor and Waterville, the Natural Living Center in Bangor, and Global Beverage Warehouse in Ellsworth. It’s a smooth, full-bodied lager that’s less carbonated than most other lagers, to better complement the spiciness of many Indian dishes, like biryanis, kebabs and tandoori chicken.
Van Sharma, 32, said that growing up in southern Maine in a restaurant family, he remembered well how hard it was to stock their business with Indian products, including longstanding, mass-produced Indian beers like Kingfisher and Taj Mahal.
“I remember when we first opened the restaurants in the ‘90s, there were Indian vendors that just would not distribute to Maine, everything from spices to produce to Indian beers. Kingfisher is a huge Indian beer, and you just couldn’t get it back then,” he said.
When he and his brother returned to Maine last year after close to 10 years of living overseas, they found Maine and Portland to be quite different from when they left, with a thriving craft beer scene and more diversity in both population and food. Eager to help their family further modernize and diversify their business, the brothers decided that an in-house beer designed to pair with spicy cuisines would do the trick.
As it turned out, the perfect person to brew such a beer actually lived just down the street from their childhood home: Alan Pugsley, co-founder of Shipyard Brewing and a legend in craft brewing who, as a Brit, was also a big fan of Indian food.
“He understood what we were trying to do perfectly,” said Van Sharma. “What Tex-Mex is to America, Indian food is to the U.K. It’s a huge part of the culture.”
After months of taste testing and experimenting, the trio came up with Rupee, which the brothers say is both an homage to and a way to carry on their proud immigrant heritage — and a way to bring more diversity to Maine’s overwhelmingly white craft beer scene.
Eighty-eight percent of craft breweries in the U.S. are owned by people who identify as white, and only 7 percent are owned by people of color, according to a 2019 study by the Brewer’s Association. While there aren’t any specific statistics available, in Maine, the percentage of craft breweries owned by white people is likely closer to 100 percent.
For now, the brothers intend to market Rupee throughout the Northeast, hoping to get into Indian restaurants across New England and the mid-Atlantic before expanding to the rest of the country and Canada. They’ve found that many other types of restaurants are also interested in their beer, however, with restaurants featuring spice-driven cuisines like Thai and Middle Eastern expressing interest.
“There’s a whole untouched market for craft beer for world cuisines that are spicy,” Sharma said. “We hope we can fill that void.”