Brewery must go with the flow

SUN JOURNAL

Alcohol: Depending on who's in power in Pakistan, the 140-year-old Murree beermaker has experienced periods both heady and dry.

November 15, 2001|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,SUN STAFF

RAWALPINDI, Pakistan - Visit someone in Pakistan, and your host will almost invariably offer a cup of tea. Mino Bhandara takes a different approach. "Would you like a beer?" he asks.

For a Muslim, this kind of loose talk could lead to a lashing and a few months in jail. Alcohol is officially a forbidden pleasure for 97 percent of the population.

But for Bhandara, it's strictly business. He's chief executive of the Murree Brewery Co., an unlikely oasis of beer and booze in mostly dry Pakistan. Because his faith is Zoroastrian Parsi, he can freely enjoy the fruits of his labors, tipping a mug of pilsener, a snifter of brandy or a tumbler of gin.

It's not easy being a brewer here. The government sets prices, and Bhandara can neither export nor advertise his alcoholic products. You'll never see the company slogan, "Eat, Drink and be Murree," displayed over at Rawalpindi's Cricket Stadium, even on the hottest and thirstiest of days.

Zealous dictators and holy men have periodically shut down the business during Pakistan's 54 years of existence as the sub-continent's Muslim homeland. But somehow Murree has soldiered on, a vestige of the days when red-coated British troops patrolled the streets on horseback.

It was the British who began the brewery in 1861, to quench the thirst of its troops abroad. The territory was part of India then, and India was the keystone of Her Majesty's empire, where the sun never set and your mug never went dry.

Now there is little such certainty, and instead of planning new marketing campaigns like other brewers, Bhandara is usually preoccupied fending off the latest moralistic ambush. The most recent came in 1999, when pro-Taliban Gen. Muzaffer Usmani, army corps commander for Pakistan's largest and most liberal city of Karachi, ordered a shutdown of Karachi's "permit shops" where alcohol was sold to non-Muslims.

Murree's sales went flat as day-old beer, and the current annual production of about 440,000 gallons would barely keep some U.S. breweries going for a week.

But, since Sept. 11, the Taliban has gone out of fashion in official circles. Three weeks ago, Bhandara says, sounding very British indeed, "General Usmani was sacked. But even to date, the liquor shopkeepers in Karachi have been loath to reopen."

As if on cue at this mention of religious meddling, the evening call to prayer sounds from the speakers of a nearby mosque, floating across the rooftops as Bhandara takes another swallow.

The brewery's fortunes have often turned on some cataclysmic event. You can roughly chart Pakistan's brief history through the twists taken by Murree. "What happens is that the door opens, and then it closes," Bhandara says. "Much depends on the mood of the people, the convictions of the police force and how much the newspapers are screaming."

Murree's headiest days came during World War II, when the British produced 1.5 million gallons a year to keep its overseas troops satisfied. In the years after the war, Bhandara's family bought enough shares in the company to become part of management.

It proved a bad time to buy.

The upheaval came in 1947, with the founding of Pakistan. The new country was two chunks of land then - East and West Pakistan, lopped from the upper corners of India as havens for the region's Muslim population.

Hindus and Sikhs, who made up most of the brewery's work force, fled into India, passing waves of incoming Muslims. The British plant manager sold a bunch of surrounding property, pocketed the proceeds and bolted, leaving the brewery and the Bhandaras momentarily dry.

"It started functioning again after a fashion in 1949," Bhandara says. As the years passed, officials became progressively lax about enforcement. For a while, even a Muslim could drink, as long as he got a note from his doctor saying alcohol was a medical need.

Gen. Zia al-Haq took over the country in 1977, and that, too, seemed to be good news. "It was known that he was a drunk," Bhandara says. But the religious hard-liners were restive, blaming alcohol for religious backsliding, "and when the chips were down in 1979, Zia found that he was up against a right-wing wall. So to pacify them, he suddenly adopted some Islamic measures," Bhandara says

Even non-Muslims were banned from drinking. But a tiny loophole allowed for alcohol on non-Muslim religious holidays. Christians and Hindus were soon scanning their calendars for the birthdays of obscure saints and holy men. Enforcement gradually relaxed. The takeover a few years ago by Gen. Pervez Musharraf was also good news. That is, until the crackdown in Karachi. But war in Afghanistan has brought thousands of journalists and other foreigners to Pakistan, and Bhandara senses a potential boomlet if only the government would help out.

"If you order a bottle in your hotel room, you pay atrocious prices," he says, and the only other way a non-Muslim foreigner can get alcohol is to go to the trouble of filling out form F-8 from the Ministry of Excise and Taxation. "You can go to an office just behind the hotel laundry, where there is a licensed permit shop. You can buy it there for about a third of what you'll pay in your room."

But, he is asked, who'd want to deal with all that red tape just for a cheaper beer? Bhandara shrugs, wishing the government would streamline the process.

"They want to soft-peddle prohibition in order to collect the tax revenues," he says. "On the other hand, they want to keep the lid on consumption, so it will appear that they're very serious about it." He slowly shakes his head at the paradox, taking another sip of his beer.

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