Have a Murree with your curry
By Khalid Hasan
WASHINGTON: “Ninety-nine per cent of our customers are Muslim,” the head of Murree Brewery and Member of the National Assembly Minoo Bhandara was quoted saying in an interview published Monday.
He told the Guardian newspaper, London – a report lifted and circulated on the Internet – that Murree Brewery products are selling well. Sales of the Classic beer, a light, crisp lager, rose 12 percent last year. Its gin, brandy and whisky products are also doing well. That it was happening despite a “phalanx of official restrictions,” Bhandara explained was because “ninety-nine per cent of our customers are Muslim.”
Bhandara greeted the newspaper’s correspondent in his office one morning with the invitation to choose between a cup of tea and a glass of beer. The report said, “Mr Bhandara can afford such audacity because he runs Murree Brewery, Pakistan’s lone beer factory in a country under prohibition. Twenty-five years ago the military leader Zia-ul-Haq imposed an alcohol ban on Muslims, who make up 97 percent of the population. Since then only minority faiths - such as Christians, Hindus and Mr Bhandara’s Zoroastrian faith - can drink. In theory. In reality,” it is the Muslims who consume 99 percent of the produce.
The report said that although an advertising ban means few Pakistanis are familiar with the company slogan, ‘Eat, Drink and be Murree,” millions are following its call. Officially, beer is hard to procure. There are about 66 licensed alcohol outlets across the country, which are unevenly distributed, it noted. Punjab province, with 70 million inhabitants, has just eight shops selling alcohol, while the sparsely populated Baluchistan region has 15.
The report said, “The system is riddled with enterprising abuse. Bootleggers run a thriving black market by snapping up beer quotas from Christians for resale to Muslims. Imported alcohol floods into Pakistan through all its borders. Chinese vodka is spirited across the northern mountain passes, while ancient dhows carry crates of western beer and scotch from the Gulf states to Pakistan’s west coast. In the capital Islamabad diplomats at some central Asian and African embassies are known to offer a discreet take-away service from their diplomatic compounds, in return for a hefty mark-up. Government officials turn a blind eye to the abuses, and well they might: even the President, Pervez Musharraf, is known to enjoy a glass of scotch at the end of a hard day. And as far as anyone knows, the official punishment sanctioned by the Qur’an, 80 lashes with an oil-soaked whip, has never been applied.”
The report described what some see as the “nudge-wink attitude” which they think is a healthy sign of “creeping liberalism” in Pakistan, inspired by Gen Musharraf’s pledge to curb Islamic extremism. “But for Mr Bhandara, it is simply double standards. ‘It’s totally hypocritical,’ he said. ‘No matter what happens, at least 5 percent of our people will want to drink beer. And they know there’s nothing sinful about it.’” The report noted out that there have always been challenges for the brewery, a relic of the Raj and also Pakistan’s oldest company. “Founded in 1861 to slake the thirst of British troops, Murree was named after a hill station above present-day Islamabad.
Although sales peaked during the second world war, business was never plain sailing. An earthquake consumed Murree’s Quetta brewery in 1935; a Muslim mob torched its original building in 1947,” said the report.
According to the correspondent, among the 350 mostly Muslim employees, some hold a “possibly unique position.” The quality control manager, Fakher-e-Mahmood, for example, supervises standards without a drop of beer passing his lips. “We have another team for that,” he said. “I arrange the tasting, they tell me if anything is wrong.” Noor Ellahi, an employee for 41 years, supervises 430 casks of maturing whisky. He says he has never been tempted. “No, never. I am totally not inclined,” he said. But even if he was, opportunities are limited. A team of government excise officials and security guards roam the compound, to ensure that no contraband slips out. Murree retains a distinctly old-world feel. “Mr Bhandara, a softly spoken 66-year-old with an often-distracted air, commands operations from behind a Victorian desk. He hopes to sell Murree in Indian restaurants in the UK under the slogan ‘Have a Murree With Your Curry,’ and although an earlier drive failed he is now looking for a British brewing partner. But will prohibition ever be lifted at home? Mr Bhandara, who is fond of saying, ‘We have a great future in front of us’, thinks not. ‘The law will be lax one day, tough the next. But it will still be with us.’”