Arts, Culture & Media

Pakistan's Murree Brewery Thrives Despite Muslim Laws

Murree-Brewery-bottling-line-Photo-Laura-Lynch-HEADER.jpg

Murree Brewery bottling line. (Photo: Laura Lynch)

Pakistan can be a land of contradictions. And here's one that has some of the nation's Muslims crying into their beer.

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Well, they might be if they were allowed to drink beer. Pakistan bans alcohol for Muslims — who represent 97 percent of the population.

But get this. There's a brewery and distillery not far from the capital of Islamabad. A brewery that's doing a booming business.

To get there, you have to navigate the checkpoints in the city of Rawalpindi, a place better known for its mix of mosques and military installations. First, you can smell it — the unmistakably yeasty scent of brewing hops.

Then you hear it. Rattling and clinking along the production line, it's bottle after bottle of beer, here in a country where booze is banned for all but a very few.

But Murree beer has time and history on its side.

Murree Brewery started business way back in 1860 at a brewery in the resort town of Murree, in the foothills of the Western Himalayas. British colonialists built it to brew ales for thirsty soldiers. But when Pakistan gained independence, the Bhandara family took over.

"It's more than a business, it's been in the family since 1947, seven decades now. It's not only me, it's not only my family that's associated with this company. There are grandchildren of people whose grandparents worked here," said Isphanyar Bandara, the third generation CEO to take on the challenge of running Murree.

Business was good until 1977.

That's when Pakistan's then leader Zulfikar Ali Bhutto banned alcohol as a way to court the support of conservative Muslims.

Today, the Rawalpindi brewery sounds as old as it looks as I enter the brew house. The Victorian era buildings haven't changed much — and beer is made pretty much the old fashioned way, according to Murree employee Sabih-ur-Rehman.

"We add hops for flavor and bitterness and we also add yeast."

As a Muslim, ur-Rehman isn't allowed to taste this product nor any of the gin, rum, vodka or 21-year-old whisky.

Neither are the several hundred employees of the plant.

Under the law, only non-Muslim Pakistanis and foreigners are allowed to purchase alcohol. And they're only able to buy it in a handful of gloomy bars that are hidden away in the corners of five star hotels.

It's just one of the rules that more than frustrates CEO Isphanyar Bhandara given the amount of bootlegged booze that enters the country.

"Imported alcohol — I mean beer and spirits — is coming into Pakistan being smuggled into Pakistan free of duty," he said. "The government does not earning a penny. That is coming and no one is making hue and cry."

Bhandara is also prohibited from advertising. But what he finds most infuriating is the government's refusal to allow him to sell his products abroad.

"If we start exporting, Pakistan I think, will be taken in a positive sense, I think more than as a fundamentalist state. Today Pakistan has a very bad image in the world exporting terrorism and suicide bombers and such a like but today if Pakistan was to export it will give a good image to our tarnished image."

Despite Bhandara's loud complaints, despite persistent lobbying by his late father, who was a well-connected politician in addition to being a brewmaster, the laws are not about to change. Indeed, as conservative Islam has gained influence in Pakistan, the number of legal liquor outlets has shrunk.

As a forklift operator steers another shipment of beer towards a truck, it's undeniable that business is good. So what explains the boom in sales?

Well, it's an open secret really. Many Muslims will swill a beer or sip a whisky, though only in private. When I put the proposition to Bhandara, a sly smile spreads across his face — do Muslims in Pakistan drink?

"Is the sky blue? Is the sky blue?" he asked with a laugh.

Bhandara may laugh, but he knows his brewery presents a troubling paradox for Pakistan. So he tries to keep a low profile inside the country.

"You didn't see any bodyguards outside my office, I'm a nobody so we don't give interviews to the local media but we try not discuss religion."

It's those kind of compromises and quiet understandings that have allowed the beer to continue to rattle down the bottling lines inside the brewery, quenching the thirst of so many in a nation that's officially dry.