Buying beer in India: ‘Wine shop’ realities

I’ve been involved in another shoving match. It happened over the weekend at a liquor store. It’s a fairly common occurrence in India.

To be clear, it was not a fight of any kind. Just the usual pushing, elbowing, jostling for position at the counter that is often part of the beer-buying experience. Up above you can see the photo of the situation.

Purchasing liquor, wine, or beer can be an adventure in India. And after engaging in beer purchases at dozens of different retailers in various Indian states and municipalities, I feel I’m somewhat of an expert. Woohoo!

More info: I only drink/buy beer. My wife Ellen does not drink at all. One of the reasons I retired early was so I could travel, relax, and drink beer all over the world — and that is now what I do. 

Plus, since we’re most often living our budget-slow-travel lifestyle in hot-weather environs, a couple cold ones every afternoon/evening is the perfect way to celebrate another blessed day in whatever tropical paradise it is. Ellen and I will often raise a toast — her with water or a Coke Zero, me with an well-chilled can of the favorite local brew. In India, that’s usually Kingfisher.

More on the India specific situation: each Indian state (and the eight “Union Territories” – similar to Washington D.C.) sets its own liquor control, tax, and sales policies. The governments operate ‘state owed’ or state licensed stores – or a combination. Six states are ‘dry’ — Nagaland, Lakshadweep, Bihar, Gujarat, Manipur and Mizoram — no alcohol sales of any kind, except for the lucrative ‘black market’ — easily smuggled across a nearby state border. (And yes, I have purchased black market beer).

Further, in many places, liquor/wine/beer shops are very few in number compared to much of the rest of the world. Sometimes individual shops are spread miles and miles apart. Sometimes a single store serves ALL of a decent size town and beyond (like Rishikesh). 

Conversely, in big cities and more touristy areas – like Goa – numerous wine shops (as they are called locally) will crowd one street or area. Rarely will a wine shop sell anything else. Only in Goa did I ever buy beer at a more general supermarket type store.

I don’t pretend to truly understand how anything works in India. But I DO always make sure I immediately locate whatever wine shop options are available as soon as we arrive anywhere for a slow travel stay. If there is distance involved – I tend to ‘stock up’ once a week or so… get 10 or 12 big cans (almost always cans for recycling). On this current Chennai stay, my bicycle has been very helpful.

In addition to the hodge-podge nature of the store locations, the different governing entities and policies result in widely varying prices and selection. In Goa, which in my experience boasts the lowest prices in the country, a 500 ml can of Kingfisher can be had for 80 rupees – $1. Where the same exact product can be $1.40, $1.80, even $2+ in a neighboring state. Of course, the true “state stores” have the lowest prices. The licensed outlets always tack on a markup.

Additionally, available product is always a crapshoot. Some bigger city shops will have five or six different chilled beer brands (Kingfisher, Tuborg, Carlsberg, Budweiser, Heineken, Boom, Foster’s, British Empire). Small rural stores often have only ONE in stock – hopefully cold.

For the record, there is limited selection of booze available at most the shops. There are local cheaper labels – and a few ‘international’ brands… or potential counterfeits. Just for information, I recently inquired about prices: Jack Daniel’s 1700 rupees ($21), Bacardi flavors 1100 rupees ($13); wine bottles start under $10. I’ve never seen anyone buying wine. Nor have I ever seen any female anywhere near a wine shop.

Note: the only restaurants serving alcohol in India are the higher-end places and western style hotel bars/restaurants. Those drinks come at western prices. As I have said previously, if you require alcohol drinks at dinner, you will need a much higher food/drink budget.

Related:  Southeast Asia cheap beer report

Aside from the scrum at the counter, the facilities and people involved have made my beer-buying memorable. Some of the state stores — especially the rural locations – are absolute dumps! A small filthy shack falling apart, reinforced with chain-link fence, like a cage. Often it’s surrounded with garbage, empty cardboard boxes, other refuse, broken bottles, etc. A mess! But since it’s the only ‘game in town’ – I’m there! And always the only Caucasian in sight.

Even more disturbing than the conditions of these places are the zombies outside — the drunks laying there, sleeping there, living there.  I call them zombies because sometimes when they spot me approaching they will come running towards me, arms outstretched, groaning in Hindi. Begging money. Begging booze. Literally like a scene from the Walking Dead. Shocking!

Of course, I give out some 20 rupee bills (worth 25 cents) if I have them. I’d prefer the zombies go buy some food — but whatever. Who am I to deny them the one tiny satisfaction they have in life. Depressing! 

At ‘better’ stores I’ll often be involved in conversation with other customers or the staff; where I’m from?, how long I’m visiting?, how do I like India? a selfie please? Sure. Sometimes the nicer stores will invite me inside (the counter can usually be wheeled to the side). Foreigners and Indians with money are the only ones given such access at some places. The riff raff and zombies are kept at the counter. In fact, most well-off Indians have their wine shop orders delivered to their doorstep. I could also do that – but the scrum is an experience.

Most the time, I’m the only person buying beer too. It seems for most Indians at the wine shop counters, $1.50 is better spent on a small bottle of rot gut liquor. Sad. Of course, India is a majority Hindu country. Generally, drinking alcohol is permitted, but seemingly ‘discouraged’. From what I know, individual sects of Hinduism follow their own guidelines regarding consumption. Obviously, with 1.5 BILLION people – many poor – an alcohol problem could be really devastating to the country. Understandable to regulate and discourage, but there sure are a lot of alcohol bottles and cans littering the country.

Fyi, “bars” as known in the west, are very uncommon in India. Although I did attend a rare sports bar in Chennai. Sometimes a licensed wine shop will have an attached ‘drinking parlor’ (some beat-up tables & chairs) where patrons can consume their purchases. They sometimes have a “BAR” sign out front.  

In all, buying beer in India is certainly different than anywhere else on earth. And truthfully, most of the time there is no pushing or shoving. Really it’s no different than buying bus or train tickets. In India, the mundane can be chaotic. Indians are not much for lining up in a queue. It’s one of the charming/annoying things about the culture. And honestly, I will never forget the wine shop ‘mosh pits’…  or the zombies.

As always, be thankful and generous, happy trails & more beer.

Life is NOW!

(Editor’s note: if you think you have a problem drinking alcohol, take a self-assessment test at this outside site.)

About Theo

Tedly (Theo) retired early from the news business to wander the planet with wife Ellen. He enjoys exploring all Earth has to offer: jungles and beaches, volcanoes and deserts – always drinking beer along the way.

See budget slow travel tips from all over the world:

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