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Desmond Nazareth distills and bottles mahua under the brand name DJ | Photo: Sagun Gawade

Mahua makes it to the bar, tribes likely to benefit

Derek Almeida, Panaji

In a liquor market crowded with the world’s best brands, an intrepid Goan entrepreneur has carved out shelf space for the humble mahua, the traditional drink of tribal people in 13 states across India.

The flower of the mahua tree (Madhuca longifolia) is collected and sold by forest dwellers. From time immemorial, they have also distilled a rough country liquor from the flowers for their own consumption.

The law allows tribal people to keep small quantities of the spirit for themselves. But Desmond Nazareth, 61, while exploring heritage liquors, saw the potential of elevating mahua to the status of a national drink like tequila, bourbon, vodka or Scotch. 

He has distilled mahua to international standards and put it out as a craft spirit in prettily emblazoned bottles under the label of DesmondJi. Walk into a departmental store in Goa and mahua now has its own corner among the big brands.

You can have a shot of mahua with tonic water, a twist of lime and some ice. Or you can buy it as a liqueur. Both versions were launched in June this year and so it is still early days. But Nazareth believes that as the citified take to mahua, the potential for tribal people to earn from mahua flowers will rise significantly.

Mahua wasn’t Nazareth’s first foray into liquor. He studied at IIT Chennai and ran a computer software company in the US. On his return in 2000, while looking for something interesting to take up, he chanced upon the agave plant growing in Andhra Pradesh. Tequila is made from agave in Mexico. Nazareth decided to make it here. So, the first craft brew he put out was Agave, which he couldn’t call tequila because of the GI status that Mexico enjoys.

On a trip to Daman he came across mahua for the first time. The bottle he bought, with great difficulty, had an interesting flavour, he recalls, but its quality was poor. It crossed his mind that this tribal brew could be refined. 

So two years after he produced his first batch of Agave liquor, Nazareth decided it was time to bring mahua from the tribal belt to cities.

“I have this vision of creating a heritage alcohol that has wide geographical footprint, is rooted in culture and the soil and I think mahua meets all these conditions,” he says. “Most countries have a national drink. Mexico has tequila. The US has bourbon. I think in India, mahua qualifies for national heritage status.”

FROM FOREST TO FACTORY

The mahua tree is revered by tribal communities across northern Maharashtra, eastern Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, southern Bihar, northern Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Odisha. Tribal oral literature is replete with stories, songs and sacred verses about the mahua tree and its many blessings.

Desmond Nazareth with a large bowl of freshly harvested mahua  | Women collecting mahua

According to a 2008 study on minor forest produce by the Forest Governance Learning Group, India produces more than 85,000 tonnes of mahua flowers each year and an estimated 90 percent of this goes into making alcohol.

The manufacture of mahua is not regulated like feni in Goa. Since this drink is manufactured in small quantities, each tribal family is not allowed to store more than five litres. The total quantity of liquor produced is not known. But the scope of the operation can be gauged by the quantity of mahua flowers that are sold each year.

The mahua flower is among the top five minor forest produce items in the country and is the biggest non-timber forest produce revenue earner for Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

According to AGMARKET, a portal of the Directorate of Marketing and Inspection, an attached office of the Department of Agriculture, which receives data from more than 2,700 markets, about 90,000 tonnes of mahua flowers arrived at APMCs in 2012.

Nazareth sees enormous potential for mahua production. “It’s not something casual. It is a huge operation. There are literally millions of trees spread over forests in central India,” he explains.

When Nazareth began to chase his dream, he faced roadblocks. He was told that he couldn’t be granted a licence as mahua was listed as a country spirit. There are three categories of liquors in India — country spirits, imported spirits and Indian-made foreign liquor (IMFL).

“I had to convince the Andhra Pradesh government to permit mahua  to be also considered as an IMFL,” he says. “I wanted to make a liquor of international standard because only then would I be able to get it into the right stores.” After much persuasion, Nazareth was finally granted permission to manufacture it as a non-country spirit.

The next step was to move it to Nazareth’s home state, Goa, which had never heard of mahua. “I wanted it to be recognised as an IMFL in Goa because then I could go to other states and seek licences on the basis that Goa had accepted it.” So, it was a long, circuitous route to raising mahua’s status from a plebeian country liquor to an esteemed IMFL. 

Once permissions were in place, Nazareth decided to work directly with Adivasis in central India to source top-quality flowers. “Flowers are the key to quality alcohol and one has to ensure that every process is of a very high standard, right from collection of fresh flowers, getting them sun-dried and transporting them,” he explains.

The sun-dried flowers are rich in sugar and though flowering occurs for just a month, proper storage ensures that mahua can be produced throughout the year. “This year I worked with three groups of tribals and we gathered 11 tonnes of flowers which was the source for my first batch of mahua liquor,” he says.

The flowers usually drop from the tree’s huge canopy at night and have to be collected by morning. Every mahua tree has an owner, usually an Adivasi family. Ownership is recorded with the forest department and is passed from one generation to the next. A single tree can produce up to 200 kg of flowers a year and older trees are more fecund.

The purchase price of flowers varies during the year. “Flowers are sold for Rs 20 a kg but we pay the tribals a premium over the highest rate. I would like the price to go up because it would help them, even though it would play havoc with my costing,” he says. “An Adivasi once told me that with 10 trees he could look after a family of four.”

Tribal communities lose out because of skewed taxation. Despite being a freely tradable item in Madhya Pradesh, a two percent Mandi Tax is imposed on mahua, though it is hardly sold in mandis which are far from villages. So collectors are forced to sell it to local grocery shops. Further, a 12 percent sales tax is imposed on mahua within MP, while it is three percent outside MP. In Odisha, four percent VAT is charged on the flowers and 14 percent on the finished product. This gives neighbouring states like Bihar and Chhattisgarh an advantage over Odisha and MP, as taxes and duties on mahua in the former states are lower.

But it affects the livelihoods of the primary collectors badly and provides incentives for smuggling in border areas. These taxes have restricted community access to better markets within as well as outside the state.

REFINING MAHUA

Tribals generally use two methods to produce mahua liquor. One is to use just the flowers and the other is by adding jaggery to increase volume and boost alcohol content. The apparatus is rudimentary, often using mud pots. The alcohol that emerges is cloudy and smoky. After a single distillation, the alcohol content is roughly 15 percent. Tribals almost never go in for a second distillation.

Nazareth works directly with tribal communities

“They do not use yeast. Instead they use rice cakes in which some bacteria and yeast are trapped. In fact, there are specialists who make these starter cakes in the tribal areas,” explains Nazareth. But his plant in Andhra Pradesh uses standard stainless steel vessels and yeast.

“I cannot risk using rice cakes because I am producing a batch of 2,000 litres at a time and should something go wrong, the loss would be huge.” His mahua doesn’t taste like the original brew because he uses stainless steel vessels with copper elements instead of clay and all impurities are removed.

The rigorous process comes at a price. A bottle of mahua in a tribal area is for around Rs 200. The liquor sold under the DesmondJi brand costs Rs 1,000. Nazareth also has to pay all sorts of export and import duties, excise and VAT duties, and the cost of transporting mahua flowers over 1,500 km. Then there are distributors and retailer commissions to contend with. “All this makes up 60 percent of the cost and I am left with 40 percent to cover production, overheads and marketing. The only thing that drives me is to make a world-class liquor and a national drink,” he says.

The first batch of 11 tonnes of mahua flowers yielded 2,000 cases of mahua liquor which is at present being sold in Goa and there are plans to export it to the world. The dream of a national drink might still be a long way off, but Nazareth has taken the first step. “We could be the game changer, and 20 or 30 years from now mahua could be as big as cachaca is in Brazil,” he says.

It was Nazareth’s success with agave, the plant used to make tequila, that led him to discover mahua.

THE AGAVE HUNT

A few years after Nazareth moved to the US, he started a computer company. “We were among the first to detect the Y2K problem in 1986 and created the tools to resolve it.” He says it as if it was as easy as sipping mahua on a Saturday night.

Desmond Nazareth paying tribute to an agave plant

Nazareth acquired a reputation in his circle of friends for mixing heady cocktails, margaritas in particular. When he returned to Mumbai, he found himself repeatedly coaxed into blending drinks.  

“To make my range of cocktails, I had to stock my bar, but I couldn’t find most of the right ingredients like good tequila or orange liqueur. What I found were cheap overpriced varieties,” he explains.

His search for the right ingredients led him to establish a micro-distillery in Andhra Pradesh under Agave Industries India Pvt. Ltd. And with it desi tequila was born. “I grew up in India and that’s where the agave story begins,” he says. “My father used to work with AIR and we travelled a lot.” It was during these travels that he came across many species of plants, including agave, and it remained at the back of his mind.

He also wondered why tequila, which is safeguarded with a GI, is made in Mexico alone. There are historical reasons for this protection. Here is the story:

The Columbian Exchange was an important event in history. The phrase was coined in 1972 by historian Alfred Crosby to describe the exchange of crops and livestock from the New World and the Old World. The New World received staples like citrus, apples, banana, onions, coffee, wheat and rice while the Old World got maize, tomato, vanilla and potato.

While looking for information on agave, Nazareth read Agaves of Continental North America by Howard Gentry who wrote that the agave plant had travelled all over the world and it was a matter of time before other countries started producing agave spirit, best known as tequila and mezcal.

This led him down the path of research which would keep him engrossed for nearly four years.  “I took a map of the world and traced the latitudes passing through the areas where the agave plant is grown in Mexico,” said Nazareth. He made a surprising discovery. The lines passed through the Deccan Plateau. It was then that he remembered seeing the agave plant during his travels as a youngster with his family.

“When I moved to Goa I realised this was a place where I could start experimenting,” he said. While doing a documentary called Souls and Spices on 450 years of colonial rule in Goa he got to meet many people, among them Miguel Braganza, a respected botanist, and Johnny da Silva.

Within six months the three found themselves travelling into the Deccan Plateau in a mini-truck. It was meant to be a week-long expedition to find the agave plant. Fortuitously, they had hardly travelled 200 km into Karnataka when they came across a farmer who was using it for fencing. In the Deccan the plant is also used for soil conservation because its roots spread laterally. The farmer agreed to sell them a few plants and the trio had to tell the guards they were giant pineapples to get them across the border.

“After four years of experimentation I started getting a good response and people began choosing my drink over established international brands. That’s when I thought of starting a company,” recollects Nazareth.

Why did he choose to set up a distillery in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh? “My original plan was to lease around 8,000 acres of semi-arid land to grow the agave plants,” explains Nazareth. Since the plants take around 10 years to mature, they have to be planted in batches separated by a year. The plant flourishes in areas where the annual rainfall is between 600 and 800 mm. “It won’t grow in Goa as the rainfall is too heavy,” he says.

While looking for partners, Nazareth met a consultant for ITC doing a project in a rural area under their corporate social responsibility plan, who suggested that he visit southern Andhra Pradesh.  “I was surprised to see thousands of agave plants,” he says, “somebody was obviously planting them for other reasons.”

Being a tri-state area comprising Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, he had to choose one state to register the company. “At that time I chose AP because Tamil Nadu wouldn’t allow anyone to register and Karnataka had corruption issues.”

He began setting up his factory in 2007 and in 2011, after raising two million dollars, the first batch — 1,500 cases of the DesmondJi brand of agave spirit — was ready for sale. Since then sales have increased and today, Agave India produces around 12,000 cases a year.

Today, after nearly 20 years of hard work, the company is producing 10 premium alcoholic products — 100 percent Agave, 51 percent Agave, 51 percent Oak Finish Agave, Pure Cane which is close to Brazil’s cachaca, orange liqueur, Blue Curacao, two Margarita blends and two mahua spirits.

Last year, before the mahua spirits were launched, Agave India produced 15,000 cases and this year Nazareth has increased capacity to double production.

About seven percent is exported from Goa, where the liquor is bottled, and Andhra Pradesh.  “The products are doing well and we have captured 30 to 40 percent of markets we have entered,” says Nazareth. All products are currently sold in Goa, with key products also being sold in Bengaluru, Mumbai and Pune and there are plans to enter Delhi.

“We export to the US where we have a co-branding agreement with Porfidio and to Europe through Belgium,” says Nazareth. Recently, a Danish distillery bought 9,000  bottles.

NAME WITH A TWIST

Speaking about the rise of his brand, Nazareth proudly says that he always depended on local talent in Goa to take his plans forward. For instance, the micro-distillery was designed by architect Hyacinth Pinto and the bottles were designed by Reboni Saha.

But selecting a brand name did not come easy. At the outset Nazareth was advised by marketing gurus that since the drinking population is aspirational, a Mexican sounding name would appeal to them.

Nazareth held his ground. “I wanted an Indian sounding name,” he says. “We thought of various names but most were taken because the problem in India is that people can squat on names.”

A golden rule in marketing is that a brand name should be original and have recall value. At a brainstorming session, Cajetan Vaz, who was a branding consultant, came up with the name ‘Desji’. Nazareth did not like the name and fate played its part in blocking it. The registrar rejected it because it sounded like ‘desi’. Finally, Vaz came up with ‘DesmondJi’, which was not registered because, as Nazareth puts it, “who would think of a name like that?”

As sales improved and the media took interest, news eventually reached Mexico and a year later a team from the Tequila Regulatory Council arrived in Chennai to check out if Nazareth was violating GI rules.

Nazareth did not meet them but explained that he never claimed to make the world-famous tequila. Instead, he argued that he was making Indian agave spirit. This satisfied them, but to boost sales he had to make the association with tequila. There are 250 species of agave and 15 are used to make liquor. Nazareth’s sales pitch is that he is making a spirit which, like tequila and mezcal, also belongs to the international agave family. One result was an article in a Mexican newspaper called Negocios on September 18, 2012. And it quoted Ramon Gonzalez Figueroa, director of the Tequila Regulatory Council, as saying that, so far, DesmondJi is the only brand similar to tequila that they detected in India.

This certainly was a feather in Nazareth’s cap and proved that all his research, hard work and dedication had finally yielded recognition, even from the Mexicans.

Agave India, which has around 70 investors from India and abroad, is now firmly established. Nazareth has successfully converted mahua into an aspirational Made in India drink. What remains is the heritage tag and taking mahua to the world.

Mahua and agave are sold under the brand name, DJ   |  Photo: Sagun Gawade

Comments

  • Malcolm &Mariani Nazareth

    Malcolm &Mariani Nazareth - Dec. 13, 2018, 9:33 a.m.

    Keep it up, Dez. We're proud of you and your series of achievements down the decades. Mahua is the Mount Everest of them all, it would seem. :-)

  • Desmond Nazareth

    Desmond Nazareth - Dec. 9, 2018, 8:08 p.m.

    Thanks so much, Derek Almeida and Civil Society Magazine, for the in-depth coverage of this 'black swan' event in international alcobev... Very important to us that the tribal people of Central India benefit from developments... thanks for highlighting some of those aspects as well!

  • Donna Holton

    Donna Holton - Dec. 8, 2018, 6:18 p.m.

    Great story!

  • Eddie

    Eddie - Dec. 2, 2018, 5:59 a.m.

    A truly inspiring story of a wonderful venture by Desmond Nazareth of Goa. After years of hard work, he has set up a distillery that produces a tequila-like liquor based on the mahua flower of the agave plant. It is an enthralling story.

  • David Vaz

    David Vaz - Dec. 1, 2018, 8:51 a.m.

    Wow!! Such a remarkable journey. A tribute to the resilience and innovation of DJ.