Longtime friends Bhavik Modi and Ray “Gator” Schrand have created what might be the only Indian brewery on tap in the American craft beer market: Azadi Brewing Company.
The co-founders said everything about each Azadi beer is a lesson in Indian history and culture.
The ingredients mostly come from the Indian grocer Patel Brothers on Devon Avenue while others come straight from India.
For instance, the brewery’s saison, Cochin, uses lemongrass sourced from a female-owned farm in the Himalayas.
“We actually DHL express the order after it’s picked up from the farm and bring it here,” Modi said.
The duo said their logo is representative of dabbawalas in Mumbai, India.
“There’s these gentlemen that often are not college-educated or even high school-educated that travel around Mumbai on their bicycles and the local public transit and they take hot lunches from people’s homes in the morning and deliver them to folks that are working during lunch time and then they’ll bring the lunch box back at the end of the day,” Modi said. “It’s the most efficient delivery system in the world.”
The name Azadi comes from a song in a Bollywood film.
“And so we were listening to that in the car, and it all just kind of came together for us,” Modi said.
“We wanted to our name to represent what we were trying to do in craft beer, and Azadi specifically means freedom or liberty,” he continued.
Modi and Schrand (who was born with a tooth and bit his grandfather, earning himself the nickname “Gator”) said each of the 30-plus beers they’ve brewed tells a story.
There’s the lager called Time Pass, a phrase often said in India that means hanging out.
Or a year-round mango IPA called Gir that celebrates the Kesar mango variety in India.
And a chicory amber ale with coffee undertones called Jaago, which means awakening.
“People come to us saying, you know, your names are a little harder to pronounce,” Modi said, “and that’s OK with us because it represents our language and our culture.”
The brewery had its official launch in November 2020 during Diwali, the Indian festival of lights.
But one could argue the seed was planted years before that, when Modi and Schrand first met in high school in Cincinnati.
“I was born in India. My family was Indian. I was a first-generation student in the United States. And so when I moved to Ohio, there weren’t a lot of people that looked like me,” Modi said.
“Meeting Bhavik has definitely been my biggest introduction into Indian culture,” Schrand said. “His family has always kind of accepted me over at his house and I’ve learned a lot about different Indian foods and different Indian traditions.”
After college, Schrand stayed in Ohio and Modi moved to Chicago.
Their friendship and growing interest in beer kept them in touch.
Modi later brought the idea of Indian American craft beer to Schrand, who had recently left his corporate job and got a degree in brewing science.
“He kind of said to me, you know, why aren’t there any Indian breweries in America or Indian-influenced beers in America?” Schrand said. “And I thought that was a great idea. I didn’t really have a good answer for him. So I just decided we should start our own.”
The two experimented with traditional Indian spices and fruits, from dried pomegranate seeds and mangoes to lemongrass, coriander and tellicherry black pepper.
They said after those early batches in Schrand’s garage brewed some big fans, they realized it was time to bring Azadi to scale.
To help with that, they landed on Logan Square-based brewery incubator Pilot Project Brewing.
The incubator helps breweries with product, distribution and marketing without committing to a full-scale brewery.
Pilot Project’s national sales director Tony Dziura has been working with the Azadi co-founders and said Azadi offers something he hasn’t seen in any of the nearly 20 years he’s spent in the beer industry.
“I think what’s standing out with Azadi right now, especially in the times that we’re in, in the craft beer market and how it can be kind of an oversaturated industry is the flavors,” Dziura said. “I think that we’re leaning a lot more towards interesting flavors.”
While Azadi is making waves in the American craft beer market, it’s also bridging together two cultures that haven’t always seen eye-to-eye on alcohol.
“I think beer hasn’t been a part of Indian culture, one due to government regulations,” said Modi.
“Also, culturally and religiously, there’s been some barriers to acceptance around alcohol,” he continued. “And I think third, economically, India has only recently kind of grown their middle class, grown folks that can afford discretionary spending like alcohol and beer. And so you see those three things coming together right now and growing the beer scene there.”
The co-founders said they aspire to open their own tasting room.
But in the meantime, they hope Azadi continues to give beer lovers a taste of Indian flavor and culture.
“Bhavik has introduced me to so much of Indian culture and Indian flavors and, you know, I almost feel like a bit of an ambassador to my family and friends, and I can help them out a little bit, understand more about Indian culture,” said Schrand.