LOGAN SQUARE — Two longtime friends are bringing the flavors of India to the world of craft beer.
Ray “Gator” Schrand and Bhavik Modi launched Logan Square-based Azadi Brewing in November 2020 during the Indian festival of lights, Diwali. Since then, the pair have released 20 beers with ingredients like lemongrass, cardamom and Indian teas. “Born in Chicago. Indian at Heart,” is the emerging brewery’s slogan.
The path to craft beer was not evident for the duo at first. While they had been best friends since high school — Modi even officiated Schrand’s wedding — they had gone their separate ways into the corporate world. Modi, who was born in India, went into professional consulting, focusing on leadership development, while Schrand started in the corporate world but then decided to study brewing science at Cincinnati State University.
Thanks to Modi’s job, he traveled all over the world including Asia and South America. Every place he found there was a national beer that was identified with their culture.
In India, Modi “noticed there’s this growing appreciation of craft beer in cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad and Mumbai, and all these places.”
Modi got the idea of taking “all the spices, flavors and ingredients from India, and incorporating them into American craft beer.”
They both started home brewing in 2018, experimenting with taking Indian dishes and making complementary beers. The choice of Chicago was not pre-ordained as they had lived in California and Cincinnati. But they decided to open in Chicago because Chicago has “this great kind of community of people that are open to different cultures and cuisines,” Modi said.
In 2020, they got the help of Logan Square-based Pilot Project brewing incubator, which helps aspiring breweries start up by providing comprehensive assistance including marketing, distribution, and of course brewing.
Each Azadi beer has its own story and has ingredients sourced from India. The first two beers they released were Kavi, a cardamon golden ale, and Gir, a Kesar Mango Indian Pale Ale.
Kavi means poet in Hindi and the idea came from Modi’s travels. He tried cardamom tea while he was in Kerala, India, which is famous for its tea plantations and river boats. Modi thought it would be an excellent ingredient for beer. Back home, they experimented and found it went well with golden ale.
Gir takes its name from the popularity of mangoes in India. In the region of Gujarat, where Modi is from, they grow the Gir Kesar mango, known for its deep saffron color and sweetness that Modi calls “the queen of mangos.” He brought back the idea to use this mango into an IPA.
Each beer has a key Indian ingredient (or more) as well as a story, connecting the craft beer with Indian culture and cuisine. For instance, Kadak, a Mumbai Cutting Chai Stout, gets its name and taste from the practice of cutting chai tea into smaller portions in Mumbai, kind of like how Italians drink small portions of espresso, Modi explained. The name means strong shot of tea. He befriended a particular tea seller who had a tea recipe that had been passed down four generations and asked if they could introduce the recipe to the US through their beer. Thus Kadak was born, one of several tea-based beers including lighter Summertime Chai, Wheat Ale with Nilgiri Tea, and Cochin, a Lemongrass Saison.
Azadi aspires to “create more cultural awareness and create a bigger tent around which people can enjoy craft beer,” Modi said. There’s a huge Indian diaspora here in Chicago and they hope to introduce the community to what makes American craft beer so great.
Outside of the Indian diaspora, there’s a lot of people who do not really know the richness of Indian cuisines. Modi said, “It almost feels like different countries within one; we wanted to expose the audience here to everything India has to offer.”
For Schrand, the diversity of Indian ingredients gave Schrand “a bigger canvas to work with and more paints to color with,” Modi explained, “He’s never tried any of these things before.”
Azadi’s beers are also intended to complement food, both Indian and non-Indian food. Local Chicago restaurant Indian Garden and its sister restaurant Mantra have been featuring Azadis’ beers. The ultimate goal of Azadi is to open their own space where they can serve their beer along with Indian beer bites.
The beers are available in stores, bars and restaurants around the area. Azadi has a list of locations here.
While they are working on establishing their own space, Azadi now is working to set up their own nonprofit that can give musical instruments and more to support the arts in India.
Until then, they’ll keep releasing new beers introducing Chicagoans with new tastes and ingredients in craft beer.
“I really feel like India as a whole has something really distinctive and unique to offer and it’s beyond just the Masalas and Chai,” Modi explained.
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