Saturday, June 28, 2003

Pakistan: Murree Brewery, Rawalpindi

Always keen for a brewery tour, I contacted Murree Brewery to see if one might be possible. After a few weeks, I received a reply to my letter:  The brewery manager was happy to oblige.

With the brewery onboard, the next hurdle was getting clearance from the Embassy.

Murree Brewery is located in Rawalpindi, the sister city to Islamabad, and since any travel outside Islamabad city limits required approval from the security office, I contacted the guys with my proposal.  Luckily, security agents enjoy brewery tours as much, if not more, than your average Joe, and permission was granted without much hassle.  The security office capped the trip at eight participants, due to the capacity of the armored cars we would be taking and because it is obviously easier to safeguard a small group than it is a big one.

With the ground rules set, I put out the word that there were five seats available for the tour.  I had taken a seat for myself off the top, of course, and two went to security guys.  Well, within two minutes, the tour was full, and there was a lengthy waiting list.  As I mentioned earlier, employees had to request permission to leave city limits for any reason, and these requests were often denied due to security concerns.  Many people just gave up trying after a few such rejections, so when someone presented a pre-approved trip as I had done, people were chomping at the bit to join.  Unfortunately, there just wasn't room to accommodate everyone.

When the big day finally arrived, we met up at the Embassy for a 9 AM departure.  We all felt privileged at the opportunity, like we were holding the golden tickets to Willy Wonka's Chocolate Factory.

After a problem with one of the vehicles caused a brief delay, we were finally underway at around 9:30.

Driving is a bit chaotic in Islamabad, but the closer we got to Rawalpindi, traffic became increasingly more haphazard.  Our Pakistani drivers didn't bat an eye, though, and we ducked and weaved our way through town like everyone else.

When we pulled into the brewery, it was a quarter after 10.  While this wasn't exactly the crack of dawn, it was still quite early considering what was in store for us.

Unlike every other brewery tour on which I have ever been, this one started in the tasting room, instead of finishing there.

Upon our arrival the manager welcomed us and immediately ushered us into a dining room.  There, a massive green table awaited us.  It was brimming with trays of savory pastries, bowls of chips and nuts, and beer, beer, beer.  It was only 10:30 in the morning, but we dutifully got the party started.

All three varieties of beer were available - Murree Original (4.5%), Murree Classic Lager (5.5%), and Murree Millennium (8%) - and there were flushed faces all around the table before long.  At 8%, Murree Millennium really packed a punch.  This "special occasion beer" also makes for a very cheap night out.  The going rate for a liter is about 50 cents.

Needless to say, this was quite a breakfast!

While we imbibed and ate meat pies, the manager gave us some background on the brewery.

The company began in 1860 with a brewery near the town of Murree, from which the brewery took its name.  It was built to cater to the thirsty British soldiers who were then controlling India.  At the time, Pakistan was still part of India.

In the 1880's two additional breweries were opened: one in Rawalpindi and one in Quetta.  The facility in Pindi also included a distillery.

The original brewery in Murree was one of the first modern breweries in Asia, but unfortunately, it did not survive.  Production mostly ended at that facility in the 1920's, and in 1947, when the British were painfully splitting Pakistan and India apart, the brewery at Murree was burned to the ground during a riot.  The facility in Quetta didn't fare much better.  It was leveled by an earthquake in 1935 and never rebuilt.

That left Murree Brewery in Rawalpindi as Pakistan's sole remaining brewery.  Before Partition, Murree Beer had been popular throughout the country, even with the locals.  After Partition, things changed.  As a conservative Muslim nation, Pakistan basically became a dry country.  The brewery was allowed to continue production, however, with sales limited to non-Muslims.  Today, it remains the oldest business concern in the country.

Anyway, after about forty-five minutes of beer and biscuits, we started the actual tour.

Much of the equipment in the brewery originated in Germany, and all of it looked very rustic.  Our guide led us through several rooms and explained the magical process by which water, yeast, hops, and barley are converted to beer.  There were tanks, valves, and pipes to negotiate, and in a few places the floor was uneven.  It was an accident waiting to happen, in other words, and I was the first klutz to showcase my graceful moves.  I walked around a tank and clocked myself on a metal beam.  The impact was pretty loud, so I didn't have much chance at playing it off.  I didn't feel too bad about it, though, because two other people would meet the same fate before the tour was over.  Maybe that's why most breweries do the sampling after the tour.  Ha ha.

After the fermenting rooms, we came to the bottling room - my favorite part of any beverage tour besides the tasting.  On the morning we were there, they were bottling one of their non-alcoholic beers, Malt-79, and a handful of Pakistani quality control technicians were carefully watching the bottles run down the conveyor belts.  Seeing these technicians reminded me of a joke that I had often heard in expat circles.  For some people, the taste of Murree beer, especially Millennium, was a bit harsh.  The joke was that since it was brewed in a Muslim country, no one at the factory was allowed to taste the product and it went to market completely untested.

This wasn't true, of course, and the beer was routinely sampled by trained professionals.  Any harshness was therefore by design.

As I mentioned earlier, the brewery had an adjoining distillery.  We had not arranged to tour both, so our guide briefly explained their distillery operations and took us to see the whiskey aging in barrels in the cellars.  Besides beer, the Murree Brewery and Distillery also produced scotch, gin, vodka, rum, brandy, soft drinks, and fruit beers.

By 12:30, the tour was drawing to a close.  Our guide led us back to the dining room, and we enjoyed a few more brewskies.  While we were sitting there, the manager rejoined us, and this time he came bearing gifts: a Murree Brewery t-shirt for each of us.

The whole team at the brewery had been outstanding, but unfortunately, I had not come prepared with gifts for everyone.  I had brought along one t-shirt from the Embassy, so I presented it to the manager.  I wished I had brought a second one for our guide, though.

Once we were again well-hydrated, we loaded up in the cars and started back for Islamabad.

One of the security officers, Tony, was sitting in the front seat of my SUV, and as we drove through Pindi, he decided to throw us a bone.

"Does anyone want to stop at the markets while we're here?" he asked.

There is a time and place for everything, however, and as we looked out the windows at the masses of people sweating and haggling in the scorching midday sun, the answer was pretty clear.

"No, thanks!" was the unanimous response.

It wasn't every day that a chance to shop in Pindi came along, but sometimes enjoying a buzz in the comfort of an air-conditioned car on a hot summer day is reward enough.

Sunday, June 22, 2003

Pakistan: Murree

A month into my assignment in Pakistan, I finally went on an outing. The destination was Murree, which is about an hour from Islamabad. Murree is in the hills at about 6,000 feet, and it was once a British hill station. During colonization the British officers had summer homes in Murree to escape the heat of Islamabad. Actually, they were escaping the heat of Rawalpindi since Islamabad didn't exist at the time.

Anyway, I went with another American (my good friend Ross) and two Pakistanis. One of the Pakistanis was our local guard force commander, who was a retired captain in the Pakistan Army; the other was his friend, an army major. [Pakistan Army motto: We are the Punch!]

For the trip, we all crammed into the friend's tiny Honda.

Every ten or fifteen minutes, we passed a cluster of shops along the road. These shops were gritty, utilitarian stores selling food and tires and things. The farther we got from the city, the more animals there were roaming about. There were cows and water buffalos walking along the shoulders of the road. I was expecting to see a collision, preferably not with my vehicle, and the resulting hamburger explosion, but no dice.

As we got higher up, the air got cooler. Unfortunately, the higher we got up the mountain roads, the narrower the roads became and the easier it was for traffic to gridlock. In Pakistan, there are lumbering, colorful buses everywhere. They are often totally overloaded with passengers even filling the roof and hanging out of the doors. Well, there were a lot of these buses going into the mountains. They were slow; they were constantly blasting their loud musical horns; and they were spewing nasty exhaust. Since the A/C wasn't working in the Honda, black smoke poured in the windows as we chugged up the mountain at turtle speed. I was getting a headache.

Driving in Pakistan is very interactive, and people love to signal their fellow motorists to speed up or get out of the way. Every second, we were honking at someone or flashing the lights or something. Of course, the people in front frequently failed to respond, which naturally led to some hair-raising passes.

When we got to Murree, the traffic thinned out. The Captain had an adopted sister who was in a convent school there, so we signed her out and took her into town with us. She was in the fifth grade. Every time I would try my Urdu out on her, she would laugh at me. Everyone understood what I was saying to her, but I decided to stick with English since my Urdu was so hilarious.

When we got to the convent school - the Convent of Jesus and Mary - Ross wasn't feeling well and started vomiting in the bushes. It was real nice. He told us that he must have caught a cold, but on the ride up, he had told us about doing tequila shots the night before. My vote was that he was hung-over.

We went into town, and it was really touristy. There was an animal park, a chair lift, a dumpy looking carnival, horse rides, and so forth. There were a lot of Pakistani tourists there, and they were all toting their cameras.

Our first order of business in town was lunch, so our hosts asked Ross and me what type of food we wanted. My vote was the spicier, the better, and the sick guy concurred. Who was he trying to fool? We ended up going to a barbeque joint, and he didn't stand a chance.

We got a table, and when the waiter brought out the glasses and dishes, I couldn't help but notice that everything had food caked on it. Yum...

We ordered a nice spread of meats and curries and rice. Meanwhile, Ross started to feel nauseous again, so he went to the bathroom. This bathroom was one of those that is simply a room with a hole in the floor and a bucket of water next to it. Ross came back commenting on how he was still getting used to the bathrooms in Pakistan.

The food came after half an hour and we pigged out. It was pretty spicy. Still trying to put on a brave face, Ross loaded his plate with a mountain of food. He hardly ate anything.

We finished lunch and went to a handicraft store. Even with the tourist mark-up, everything was much cheaper than in Islamabad. We browsed around for a bit, and as soon as we left the shop, I noticed that Ross was running around with his cheeks puffed out. This was because his month was full of vomit again.

Ross ran into a hotel lobby to find a place to puke, but the doorman quickly assessed the situation and chased him back out into the street. There he hurled on the sidewalk and a bit into a flower pot.

On the Murree main drag, there were tons of little kids begging for money. Unlike in Islamabad, however, these kids weren't just beggars; they were little salespeople. They offered us shoe shines, chewing gum, balloons, bubbles, and cotton candy, and everything cost 5 rupees (about 12 cents). That was all good and well, so I was buying all of this junk from the tikes.

Of course, there came a point when I ran out of 5-rupee bills, and beggars don't make change. These kids kept hounding us, and they honed in on me in particular. I put on my sunglasses and didn't make eye contact, and they started going after Ross instead.

I didn't feel overly sorry for these kids because they were all wearing colorful velvet dresses and things, not the ragged clothing like the beggars in Islamabad wore. Plus, some of these kids that I had given money to not 5 minutes earlier were back hounding me. The only time they backed off a bit was during one of Ross's vomiting episodes. That was great to see.

Anyhow, once we finished browsing and had had enough pawing from the kids, we started heading for the car. As we got further on our way, the urchins started to disappear. Before long only one girl remained. She came up to my waist. Of course, she started up with her begging. "Saab, saab, only 5 rupees. Please." I told her no thanks and then a more forceful no in both Urdu and English, but she wouldn't relent. Then she started getting physical. She tried to reach into my pockets, and then she started pushing me. This was a bit awkward. What can you do to a little kid acting like this that doesn't involve manhandling her? Unable to come up with a better solution, I just kept walking. I walked a good hundred yards with this kid pushing me, and everyone was staring.

Finally, the Captain stepped in. He was a portly gentleman, and he took the girl's arm and told her the Urdu equivalent of "Beat it, kid!" The two of them had a short argument, and then the beggar girl left in a huff. Our hosts, who were cracking up, filled us in on what the girl had told the Captain. When he was shooing her away, she told him, "Stay out of this fat ass! If you had minded your own business, I would have had him." Little did she know that I wasn't about to give her anything. The whole pushing thing was a real turnoff.

We dropped the sister off at the convent school, of which there were at least three in Murree. Then after a few more vomit stops, and a failed try at stopping the sickness with some medicine from a local chemist (pharmacist), we came back down the mountain. The return trip was even slower and more polluted than the trip up had been. Plus, there were wrecked cars all along the way that had been collecting throughout the day. Apparently emergency services didn't believe in rushing things.