LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Could restoring peace between Pakistan and India come in the form of an ice cold beer? The two countries have been at odds ever since their bloody 1947 break from British rule. Now a relic from their shared past, a Raj-era beer brewery, may soon take the edge off tensions between the two countries.
NPR's Lauren Frayer visited the brewery near Pakistan's capital.
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LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Bottles of Murree beer have been rolling off this assembly line since 1860. The brewery is Pakistan's oldest private company.
ISPHANYAR BHANDARA: The brewery was here before Pakistan was here.
FRAYER: CEO Isphanyar Bhandara sits at his grandfather's desk, tasting new samples, and describes how he ended up running a brewery in a Muslim country, where alcohol is virtually banned.
BHANDARA: At the time of partition, my folks decided to stay on this side of the line. My grandfather, who was working as a director at that time in that company, bought over the controlling interest. That's how in 1947 it came in the family, in the Bhandara family, my family.
FRAYER: Back then, Murree Brewery sold beer and whiskey across India, and as far as Europe and America. But as Pakistan has embraced its Muslim identity over the years, alcohol has become scarce. Exports were banned in the 1970s. Bhandara's business survives by selling to 5-star hotels and Pakistani Christians, who comprise about 3 percent of the population, and are issued government permits to buy alcohol.
BHANDARA: The government decides who I sell to. I don't choose my customers. If the government gives a license to a hotel or to a wine shop, I can supply that particular wine shop. Simple as that.
FRAYER: But a huge market may soon open up. The Pakistani government is lifting restrictions on alcohol exports to non-Muslim countries, the biggest and closest of which is India.
BHANDARA: You might see Murree beer in India, hopefully by December. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed.
FRAYER: That beer, of all things, could be the trailblazer export from this Muslim country, to its longtime enemy next door.
MUHAMMAD ZIAUDDIN: There's so many ironic situations in Pakistan. I can give you a huge list, I guess.
FRAYER: Muhammad Ziauddin, executive editor of Pakistan's Express Tribune newspaper, says beer exports would be a small, but symbolic step toward normalized trade with India, which currently amounts to about a billion dollars a year, mostly in textiles. And while people on both sides might not always admit it, Indians and Pakistanis share a lot, Ziauddin says.
ZIAUDDIN: The tastes are almost the same. People like the same consumer items, and the middle class in India is supposed to be about 300 million. And if we could get even a fraction of that market, the Pakistani economy would be booming.
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FRAYER: Back at the brewery, the second in command is Major Sabih Rehman, a Pakistani army veteran who once led soldiers into battle against India in Kashmir. He brings the same patriotism that took him to war to his new job marketing beer in his home country where alcohol advertisements are illegal.
MAJOR SABIH REHMAN: The thing is, I mean, this is my country. Murree Brewery is my country. Murree Brewery is Pakistan.
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FRAYER: Watching hundreds of beer bottles moving past on a conveyer belt, Major Sabih formulates a new attack plan into India. It involves reaching across that same troubled border, but this time, with an icy cold one in hand.
Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Islamabad.
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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.