This week, LiveMint published a story about how the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority or the APEDA is trying to promote the export of Goan Feni (traditional liquor).
But this sort of discussion has been going on for a while now. And in today’s Finshots, we decided to explore why taking Feni out of Goa’s borders hasn’t been smooth sailing so far.
Just the thought of the coastal state conjures up images of beaches, holidays, and cheap alcohol. But there are other things that are deeply rooted in Goa’s traditional fabric. Things like sorpotel and vindaloo (which are spicy meat gravies), kokum (a fruit spice), bebinca (a layered dessert) and Feni (locally made liquor). Yes, Feni. The potent alcoholic drink made from fermenting juice drawn out of cashew apples or coconuts.
Now while coconut Feni was always native to the coastal state, you have to thank the Portuguese for the cashew concoction. See, cashew isn’t indigenous to India. But around the 16th century, the Portuguese brought them over. And they intended to use cashew trees to prevent soil erosion caused by heavy monsoons.
But, the climate and soil suited cashews. The plantations expanded. And when cashew fruits ripened, fell to the ground and went unused, some astute Goans thought, “Why not try fermenting these fruits into a liquor?”
And that’s how cashew Feni became a nearly 500-year-old Goan legacy. It was so intrinsic to Goa that in 2009 cashew Feni even got its geographical indication (GI) tag.
For the uninitiated, a GI tag is a certification given to a product to attribute it to a certain location. For instance, you have Kashmiri Saffron, Darjeeling Tea in West Bengal, and Dharwad Pedas attributable to Karnataka. Add Goan Feni to the list and you have the first Indian liquor to achieve this feat.
And it’s a big deal. Because once a product sports a GI tag, consumers can trust the quality. They know where it came from and that it’s not a knockoff by some dubious person trying to make a quick buck. It helps the brand. And it even creates monetary benefits.
For instance, take the ‘Pochampally Ikat’. It’s a unique fabric woven in some districts of Andhra Pradesh. But in the 1990s, the industry went into decline. Labour was hard to find since the wages were depressed. And marketing was pretty much non-existent. But its fortunes changed once it got the GI tag in 2004. It became the first handloom product in India to achieve this feat. And the industry got a new lease of life. Sales soared and wages grew 20%.
Even outside of India, GI tags are a big thing. The European Union found that products with a GI tag recorded double the sales of an unprotected similar product.
So yeah, getting the GI tag would’ve been the perfect opportunity for Feni to travel across India. And even enthral the foreign markets.
But…the tag was just a placeholder for Feni. It didn’t do anything really to boost the fortunes of the liquor.
Why’s that, you ask?
Because alcohol is unlike any other product. It comes with a whole host of regulations. And in India, these regulations even vary from state to state. One problem was that Feni was always categorised as ‘country liquor’. It was primarily brewed locally in people’s backyards. It wasn’t really a large scale commercial industry.
And there’s a problem with country liquor. Informal production means that it could be dangerous without adequate quality control. People typically associate country liquor with instances of alcohol poisoning or even death. It has a bad rap.
So, country liquor isn’t even allowed to cross state borders.
Now the Goan government stepped in to rectify the problem. In 2016 the state government amended the state excise law and declared Feni as Goa’s heritage drink. Feni finally shed its dubious tag.
But it was just a label. It wasn’t a miraculous makeover.
Because as we said, every state has different policies. And Goa needed to do the hard yards and tell others, “Look, Feni isn’t a country liquor anymore. It’s got heritage status. So please amend your policies too so that we can export them to you.”
And it looks like that never happened. Every media report in the past year says that Feni is still officially designated a country liquor. So forget exports to other countries, Goa hasn’t even been able to export it to other states either!
To make things worse, unscrupulous people weren’t helping Feni’s cause. We’re talking about bottlers. According to an article in Scroll, these people just wanted to make a quick buck or two. So they bought Feni anywhere they could find it. They didn’t care about quality. They packaged them in fancy bottles, claimed that it was vintage Feni and sold it. When tourists (from other states and countries) picked it up, it wouldn’t have left a nice taste in their mouths right?
It was bad marketing for the alcohol.
Anyway, the Goan government is still trying to fix things. And in 2021, they announced the official Goa Feni Policy. It wanted to streamline everything Feni related — harvesting, fermenting, distilling, storing, bottling, marketing…everything. It wanted to clean up the process. And its vision was to take the liquor to the world.
But even if you assume that these creases are ironed out, there’s another big hurdle when it comes to exports. Scale!
See, Goa’s a tiny state. And it is limited to the extent to which it can produce cashew fruits for Feni. Most of it is used to cater to the local demand. That means there’s really not too much leftover to meet the needs of other states, let alone other countries. The industry is just worth ₹450 crores.
Also, any vagaries in climate can be a further dampener. Cashew is a seasonal crop. The harvest begins in March and Feni production goes on until May. And last summer unseasonal rains and unsuitable weather hit Goa’s cashew apple production by nearly 80%. Farmers were hit hard.
And distillers are complaining that despite the government’s claims of promoting Feni, they’re not getting the basics right. They’re not protecting the farmers. They’re not trying to propagate cashew trees that yield more fruit and can resist climate change.
So yeah, while a dedicated policy to promote exports is a step in the right direction, there’s still a long way to go before the world says French Champagne, Sottish Whiskey, Mexican Tequila and Indian Feni in the same sentence.
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