[Women’s Day] Biologist to brewer: How Lalithabai got into the spirit of things during an unconventional career
As quality assurance manager at United Breweries Ltd, Lalithabai J is actively involved in implementing the HEINEKEN standards of quality across breweries. She also has several international certifications to her credit.
While her friends pursued diverse careers in hospitals, colleges and laboratories, Lalithabai J was fascinated by the science of brewing beer.
After completing her studies in microbiology, she began her career in a hospital to understand microbiological processes and also had a brief stint as a microbiology professor.
However, in 1997, life took a different turn and Lalitha joined United Breweries Ltd. (UBL).
The choice was unconventional but not quite removed from her domain of interest or expertise.
In a conversation with HerStory, she explains, “My education in microbiology opened doors to work across diverse fields. Being a microbiologist, I was intrigued with the fermentation process and that piqued my interest in understanding what went behind making a beer. It was exciting and unique in a way; choosing a field that was significantly different from the medical industry.”
After she joined United Breweries, she realised that beer brewing is a lot more complex than it seems to be.
“There is a lot of depth and science behind it and my fascination for the industry pushed me to attempt an international certification examination in brewing. At the time, I was one of the only two people in India who attempted this and cleared the test,” she adds.
At UBL, she started by learning about the overall brewery laboratory setup and analytical techniques in brewing. Lalitha was then promoted to senior microbiologist, taking charge of the laboratory.
Subsequently, she was elevated to the role of a quality assurance manager.
This gave her the opportunity to work at multiple breweries and learn how to set up a lab as well.
Crafting an unusual career
As a quality assurance manager, Lalitha supervises several processes across different stages — right from receiving raw materials to dispatching the final product.
“I ensure that food safety norms are adhered to at each stage. Currently, I am actively involved in implementing the HEINEKEN standards of quality across breweries. I am also a progressive quality leader, which means that I must identify risks of potential quality losses and build processes to maintain quality throughout the implementation of projects. I make sure that the final product that goes out is of the highest standards so that consumers enjoy the best quality beer,” says Lalitha.
She also takes us through the brewing process, which she calls both an art and a science.
Lalitha elaborates, “Since we use all-natural ingredients in the brewing process and source ingredients from multiple areas, we need to ensure that the beer's quality and taste is consistent. The aim is to ensure a uniform taste despite beer being produced across different geographies.”
The first step in brewing is to confirm that the raw materials meet the rigorous quality benchmark. The next steps are ensuring that standard processes are followed and quality checks are done across the production cycle.
“The most crucial ingredient in beer is water and we need to ensure that all parameters are met. We also assess aspects like notes, taste, and raw materials in the sensory phase. At each step, both quality and taste are constantly checked, and this ensures that the final output (beer) has a uniform taste for consumers across the country,” she adds.
Lalitha also has several accreditations and certifications to her credit, including a certificate in brewing and packaging from the globally-renowned International Guild of Brewing. This was followed by a certification in SSSCQ, for which she was certified twice in the recent version.
Additionally, UBL also trained her for several certifications, including the CII certification. When HEINEKEN came on board, she was awarded the LSS two-star certificate. At present, she is undergoing training for the LSS auditor’s certification by the HEINEKEN team, which is valid and acknowledged globally. Once she clears this test, Lalitha will be part of a team that can audit the quality of beer around the world.
Follow your choices
Her career is one that makes people around her curious. Initially, Lalitha didn’t even inform her mother about her job at UBL because she was afraid she would object.
“I waited a whole year before I could tell her. When I finally told her I was working for a beer company, surprisingly, neither she nor my father objected. Although my father did say that I should pursue my passion for teaching after getting married, I was looking to gain industrial experience. Even now, when the topic of what I do comes up, I tell people that I am working as a quality assurance manager at United Breweries, and they get very curious. I tell them managing quality assurance for beer is like cooking and checking to see if the salt is all right. I try to make people understand the benefits of beer — that it is better than any sugar syrup drink because it has vitamins and flavonoids. It is rich in anti-ageing compounds and has a significantly less calorific value,” she says.
Her job comes with its fair share of successes and challenges.
When she joined UBL as a microbiologist, Lalitha was tasked with identifying specific challenges in the brewery and developing solutions. She delved into the specifics of the brewing process and worked on the shop floor with the workers. This, she says, helped her develop breakthrough solutions. She also participated in the evolution of the greenfield brewery.
To young girls and women wanting to join the alco-bev industry, she says the notion ‘what will people think’ should not guide their decision.
“There is no taboo in working for the alco-bev industry and I want women to know that. There is a systematic approach towards beer tasting, and it's a fun process. I am thrilled women can join the beer industry and work happily. I would encourage women to work in any sector of their choice to build their career the way they want to,” she signs off.
Edited by Saheli Sen Gupta