As the temperature rises, and so does the demand for craft beers in the country, one brand in particular is turning into an international star. Meet Ankur Jain, the man behind Bira 91.
“Bira 91 is a story about a consumer who loves the product, who tells friends about the product and then the entire network is enhanced by just word-of-mouth“
Move over Kingfisher, Carlsberg, SABMiller, Heineken and Coronas of the world. Here comes Bira 91 all the way from India. Ever since Ankur Jain, 35, launched this beer brand about a year ago through his Cerana Beverages, club crawlers have been asking for more. Also, while it was manufactured in Belgium till now (with hops from Himachal Pradesh), its first Indian plant started operation in Indore last month. It now ties in with the ‘Make in India spirit’ and has converts swearing by its new playful flavour. The Bira monkey on the bottle caps, an Instagram hit, has helped the cause. Bira 91 has the identity of modern India, according to its young founder, without the usual exotic associations like elephants, masalas and autorickshaws.
“I love the Bira White as it is gentle and light. It has a refreshing after-taste and is the closest to a wine,” says Radhika Singh, a food aficionado who could not get over the flavour when she was first introduced to the beer during the Asian Hawkers Market, a food event in the capital. Delhi alone sold about 10,000 cases a month within the first four months of its launch; in the last two months, it has been up by 35,000 cases a month, a promising figure to start with. In the coming months, eight other cities will have access to this Indian craft beer. “We anticipate adding three more cities this year, including Hyderabad, Chennai and potentially one more city in Punjab,” shares a beaming Jain.
Bira 91 has managed to garner a huge response without the traditional marketing campaigns, thanks to the founder, who has meticulously planned the growth of the company. And last week, Jain had Hollywood royalty toasting fine cinema with a bottle of Bira 91 instead of the requisite champagne flute. As an official sponsor of the biggest independent film festival, the Tribeca Film Festival in New York, Jain managed to get a niche launching pad for his product. The association, he tells us, is not a one-off affair. “The partnership is for multiple years,” adds the former computer science and healthcare management professional. Jain’s edgy product was served at all the 70-plus parties during the festival. “The partnership was really about getting the product to the American consumer but also about giving it an international flavour in terms of positioning,” he says.
Lessons in Brooklyn
Jain clearly knows how to work this association to his advantage. When he left home in 1998, he may not have had the route map to his career but he is in a different league today. Besides a stint with Motorola, he had founded a healthcare management start-up in New York, which he later sold. In 2009, he founded Cerana Beverages Pvt Ltd, a channel to import European craft beers to India. His intention, even as an importer of beer, was to understand the culture of beer and the nuances of the business. It was an interest he developed during his visits to the buzzy Brooklyn Brewery, with its many brews; it was on the way to his office building in New York. “The intent was to learn more about the category so that we could create our own brand,” he says. He went on to bring in about 20 different brands to the country. However, with Bira 91’s phenomenal success, the import business has been relegated to the background. “We do not actively import beer now,” he says.
Jain is no doubt a cautious player, as indicated by his three-month road trip across Europe in 2008, before he started out. “I went all by myself and some friends joined along the way for different legs of the trip. Essentially, it was trip of learning,” he recalls. He started from Brussels and did not spare the smallest villages and towns to get an insight into the drink that is more at home in that part of the world. The experience reportedly saw him visit a Trappist monastery in the French-speaking part of Belgium, where the monks taught him a thing or two about making a good brew. ‘‘In Germany, Austria, and parts of France, I met some great brewers whom I want to call artists, for what they do is really unique,” says Jain, who went on to find his brew master in Belgium.
The computer scientist methodically puts his experience and education to use. In fact, the ‘be Indian, brew Indian’ concept has found him in the right place at the right time. The ecosystem of the country is more receptive to new ventures and so, when it came to investors, his beverage product managed to attract big names like Sequoia Capital in January. “In some way, they sense what is happening with the consumer,” says Jain, when asked what may have wooed Sequoia. Those in the know agree that Sequoia, an iconic investor, has a knack of picking up stories and narratives that are unique. Jain is confident that the partnership will grow and sustain beyond what they stand for today.
Finding the right company
The brand has also got the stamp of approval from the big boys of the entrepreneurial world. Thus investors range from the founder of Zomato, India’s leading restaurant search company, to the founders of Chrysalis Capital and Snapdeal, India’s leading e-commerce company, to name few. “All of them have been icons in their own fields and have created something from nothing. I would say that my strategy has been to partner with people who have a very strong belief in the brand and also who are unique in their sense of achievement,” he says.
Leaving nothing to chance, he is cautious even when it comes to recruiting staff. He diligently meets all the shortlisted candidates and handpicks every member of the team that has grown from 30 to over 300 employees, in offices across Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Pune, Goa and Kolkata. “Unlike other start-ups, almost all of our hiring is through references,” he says. Jain also steers clear of people from the liquor industry as he believes they come with the burden of history. “Because we want fresh minds and want them to be working on this particular challenge with no baggage or history to cloud the mind set,” he explains. An entrepreneurial spirit is what he expects in everyone, right down to the most junior employee.
But then Bira 91 is all about making smart ideas work. Consider his marketing strategy, for instance. He relied on guerrilla marketing, be it social media or mouth-of-word publicity, to take his brand places. “Over the last decade which is post Facebook, iPhone and the smartphone generation, the way people consume information has transformed dramatically. Today, these tools have a bigger impact and the traditional method of marketing and creating a brand is changing,” reasons Jain.
The story of Bira 91 is pretty much narrated by these very modern mediums of communication. “It is a story about a consumer who loves the product, who tells friends about the product and then the entire network is enhanced by just word-of-mouth. It went on a hyper mode on the online channel and that helped us create the brand,” he agrees. “With the younger consumer playing such a significant role in the business, new products have a very good chance of getting acceptance,” he says, not blind to the fact that the same consumers can also be very fickle when something newer comes along. “The loyalty is that much harder to build as well,” he agrees.
The focus will be on the domestic market till 2017. “By then, we will take the brand to 20 additional cities in India. 2016 is also about NYC and gradually expanding to other parts of the city as well,” says Jain, quite optimistic that Bira 91 has the potential to become a ‘global brand’. That’s partly because, as he asserts, “we took the risk of staying away from a very ethnic and traditional and exotic identity of India. Our modern identity translates well globally so even a non-Indian can appreciate something like Bira 91.”
For now, his ambition will see him shuttling between New Delhi and New York, leaving him very little time for the usual pursuits — pub-hopping with friends in Delhi. Having inherited sound values and a strong business sense from his parents — his father, AK Jain, is a renowned architect and urban planner who was instrumental in the master plan for Delhi, while his mother is an author and an interior designer –— Jain believes that hard work pays. But on weekends, if he has the time, the sought-after bachelor unwinds with friends over beer. “I am loyal to my brand,” he says. Plus, you could say visiting pubs and sampling brews is part of his job profile now.
At the launch of Bira 91 as the official beer partner of Tribeca Film Festival in New York, the brand hosted 70 after-parties and was served at 300 restaurants, pubs and bars across the city. Jain expects the US to account for 10 per cent of sales by the end of the next financial year. The beer will only be available in 330 ml (and not in 650 ml) bottles because “beer drinking is about individual consumption”. A 500 ml can will soon be available.
By Hoihnu Hauzel