It is early on a Friday morning and Ankur Jain is already bustling about, rushing from meeting to meeting. His three-room office, located above a newly opened bar in Delhi’s Connaught Place, is teeming with 60 employees, with space for merely a few visitors. Jain frantically works the phone, talking to clients, investors and others to ensure his beer is back in bars.
“We have run out of space in this office,” Jain said. “Can we go to a coffee shop?”
As he settles down with a cappuccino – not his preferred brew – he confesses that he had never anticipated his company, Cerana Beverages, to grow so quickly. In fact, the demand for his homegrown beer Bira91 has been so unexpectedly high that it is no longer available in many bars and stores.
For the last few weeks, the 34-year-old has been fending off queries from admirers of Bira91 on phone and Twitter, with the same answer that one usually hears from a customer care number: “We are working to solve this issue. Thanks for your patience.”
“We never thought we would be selling so much beer so soon and the manufacturing couldn’t keep up,” Jain admitted.
Millennial and urban
Launched quietly last year, Bira91 has silently, and through word of mouth, become a popular brand name, at least in the metros. It comes in two variants, a low-bitterness wheat beer called Bira White, and an extra hoppy craft lager, Bira Blonde.
While Bira Blonde retails in Delhi for Rs 80 for a 330 ml pint, the White variant is available for Rs 100. This is cheaper than many premium beers like Kingfisher Ultra and the Belgian Hoegaarden, but twice as expensive as the market leaders, the many strong beers such as Kingfisher Strong and Tuborg. Indeed, eight out of 10 beers sold in India are strong beers, typically with 8-9% of alcohol content, while Bira is a mild lager with 4.2% alcohol.
But all this doesn’t worry Jain. He says the company is focusing on the urban Indian consumer and that means taste is a much bigger concern than price point.
“The success of Bira means that consumers are willing to pay for a good beer as long as it is not exorbitant,” the entrepreneur said. “The alcohol content barely matters for the urban millennial who is looking to have a good time with friends. What matters is that the beer that they are drinking should be new age.”
Words like "millennial" and "urban" appear frequently in Jain’s conversations and he admits that Bira’s branding and design are aimed at these constituencies.
Whereas most major beer brands come in bottles with traditional packaging, including golden foil on top, Bira91 has an unusual name – which combines a play on the word beer with India’s country code 91 – and a monkey as its logo.
“We decided to cater to the post-Doordarshan generation, which won’t pay extra for luxuries like gold foil on the bottle, and moulded the brand like that,” Jain said. “We are talking to an aspirational group with bold colours and conveying to them that the beer from India has arrived.” This seems to have worked, at least for now.
In 2015, Indians chugged down 2.5 billion litres of beer, but that’s a fraction of the market for other kinds of alcohol, including country liquor. Moreover, much of the beer market is occupied by strong beers such as Kingfisher, Haywards 5000 and Tuborg. Add to the fact that the average per capita consumption of beer in India is minuscule, just 2 litres a year, as against 35 litres a year in next-door China.
Still, it is one of the fastest growing spirits segment in the country, and Jain has placed his bets. Bira91 is currently selling about 50,000 cases a month, with sales doubling every quarter, and has cornered a substantial 15% market share in the premium beer segment by chipping away at other brands’ following.
Its popularity is built on people like Jaisal Rathee, a video producer who runs his own YouTube channel called SorteddTV. Rathee claims to be a big beer fan and has sampled many international brews, but he says he now prefers Bira. “Bira’s taste is very new for me and it helps that it is not bitter,” Rathee said. “There are hardly any good beers on taps and Bira has widened the choice at least.”
Varun Puri, an entrepreneur who runs a microbrewery in Gurgaon and two pubs in Delhi’s Rajouri Garden and Hauz Khas Village, says Bira has a distinct resonance with customers. His outlets alone sell about 500 bottles on weekends.
“Bira has definitely replaced Hoegaarden and Kingfisher Ultra to a large extent as people’s preferred beer brand because of its appeal and taste,” he said. “Craft beer in India is not too popular yet, but it is gaining popularity and Bira is set to be more popular. But they need to fix their supply chain. It’s not available at most places as of now.”
Foray into New York
Even though Jain claims that Bira has about 1,000 taps installed in bars across India – twice the size of market leader Kingfisher – it’s availability has become a serious problem over the past few months. The company’s agreement with a bottler in Haryana didn’t work out and Belgium’s breweries which manufacture the beer couldn’t keep up.
Jain says the company is transitioning the manufacturing to a unit in Indore, which will start production in a few weeks and the supply shortage will be sorted quickly. In the meantime, the company is out to raise funds – barely six months after it raised $6 million in Series A funding from Sequoia Capital.
This time, the company wants to raise at least $10 million, according to a report in Mint. However, there are more problems to be sorted out. Bira is coming out with a new beer variant mid-October and the company has to ready to publicise that fact since the first two styles largely rode the word-of-mouth wave. Also, as it expands to more Indian cities, it will face the challenge of keeping strong beer drinkers happy with its mild lager format.
More than anything else, though, Jain is focusing on to establishing Bira in New York. In April, the company ventured into the crowded New York beer market, which has almost 800 brands to pick from, in a bid to make Bira the Indian brand “that the world can be proud of”.
So far, the company is heady with promising sales numbers. It claims it has sold more beer in two weeks in New York than it sells in a month in Delhi, and it has acquired a new office in New York while it jostles for space in Delhi.
“We want to make Bira the RedBull of craft beer,” Jain said, referring to the energy drink’s global appeal. Asked if the regulatory environment in India will allow this to happen, he said that there’s no reason to speculate.
“The regulatory environment is like the weather," said Jain. "One never knows when it changes.”