If the US hadn’t gone into a recession in 2008, Ishaan Puri would probably never have thought of an alternative to his job at asset management company BlackRock Inc. Though the firm was relatively unaffected, Puri did not think it was a safe option in the long term. He needed another. So, after two years at BlackRock, he decided to come back home in 2010.
Thanks to his days in Philadelphia while studying economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and in New York while working for BlackRock, Puri had developed a taste for craft beer. Back home, he began missing it and decided to brew one himself. In 2011, Puri signed up for a six-month diploma course to learn the art of brewing at Brewlab in the UK.
Over the next few years he set up a brewery at Malanpur, Gwalior, a city in Madhya Pradesh’s Chambal region. And, in October 2016, launched India’s first home-brewed craft beer at select restaurants and retail outlets in Gurgaon.
To create a beer that India had not tasted before, he got James Grastang, a brewer at Kernel Brewery, one of London’s most popular microbreweries, to switch to his brewery.
White Rhino was an instant success. Beer lovers liked it, and word-of-mouth pushed up demand – like it happened with Bira 91 that was launched in February 2015.
Puri, unlike Bira 91 founder Ankur Jain, kept the distribution restricted to Gurgaon before he entered parts of Delhi at the end of December 2016.
“Serve each market properly. There should not be any demand-supply gap in any of the markets we are present in,” he says.
In the last four months, the average sales of White Rhino have touched half a million litres a year. “This year, we’ll focus on Delhi and Gurgaon. White Rhino is available across 50 restaurants and pubs and a total of 30 select retail outlets in Delhi and Gurgaon. We may look at entering one more market (Karnataka or Maharashtra) in the summer,” Puri adds.
At present, White Rhino is available in two variants — a Belgian-style wheat beer and a Munich-style lager priced at Rs150 for a 330-ml bottle in Gurgaon and at Rs160 in Delhi.
“Half a million litres, or 5,000 hectolitres a year, was beyond our expectations. We did not do any marketing or promotions. It was all word-of-mouth. This year, we’ll sell double of last year,” says Puri.
The 32-year-old is a staunch believer in building a brand on the twin pillars of quality and choice. He is not into the volume game. “We won’t go for mindless retail expansion. I would rather bring variants of White Rhino — we’ll have 7-8 more this year,” he says.
With an average of one new market a year, backed by a three-member sales team, it’ll take Puri a long time to make White Rhino a national brand. But he is not in a hurry. He probably wants to avoid the mistakes that Bira 91 made resulting in a supply shortage last summer.
“White Rhino won’t face that issue. It has enough capacity to sustain, and it is operating in a much more calculated way. Plus, it is not into the discounting game for market share,” says Rahul Singh, founder and chief executive, The Beer Café, a chain of pubs that sells White Rhino among other beers. “It’s the best craft beer available in India to date,” adds Singh.
Consumers agree. “White Rhino is different. The addition of orange zest sets it apart from other beer options that are available. I first came across it at my local store and have been going back for it ever since,” says Devika Mann, a 25-year-old Delhi resident.
Even competitors can’t disagree. “I like it. Great effort by the guy,” says Ankur Jain, founder of Bira 91.
The company has a licensed capacity of 3 million litres, or 30,000 hectolitres a year. “Having the brewery in Madhya Pradesh is an advantage. It’s almost in the middle of India. You can reach any market within short time which is the key to maintain quality of a craft beer,” says Puri.
So far, he has spent Rs8-10 crore on his business which is owned by him and his family. “Eventually, we may look for external funding if we need that kind of expansion. There’s no need now,” says Puri.
White Rhino is a mild beer (with alcohol content below 5%) much like Bira and Witlinger (another craft beer). The Indian market is dominated by strong beers such as Kingfisher, Kalyani Black Label, Carlsberg Elephant, Budweiser Magnum and Miller ACE.
Craft beer is a relatively new category in India and the industry is growing at around 20%, according to All India Brewing Association. There are more than 80 microbreweries operating in India now, a huge jump compared to just two in 2008. Overall beer sales in India jumped 96% between 2010 and 2015 to $6.2 billion a year, according to a study by market research firm Euromonitor International.