Suketu Talekar: Master brewer
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When I first met Suketu Talekar in Pune, back in 2009, Brewcrafts Microbrewing Pvt. Ltd, which produces Doolally craft beers, was still making test batches of ales and ciders. As I watched Talekar, then 32, and German head brewer and co-founder Oliver Schauf, whom he met online when he was looking for a partner, haul sacks of malt and hops from the storage room to the brewery, they had to explain to me the basics of how a beer is made.
“Beer is, essentially, the shit and piss of yeast,” Talekar, Doolally’s co-founder, had said, guffawing. They had to carefully list the differences between an industrial beer and a craft one, and why the latter was more desirable. As India’s first microbrewery, Doolally’s principal challenge then was simply letting consumers know there was more to beer than Kingfisher and Foster’s.
Just seven years later, India has more than 30 microbreweries. If you’re anywhere in Bengaluru, Pune, Gurgaon or Mumbai, you’re not far from a pub that will serve you a craft beer on tap. Even your local wine shop may have bottles of craft beer made by an Indian company.
Talekar, who is in charge of Doolally’s marketing and sales—Schauf handles the making of the beer—is neither surprised, nor overly excited, about the rapid growth of a market he helped open up. “If you make a good beer, consumers will love it. That was always a no-brainer for me,” he says.
We are sitting at the Doolally Taproom in Bandra, Mumbai, one of three such outlets in the city. The company, which began selling its beers at The Corinthians Resort & Club in Pune in 2009, brought its brews to Mumbai in 2015. The Bandra Taproom, wholly owned and run by Doolally, was their first outlet, and since then, two more have opened, one in Andheri and another at Kemps Corner. These restaurants are perpetually filled with increasingly knowledgeable beer drinkers who don’t even need the menu, let alone an explanation of what craft beer is, to place their order.
But the education process has not been completed, says Talekar. “We have moved a long way from walking into a bar and asking just for ‘a beer’. Now, we walk into a bar and ask for a brand and a style—a Gateway Doppelganger or an Independence IPA (India Pale Ale),” he says. “Customers know there are possibilities of beer beyond Kingfisher and Foster’s. But really understanding what those possibilities are, that is an ongoing process.”
As that process continues, Talekar expects the industry to grow to a size that will dwarf what is now being heralded as a craft-beer boom. The US has seen the number of microbreweries reach nearly 5,000, even though the first one opened only in the late 1970s, he says. At this early stage in India, he sees other microbreweries more as allies than as competitors. “More players means more perspective on the product. It means more experimentation. It means consumers holding brewers to a higher standard, which means improvement on the product.”
And he is impressed with the quality of entrepreneurs entering the craft beer industry, something he thinks will be critical to the pace it grows at. “People are making conservative estimates about the market for craft beer because they are underestimating the quality of the entrepreneurs entering this market. I believe there is a qualitative difference between the early bunch of winemakers and the early bunch of craft-beer makers. I will put my money behind a statement that in five years, craft beer will be 2x or 3x bigger than the wine industry. Which would mean that in 10 years, we would have done what the wine guys haven’t managed to do in 25 years. And that’s because of the quality of the entrepreneurs.”
One of the stumbling blocks for the craft-beer industry has been the red tape one has to navigate to begin making craft beer and, then, package it in a way that is profitable. A number of breweries have complained that without being allowed to bottle their beers, they are left with too few revenue streams to break even. Talekar thinks the extent of these problems is overstated. Doolally has joined hands with a few other breweries to form the Maharashtra Craft Brewers Association, and they are seeking, among other things, permission from the excise department to sell beer in growlers (air-tight jugs used to store beer) at brewpubs. “It will be like parcelling beer, like you parcel food at a restaurant,” Talekar explains.
Someday, he would also like to see Doolally beers sitting in bottles in stores. But at the moment he is not fixated on finding new ways to package and sell his beer. Rather, his days are spent managing Doolally’s Taprooms and ensuring that he “wins with every consumer who walks in”.
Doolally’s Taprooms have become popular in Mumbai as places for relaxed get-togethers. They are brightly lit, unlike other pubs; the music is soft, allowing conversation; and the walls are lined with shelves full of books and board games, suggesting this is a place you will not be hurried in. Talekar understands that the context in which he sells his beer is as important as the product. “We believe that people don’t come here to eat and drink. They come here for something else. They come here to spend time with friends, someone they love or their colleagues. It’s like an extension of their living rooms.”
Born in Gujarat’s Bhavnagar and schooled in Nashik, Talekar did a course in production engineering from the Jawaharlal Nehru College in Aurangabad. After a stint with his father’s company, which did sales and after-sales service of diesel engines, Talekar completed his master’s in business administration from the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, in 2004. He then worked as an assistant brand manager with Procter & Gamble in Singapore. He had always been a beer drinker, but had never drunk truly good beer until he began frequenting a brewpub named Brewerkz there. He returned to India a year later with the idea of bringing good beer to his home country. His conservative family wasn’t too happy; they didn’t think “decent” people should be dealing in liquor.
After a decade-long journey with BrewCrafts Microbrewing/Doolally, Talekar is doing things he had never imagined he would. Such as managing a pub. “We only began running our first 18 months ago, and now we have three, without raising any money. What I’ve learnt in this time is that there is no greater marketing tool than experiential retail. You can actually moderate how a person feels. That’s why every Apple store is worth a hundred million dollars that Microsoft spends on advertising.”
Doolally’s beer sales have grown 400% since 2014 and their total revenue has increased by 1,000% in the same period. They’ve also added to their staff, currently at around 180, and have moved from working out of the Taprooms to an office in Santacruz. With this pace of growth, employees come to work every day knowing they are going to have to face new challenges, which is why Talekar sees his role as that of a cheerleader. “I believe in letting people be. I think that if you recruit right, then your job is to create conditions that will let people succeed and give them the leeway to make decisions and mistakes too. It’s natural when you are doing so many new things for morale to dip at times. My job is to get everyone excited about the big picture.”