Bira 91 has proven the viability of craft beer in India and Omnivore will hopefully fund a rival upstart brand in the years ahead, says the venture capital firm’s founding partner Mark Kahn. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Bira 91 has proven the viability of craft beer in India and Omnivore will hopefully fund a rival upstart brand in the years ahead, says the venture capital firm’s founding partner Mark Kahn. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Why Bira 91 is in Omnivore Partners’ anti-portfolio

When Omnivore Partners dug into Bira 91 founder Ankur Jain's plans for domestic beer manufacturing, doubts began to creep into their minds, says founding partner Mark Kahn

Being a sectoral venture capital fund focused on food and agriculture, Omnivore has been spared the pangs of regret that our generalist venture capital peers must feel when they look back at why they passed on Flipkart, Freshdesk or Paytm. For Omnivore, the deal that got away was Bira 91 (B9 Beverages), and it haunts us every time we order a drink.

In August 2013, Omnivore was introduced to Cerana Imports, a start-up that was bringing Belgian craft beers into India. Cerana had been trying to prove that a premium market for craft beers existed in India, and that Indian consumers were ready to move beyond Kingfisher into a new world of ales, IPAs, and lagers. To validate the market, Cerana needed to produce beer domestically, as high import duties made their imported beers prohibitively expensive. Omnivore began due diligence on Cerana and we immediately liked what we saw. The Cerana team, led by Ankur Jain, was clearly impressive. We believed in their thesis that Indian consumers would appreciate craft beer and that a premium domestic price point was just waiting to be tapped (pun intended).

When we dug into Cerana’s plans for domestic manufacturing and sourcing, doubts began to creep into our minds. First, the cost of getting a new brewery online was well above Omnivore’s ticket size. Second, every Omnivore investment needs to show a strong farm connect, but we questioned whether the Cerana team would be able to work with Indian farmers for procurement of high quality barley, wheat and hops. Ultimately, Omnivore passed on the deal. Cerana became B9 Beverages, launched Bira 91, and went on to raise more than $100 million from Sequoia and Sofina.

My only consolation is that Bira 91 has proven the viability of craft beer in India and Omnivore will hopefully fund a rival upstart brand in the years ahead. Meanwhile, I can drink an ice-cold Bira White and think about what might have been.

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