For most of us, mead is a drink relegated to history books and Viking lore. Believed to be the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, mead is made by fermenting honey with water and is sometimes flavoured with fruits, spices, grains or hops. With varying levels of sweetness, mead can be still or sparkling. Childhood friends Rohan Rehani and Nitin Vishwas, both 34, are bringing this ancient drink out of the pages of history with their Pune-based Moonshine Meadery, which was established last year.
In 2014, Vishwas, who was working with McKinsey at the time, was travelling in Europe when he came across an article on mead in an inflight magazine. He shared a snapshot of the article with Rehani and the duo was intrigued enough to attempt to make a batch at home. “It tasted like rocket fuel," Rehani admits. Not one to give up, Rehani went online to do a little more research and spoke to friends in the brewing industry to find out more about the science of fermentation. Gradually, they started getting better results. “Manu Misra (who heads marketing, sales & strategy at Moonshine) was one of our guinea pigs. Since honey is expensive, we would make small batches. There came a point when friends and family were willing to buy mead from us and that’s when we realised that we were on to something," says Rehani.
Engineers to entrepreneurs
Mechanical engineers by qualification, both Rehani and Vishwas have varied corporate experiences spanning over a decade. While the latter has worked with multinationals such as Accenture, L&T, McKinsey and most recently, Abbott Pharmaceuticals, Rehani has worked with Monster India as well as a boutique firm specialising in advising SMEs in mergers and acquisitions. Both founders say that their decision to give up steady, well-paying jobs to get into the liquor business was met with disbelief by their respective families. Even more so because they were banking on a product that was new to the Indian market. “We kept doing tastings with friends and family and that helped convince them," Vishwas adds.
Also, Vishwas says that they made another decision to proceed cautiously. “Between the two of us, we decided that one would take the higher risk. Since I was married and had a child, it was Rohan who quit his job to start work (on Moonshine Meadery)," says Vishwas, who resigned from Abbott in January.
In 2016, Rehani attended courses on bee-keeping from the Central Bee Keeping and Training Institute in Pune, as well as underwent a three-week internship with Colony Meadery in Pennsylvania, US. “He also started exploring excise laws and realized that there was no category for mead under Indian excise laws," says Vishwas. In July 2017, about four months after their meeting with Maharashtra’s excise minister Chandrashekhar Bawankule, mead was included in the state’s excise regulation as a sub category under wine. It took another three months for Moonshine to get its manufacturing license in September 2017.
Moonshine Meadery, according to Vishwas and Rehani, is not just India’s but also Asia’s first meadery. Their two flagship products include an Apple Cyder Mead and Coffee Mead made with multi-floral honey sourced from across the country as well as apples from Kashmir and coffee from Karnataka.
While they started out with a production capacity of 5,000 litres of mead in February, they have now expanded their production capacity to 30,000 litre at their 9,500 sq ft meadery. Their products are available across 250 bars and retail outlets across Mumbai and Pune; they plan to launch in Goa by the end of October. They are also in the process of sprucing up the meadery to make it more visitor-friendly.
Being first-time entrepreneurs, Vishwas and Rehani say that “lack of teeth" was their biggest challenge. “From setting up accounting systems to the meadery and production processes, we have had to learn everything on the job," says Rehani. One of the hardest things was getting the product right. “Some of the initial batches were not good enough to be bottled and we had to watch something we had invested so much in, go down the drain," he adds. Making mistakes has been part of the learning process for these trendsetters. “Be(e) patient and have a sense of humour about delays," says Rehani.
While setting up the meadery, the founders raised an initial round of funds through personal finances as well as family and friends in 2016. They kept costs low by finding creative solutions. For instance, Rehani tells us how they designed some of their own equipment. “The commercial quotes we got for a bottling machine were quite high. So, we designed a machine with the help of a local fabricator after finding a schematic model on YouTube," he adds. This year, they raised another round of undisclosed funds through investors, some of whom include Vishwas’ mentors and senior executives at McKinsey.
“Keep an eye on your bottomline," is Rehani’s advice to first-time entrepreneurs. “A lot of people don’t focus on that and neither did we when we started out but it’s something we have been revisiting over the last couple of months. It makes the business a lot more sustainable."
Chasing the millennial dream
The founders believe that a for-profit company should create a social impact, irrespective of its size. As Rehani says, “One of the reasons the Maharashtra government was willing to give us approval for the meadery was also to bump up sales of honey among farmers (in the region)." At the meadery, they source honey directly from bee-keepers, and ensure they are paid a fair price for their produce. “We also aim to sponsor bee-keeping kits to farmers, creating an additional means of revenue generation, while also helping the ecosystem by protecting bees. We have begun this process with a partner restaurant, and hope to see this model replicated with farmers from across the country," adds Rehani.
Cheers To That is a series which looks at beverage start-ups set up by millennials and how they deal with trials and triumphs.