The founder and CEO of craft beer brand Bira 91 talks about the Indian consumer, running breweries with social distancing measures, and a craft beer market that is evolving rapidly
When we met at the Bira 91 headquarters in Delhi’s Connaught Place in March, Ankur Jain, CEO and founder of Bira 91,was in his usual attire—denims and a black T-shirt with the Bira monkey emblazoned on it. Months later, Jain and I are meeting virtually over a Microsoft Teams call. “It feels like we are living a different life," says Jain, dressed in the same T-shirt. The means of our communication may have changed but his attire hasn’t.
Despite the pandemic bringing major sections of the economy to a halt, it has been an eventful year for Bira. In March, it launched the Bira 91 Limited Release Taproom in Koramangala, Bengaluru. Jain says the taproom was meant to be a place where they could host consumers and get them to try out new variants of their brews. It was almost like “crowd-sourcing" the next Bira 91. “The intent with the taproom was to get every consumer to rate and vote our beers, give us feedback on what they like about them and what they don’t. We want to incorporate that feedback into the next very wide- and large-scale Bira 91 release," he adds. They hope to resume operations at the taproom in the next few weeks, with strict hygiene measures in place.
The taproom’s launch coincided with the brand’s five-year anniversary and the commissioning of a new brewery in Mysuru. “What we did in that brewery was, we installed a small microbrewery where we are able to make a 500-litre batch of beer. Typically, our batches of beer are a minimum of 6,000-10,000 cases.... This allows us to have a lot of new, experimental products that can be released quickly," explains Jain.
Ensuring that experimentation is still a part of the organization’s DNA, even if some of those experiments don’t work out, is really important for Jain, 39. He says he often finds himself “cajoling" his leadership team to take risks. “I definitely constantly push them into taking risks that they otherwise would not...half of them fail but that’s okay," he adds. The taproom, one such example, is where Jain hopes to release new beers inspired by new flavours, be it a west coast IPA (Indian Pale Ale), a Pomegranate Champagne Rosé beer or an imperial stout. “We are playing a lot with ingredients. We even did something with mango lassi!" he says.
Given the months of lockdown that followed, the taproom launch feels like a long time ago. The past few months, Jain admits, were a “very difficult operating environment". “We were shut like the rest of the country for almost 45 days completely—between 20 March-4 May. All our breweries were shut, all retail shops and restaurants were also shut. In May, a bunch of states started opening up but there were several disruptions and inconsistencies." he adds. Since then, he adds, the breweries have been able to restart operations, with safety checks and social distancing measures.
Through this period, most of the company’s 500-strong workforce has been functioning from home.As luck would have it, Bira 91 had put in place a “Makeplay" work-from-home policy earlier this year, well before covid-19 struck. “I think we reconditioned well to work from home. We had instituted the Makeplay policy last year and started allowing people to work from home for a certain part of their week," says Jain.
Jain explains that for the overall beer industry, 40% of sales happen in the crucial months of April-June. This May, he estimates, beer sales were down 75% compared to last year. “It’s quite insane," he adds. “In May, we (the company) were at 70% of our pre-covid levels (in terms of sales). There has been a massive decline in the beer sector, not only due to the disruption in the supply chain but because demand has also been impacted."
As a founder, Jain says, he has started playing the long game and believes it’s key that this attitude percolates down the organization. “Earlier, it used to be about this month or this quarter, at best. Now it’s about the next five or 10 years, at the very minimum. But I also tell my team, there’s always a dichotomy: You have to do well in the short term to be able to survive in the long term."
Born to an author-interior designer mother and architect-urban planner father in Delhi, Jain tried his hand at pretty much everything after finishing his bachelor’s in computer science from the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago. He started working with Motorola in 2002, when the company had just refreshed its entire phone division, spending six months in their personal communication systems unit. In 2003, he went on to co-found his “first real business" in the healthcare management space, in New York, with a healthcare professional. Five years later, he returned to India and worked briefly with Max Healthcare’s new ventures division and Reliance Fresh, where he planned the supply chain division management network and set up the food processing and packaging unit.
“I have never worked for anybody else for an extended period of time. It’s really funny," he recalls. “I hope Bira 91 doesn’t become too big because it will get boring," says Jain, amused at the mere thought. Today, the brand is present in 400 cities and 10 countries.
Before Bira 91 launched in 2015, Jain had spent five years running a beer import and distribution business. Dealing in European brands, success was hard to come by. He would find it hard to sell almost everything he was importing. Either it was just too expensive or the brands and types of beer were unfamiliar.
After its launch, the brand too struggled with distribution and supply issues in the early days. “One of the key challenges for us was capacity. We recognized it in year 2, when we transitioned production to India, and again in 2018 and 2019," says Jain. Over the last six months, however, the commissioning of two new breweries has quintupled production capacity. “The sales challenge is still there," he adds.
The craft beer market has been evolving rapidly, and competition is on the rise, with even legacy brand Kingfisher unveiling a new Ultra Witbier in December. “I think the fact that Kingfisher has launched a wheat beer today or competitors like Ab Inbev or Carlsberg are considering that, is validation of our belief that for this generation of consumers, beer means flavour.... I think there will be a lot of competition," says Jain.
Along the way, Jain explains, he has also learnt a great deal about consumer preferences . “The Indian consumer is way more diverse, especially the beer consumer, now than maybe five years ago," he says. “Back in 2010, less than 15% of beer consumers were female. Today, going by our own internal research, 30% of overall beer consumers in the country are female, which is an incredible number," he adds.
The other significant change is what Jain calls the “consumption occasion". There are fewer taboos about alcohol consumption, he says. “Twenty years ago, consuming alcohol was a very nocturnal, hidden occasion. That’s how 50-60% of alco-bev was consumed in India. Today, it’s not unusual for someone to go for happy hours with their colleagues after work. Consumer needs are very diverse now—they want better, tastier beers," he adds. For Jain personally, there’s no better consumption occasion than a Sunday afternoon. “I love having a little bit of sun with my beer. If a friend has a garden or terrace, that’s the best place," he says.
Fatherhood and beyond
The silver lining of the lockdown period for Jain and his wife, who are expecting their first child, is that they have been able to spend more time together. “I am super excited (about fatherhood) but I am concerned I am not as nervous as I should be," Jain says, laughing. “One positive is that my wife cannot complain that I was not with her. In fact, it’s probably a lot more than she wanted me to be around."
Some other parts of his routine have not changed, including his morning “liberating" yoga sessions. Cooking, one of Jain’s other passions, has hit another gear too. “I have been looking for recipes on Google pretty much daily and my grocery trips have become more expensive. My parents live on the floor below, so I make sure I cook at least one meal daily where I can have them over," he says.
While working from home, social media has been key to staying in touch with consumers. He says he was surprised to see people joining Instagram Live sessions with their brewmaster Thomas Hartman (also the vice-president of brewing and innovation at Bira 91) at 3pm on a Wednesday.
A big part of Bira 91’s expansion story also rests in its merchandise section. During the last few months, Jain says, beer sales tanked but merchandise sales actually went up. “We have done beer-ware, glassware, service-ware, but parallelly we have also done collectibles and released a hot sauce recently. It’s all about flavour, colour and adding a little bit of play to the life of the consumer," he adds.
Speaking of consumers, the covid-19 pandemic has ensured that the experience of dining out will never be the same again. I ask Jain what he thinks will change. He replies by reminiscing about an episode from his New York days and the infamous 2003 blackout. “At that time I was working in Brooklyn and the train stopped. Times Square was not lit up for the first time in probably decades."
He continues, “...the moment I reached Times Square, (you could see that) everybody had forgotten that there was a blackout." Grocery shops were doling out free ice creams. Beer was being served on the house. “Humans have a nice way of making up for everything they lose," adds Jain. “We are social beings, I am sure we will be back in restaurants soon, if not in six months’ time then in 12 months. We always find a way."
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