Ankur Jain may be celebrating his 38th birthday but it’s business as usual at the Bira 91 headquarters in New Delhi’s Connaught Place. The office, teeming with millennial workers, is an exemplar of splendid modernity — in striking contrast to the archaic architecture that surrounds it. The cafeteria counter offers exquisite cappuccinos as well as beer on tap (reserved for special occasions, though, because of complex liquor licence issues). The conference rooms are compact but very well-lit, each named after a Bira 91 product. I wait in the “IPA room” for Jain, the company founder and driving force behind its surprisingly stellar start and now explosive popularity.
When he arrives, Jain has the appearance of a man heading a technology start-up. His attire — black T-shirt, olive green chinos, smart watch and regular sports shoes — certainly fits the bill. “Let’s taste,” he announces, pouring a dark, creamy stout into a snifter as rain batters the windowpanes behind him.
The coffee-flavoured beer, christened Malabar Stout, is a new addition to the rapidly expanding Bira 91 portfolio. The other new offering is a refreshing Indian Pale Ale (IPA), fused with generous amounts of pomelo, the citrusy fruit that Jain first encountered in Shillong last year. Fascinated by its Indian origins and how the East India Company took it to Barbados — where it was bred with sweet orange to give birth to the modern grapefruit — Jain decided to incorporate it into his beer.
“The idea behind the stout and the IPA was quite simple: introduce consumers to experimental beers that they’ve never tasted before,” he explains. The Malabar Stout was created in collaboration with popular coffee chain Blue Tokai — it has 10 per cent coffee and 4.5 per cent alcohol, and tastes somewhat like a cold brew, just way more pleasing on the palate.
Does Jain like any beer apart from the ones he makes? “I love all beers,” he answers diplomatically, before conceding that his favourite is Orval, a Trappist beer he came across in Belgium.
Jain’s attempting greater innovation is hardly surprising. In 2015, when he launched Bira 91 White, a take on the classic Belgian witbier, few in India had heard of the use of orange and coriander in beer. Now, of course, wheat beer is all the rage, with several indigenous brands trying to emulate Bira 91’s success.
Jain’s journey started not in 2015, but much earlier, in 2007, when he decided to return to India from the US after selling his health care start-up. While studying in America and later working for Motorola, the vodka-drinking Jain became a craft beer aficionado after he started to frequent a microbrewery near his office in New York’s Brooklyn.
Back home and disappointed by the lack of good-quality beer, Jain started importing craft beer. Sales were inconsistent — he couldn’t manage a revenue of more than Rs 2 crore in those five years — but the lessons proved invaluable.
“I like to call that period the most expensive focus group in history because I wasn’t able to sell efficiently,” explains Jain, “but I realised what the Indian consumer wanted — wheat beers, IPAs, etc — and that helped me when I launched Bira 91.”
His conservative Jain family, however, wasn’t enthused with the idea. Investors were equally dismissive. “Unlike tech, this was a segment that no one in India was willing to touch,” he recalls. His thorough research — litres and litres of beer were drunk — ensured that the beer he offered was unique and authentic. Investors then took a liking to it as well. In 2016, B9 Beverages, Bira 91’s parent company, received funding worth Rs 40 crore from Sequoia Capital.
Two years later, it raised Rs 335 crore from Brussels-based investment firm Sofina. Other investors — past and present — include Snapdeal co-founder Kunal Bahl, Zomato founder Deepinder Goyal, Flipkart CEO Kalyan Krishnamurthy and actor Farhan Akhtar. Following another round of funding earlier this year, industry estimates value the company at around Rs 1,720 crore. In revenue terms, Bira 91 did business worth Rs 160 crore last year; Jain hopes to break even in 2021.
His family eventually came around as well. A 2017 Economic Times report stated that his father did not speak to him for five years after he decided to venture into the liquor business. Jain says the story is greatly exaggerated, and while they lived under the same roof and did not talk much, that was just their personalities. “He is happy now,” smiles Jain.
Bira 91’s success has coincided with an exponential growth in beer consumption in India — up 142 per cent in the last 10 years, according to a 2018 Euromonitor report. A culture of microbreweries and young consumers willing to splurge on expensive, unconventional beers has further driven that push.
But Jain no longer wishes to stay niche; he wants to make Bira 91 everyone’s go-to beer. That was the thinking behind the launch of its second strong beer, Boom, in February. The domestic market is still dominated by strong beer — over 80 per cent — and Boom was an instant hit, already accounting for 25 per cent of the company revenue.
“My target is to make Bira 91 the brand of choice for this generation. And for that, we have to have a presence in all segments,” stresses Jain, who speaks with a slight American twang. “You can’t have 10 fried chicken dishes on the same menu.”
A lot of Bira 91’s success lies in its modern appeal: right from the funky monkey mascot to the colourful labelling (the case of the Malabar Stout, for instance, is inspired by The Jungle Book). “We wanted to disrupt everything. That is why flavour took precedence over everything else, and the monkey just jumped out because we wanted our product to be fun and cool,” says Jain.
Jain’s section of the office — there are no cabins here — is a fair reflection of that very coolness quotient. Facing him is a bookshelf with books on brewing beer, the wall to his left is embellished with stunning Bira 91-themed kaleidoscopic art, and his laptop resembles an American teenager’s, with stickers plastered on top. “The idea is to have no walls, no boundaries. Right now, it’s somewhere between a fish market and a trading floor,” he chuckles.
One of the things that Jain has evidently borrowed from the stock market is a digital screen that runs along edges of the office ceiling, displaying live sales figures from states across the country.
Jain is now busy setting up a new brewery in Mysuru, in addition to operational ones in Indore, Nagpur and Andhra Pradesh’s Kovur. Soon, Jain will be able to manufacture two million cases of beer a month, up from the current 600,000-700,000.
Fascinatingly, Mysuru will have a microbrewery as well, which will roll out a new experimental beer in Bengaluru every month starting October. “For this generation, the definition of beer is flavour. We will be producing really small batches, but it’s a great opportunity to give beer enthusiasts something fresh and exciting,” says Jain. In fact, in Karnataka, which was once a 100 per cent lager market, 30 per cent of drinkers now prefer wheat, in large part due to Bira 91.
The expansion plans saw Jain sign a five-year sponsorship deal with the International Cricket Council in November 2018, rumoured to be worth $5 million a year. Bira 91 was a ubiquitous feature throughout the World Cup in June and July. “Before the World Cup, we were known by, say, 20 million consumers in Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Pune. Now, so many more Indians know about us,” reckons Jain. The fact that musicians Ed Sheeran and Rihanna were clicked swigging the orangey Bira 91 White will only help the brand’s appeal.
More than ambition or smart advertising, however, Jain’s real success lies in his ability to pay close attention to the consumer. For instance, he decided to redo Bira 91’s Blonde variant because consumers complained that the beer did not taste fresh enough. He hired a new master brewer, added some extra aromatic hops and repackaged it as the Bira 91 Summer Blonde — for the same price. “It’s good to be self-critical and find ways to improve,” he declares. As the rain stops, we drink to that.