A Brew Apart: Why New Yorkers are Guzzling India’s Favorite Craft Beer

An ice-cold beer with good friends is a classic way to finish off a long day. Cracking open a refreshing brew has always meant that it’s time to kick back and relax, but the face of this ritual is evolving. With the rise of “hipster” culture, the standard six-pack of red or blue cans no longer does the trick for many Americans, and with the recent boom in microbreweries, craft beers, and interest in quality over quantity, everyone is a connoisseur. Smaller, independent breweries are experiencing unprecedented success, and, according to Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewers Association, “beer lovers want to support businesses that align with their values and are having a positive impact on their local communities and our larger society.” Bira 91, a craft brewery based in India and helmed by charismatic entrepreneur Ankur Jain, has set its sights on becoming the bottle Americans reach for when they want to unwind with a quality beer.

“Imagined in India” – Inspired by New York

Brand loyalty is important to consumers of craft beer, who want to make a difference with their purchases, but so is the opportunity to taste new and exciting varieties from breweries they have not yet had the opportunity to try. This desire for fresh flavors is how Bira 91, India’s first craft beer brewery, hopes to capture the attention of the U.S. market. A recent article from the BBC, “The craft beer firm with a thirst for global growth,” BBC Business Reporter Medhavi Arora tells the story of how Bira 91 was “imagined in India” by Ankur Jain after he returned home to New Delhi following a decade in New York.  During his time in the U.S., the availability of exceptional craft beers left an impression on Mr. Jain, who recognized that “India really had no beer worth drinking,” and decided to introduce the phenomenon to the Indian market. After crowdsourcing $600,000 in startup funds, Bira 91 was created in 2014 and launched in 2015.

Bira 91’s clever marketing, with a punk-rock monkey on the bottle, playful attitude, and high-quality, globally-sourced ingredients have struck a chord with millennials in the youthful, hipster area in Delhi, called Hauz Khas Village, who are tired of typical beers and alcohol that often comes at a high price by volume. Mr. Jain’s commitment to quality beers at affordable prices was present from the start. When he couldn’t find an Indian brewery with the caliber of ingredients and production standards he needed for his beer, he decided to brew it thousands of miles away in Belgium, a nation renowned for exceptional suds. Ankur Jain’s unwillingness to compromise paid off, and by the end of 2017, Bira 91’s output exploded to over 300,000 barrels of its five beer varieties; 30 times what it produced at the beginning. Now that its recipes have been perfected, the company has brought its production home, and Bira 91 beers are now crafted in Indore and Nagpur to keep up with ever-increasing sales. Today, it is uncommon to walk into an Indian bar and not see bottles of Bira 91 being sipped by local clientele. The company is now worth over $30 million, and its momentum shows no signs of slowing down.

A Star-Studded Entrance: Sponsoring Tribeca

Bira 91 has attracted global attention for its variety of flavors, from high-intensity wheat beer to blonde lager, and for options for every kind of beer drinker, including Bira 91 Light beer, which, in a calorie-for-calorie comparison, is “healthier than milk.” The brand was created with its Indian roots in mind, but with broad enough imagery to generate widespread appeal. Bira 91’s Directive Creator, Dev Kabir Malik says, “Every element is Indian, but not obviously Indian…The idea was to present India in a modern and contemporary fashion.” The brand has already begun infiltrating American bars by way of the Tribeca Film Festival, which Bira 91 sponsored in 2016. “We want to be associated with a brand that resonates globally,” Jain says in response to his decision to enter the New York market. “We don’t want to be relegated to an ‘ethnic’ brand in the U.S. We want to [gel] with the American mainstream.”

“Bira is young and unorthodox, and that overlaps with what Tribeca stands for.” Andrew Essex, CEO of Tribeca Enterprises, echoed this in his decision to include Bira 91 as the festival’s official beer; “When Ankur introduced us to Bira91, we knew it was the right fit for our beer sponsor—groundbreaking, modern, creative, and above all, fun.” Participating in the Tribeca Film Festival gave Bira 91 unprecedented exposure in the United States, and introduced a young, artistic, adventurous audience to its unique beers by offering them in 300 venues around New York City during the festival. It also allowed Mr. Jain the opportunity to rub shoulders with Hollywood stars including Oscar nominee Dev Patel, the star of “Lion” and “Slumdog Millionaire,” and generated a quantity of positive press that is almost unheard of for most young start-ups.

Tapping into the U.S. Market

Ankur Jain’s ultimate goal is to create beverages with such wide appeal that Bira 91 becomes, “the first global brand of craft beer.” The company is well on its way to achieving this lofty goal and has already overcome the first hurdles of its expansion into the United States: obtaining $38 million in external investments, including money from Sequoia Capital, U.S.- based capital firm, and establishing a U.S. office and staff. Currently, about 2% of Bira 91 beers are exported to New York and New Jersey, with Boston and Philadelphia soon to follow.

To succeed in markets where the beer industry is considered mature, like the United States, Mr. Sandeep Bhatnagar, the managing director of Ambicon Consultants, which helps set up microbreweries and brewpubs, said, “companies like Bira, when they want to explore international markets, they have to be very cautious about the quality that they are going to manufacture… if someone is trying to venture into a place where people have knowledge about beer, that person has to be very careful.” With advice like this in mind, Bira 91 will continue with the same ethos it had at the beginning; to produce flavorful beers that appeal to a wide variety of sophisticated consumers who can tell the difference between quality beers and substandard products.

Crafting a Global Presence

Thanks to its CEO’s determination, exposure from events like Tribeca, excellent beer quality, and investments from firms who believe in what Bira 91 stands for, the company’s U.S. branch was launched in NY by B9 Beverages, Inc., which was also started by the unstoppable Mr. Jain. In 2016 Bira 91 opened an office on one of the world’s most coveted street for retailers, New York City’s 5th Avenue, and is putting Americans to work distributing its beers and creating engaging marketing campaigns that resonate with consumers who agree that “fun can happen anytime, anywhere.”

Ankur Jain’s tremendous success story would be a source of pride for any entrepreneur, but it is especially impressive because of his status as a foreign entrepreneur. His influence as a visionary businessman recently earned Bira 91 the enviable status of the UN’s ‘Brewery of the Month’ for June 2018, meaning that its beers were enjoyed by diplomats and visitors to the UN global headquarters all month long, cementing the brand in global consciousness. Mr. Jain created a recognizable brand that reshaped the way Indians drink beer and has begun to replicate those results in the United States, creating jobs, stimulating the economy, and providing beer drinkers with a fantastic product as a result. His dynamic, modern, playful approach to entering a market saturated by big-name beer giants serves as a source of inspiration for other would-be entrepreneurs hoping to leave their mark on American culture.