Place, was unusually busy. The entertaining banter of the tipsy was
temporarily punctured by an argument. A 30-something across this writer’s table ordered for “Bira White” – a wheat beer low in bitterness. The bottle served, instead, was a lager, the more bitter “Bira Blonde”. The pub had run out of the wheat beer and the waiter opened the lager, inviting his customer’s wrath. He refused the drink. And the bill.
Bira White was not available at The Beer Cafe, a beer chain, either. Nor did this writer find a bottle at retailer Nature’s Basket’s Greater Kailash outlet. The retailer, informed an employee, had run out of stock after this wheat beer outsold the lager 3:1 in the past few weeks.
For an established company, an “out of stock” scenario implies serious loss of business resulting from poor forecasting. But Ankur Jain, founder and CEO of Cerana Beverages, does not fret. He triumphantly calls the two beers “India’s first craft beer” brands. “We have sold 10,000 cases in Delhi in May; 70 per cent of that is Bira White,” he says. One case is two dozen 330 ml bottles. In terms of gross revenue, it clocked $1.5 million (19 crore) in Delhi in May. “It is beyond our expectations,” he says.
There are different ways to describe a craft beer. An “intellectual beverage” to some; to others, especially the Americans, it must be “small, independent, traditional” – the flavour has to derive from innovative brewing ingredients and its annual production no more than six million barrels. Jain does not agree with this description. “Craft can be big. But the essence remains the same – great-tasting beer made with natural ingredients, made by passionate brewers, and the right processes, ” he says, before emphasising, “Taste triumphs testosterone.”
When Jain was thinking of an Indian beer brand around 2013, the choice of this category was easy picking. India consumed around 270 million cases of beer in 2014/15. Craft beers, including microbreweries, make up only one per cent of the market. Overall, the market is dominated by United Breweries Ltd (UBL). According to a June 2015 report by brokerage ICICI Direct, UBL has a 51 per cent market share with its Kingfisher brand alone commanding a 36 per cent share and its Heineken brand in the premium segment countering global brewers. Jain positioned his beers between a Heineken (1100 for a 330ml bottle in Delhi) and a Corona (1200). While Bira White costs 1175, the Blonde comes for 1150.
The pricing, in many ways, is a function of his operating model. Cerana does not brew in India. It outsources production to Belgium. “We created the recipe. It took us a year to arrive at the right taste. We had a Belgian brew master,” Jain says. The idea was to introduce Indian guzzlers to a quality they were not familiar with. “The message from Kingfisher was ‘we are the authentic Indian brand and therefore, as an Indian, you should consume me’. Everybody else who came from Europe or America was telling the consumer ‘drink me because I am so highly respected’. It was a sterile message, a condescending message,” Jain analyses. “But beer drinking is meant to be a lot more democratic and fun.” Along came Bira with a winking, perhaps a drunk monkey on its label – symbolising the tropical climate, India, and fun.