An Indian craft beer pioneer brings his brews to the States
A decade ago, India was not a place where you could find craft beer of any kind. Now it’s the latest epicenter of the micro-brewing revolution, thanks to Ankur Jain and his New Delhi–based brand, Bira 91. And soon, Jain’s unique creations will be available at grocery stores across America.
Jain, once an app developer for Motorola, launched Bira 91 in 2015 after visiting the Brooklyn Brewery, which was down the street from his old office. In Brooklyn, he saw how the craft beer movement, with its nuanced flavors and small-batch production, could compete with established beer behemoths. Meanwhile, in India, he says, “Beer wasn’t deeply appreciated. It was something you picked up to get drunk. You didn’t pay attention to the taste or experience.” So breweries that are popular on the Subcontinent, like Budweiser and Heineken, “were not innovating at all. They were ripe for a challenge.”
Jain’s approach centers on sourcing many ingredients from the country’s diverse landscape, which lends the beers a special Indian terroir: wheat from Haryana and Uttar Pradesh for “caramel and honey” notes; kinnow, a bitter citrus from Nagpur; aromatic coriander from Gujarat; and hops from the Himalayas, which Jain says have a “really tropical, pineapple aroma that works well” to balance other flavors. The aim, he says, is to create beers that are refreshing, distinctive, and accessible.
At first, Jain says, “There was skepticism at every level.People said Indians would never want to drink premium brands.” However, Bira 91’s flavor-first approach to beer—including a Belgian-style white ale and a blonde lager—quickly made the company India’s top draught beer, inspiring a number of new microbreweries, such as Gateway Brewing Co. and White Rhino. “People are suddenly realizing this could be an interesting category,” Jain says. “There’s now a huge chunk of the population that will pay more for better beer.”
This year, Jain is bringing Bira 91 to five new U.S. cities (it’s already available in California) and introducing several more varieties. He is once again betting against conventional wisdom: While most microbreweries tout their local heritage, he’s hoping that beer drinkers will respond to Bira’s global perspective and distinctly Indian identity. And at the end of the day, he adds, “People just want unpretentious beers that are flavorful. That void could be filled up by Bira.”