Feature

Has Bira lost its fizz?

The bottled, craft-beer company had a clear winner, until impatience got in the way 

Vishal Koul

Over 20 people who had gathered looked at each other in stunned silence as the words rolled off Ankur Jain's tongue. The man was known to make tall claims but this was really something else.

Bira had been in the market since early 2015 and, less than two years later, Jain was talking about knocking off Budweiser from the No.2 position, before displacing Kingfisher as the market leader. In the air-conditioned comfort of The Leela Ambience in Gurugram, every company staffer was anxious. The calmness on the face of Jain and the folks from Sequoia Capital, investors in the company, presented the perfect contrast. 

The occasion was the annual operation presentation of B9 Beverages, the company that owned Bira, for which a large conference room was booked in the plush hotel. It had the leadership team of the company and Jain, the company’s founder, had invited some from Sequoia’s top brass as well. By then, Bira was among the most visible beer brands but beneath that lay a business that thrived on filling bars and pubs with it. Not the best way to go about it but Jain was obsessed by the idea of Bira being omnipresent. Business logic and profit could wait.  

Bira was selling a little over 30,000 cases (each comprising 24 cans or 12 bottles) each month. How many of those did the trade pay for is not known as much of that volume was given away free. “The beer drinker should see nothing but Bira,” was Jain’s favourite line to his team. At the same time, Budweiser, owned by AB InBev was selling close to 700,000 cases and United Breweries’ Kingfisher ruled the market with around 1.5 million cases. Obviously, the upstart was being a little too ambitious but Jain gave the impression of knowing just how to get there. The fact that the Sequoia team called him a visionary only seemed to boost his confidence.  <

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