Arbor Brewing to open India franchise in 2011
Photo courtesy of Matt Greff
It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. After all, good taste knows no borders, and as proof, soon there will be an Arbor Brewing Co. brewpub opening in Bangalore, India — perhaps as soon as mid-2011.
How did that happen?
“A former University of Michigan student, Gaurav Sikka, used to hang out a lot at the pub when he was here,” said Matt Greff, owner of Arbor. “After graduating, he moved back to his hometown of Bangalore to figure out what he wanted to do with his life — and it struck him that what India really needs is good beer.”
“I had started a venture creation company in college, Michigan Partners, and while screening various ideas for foreign ventures, I remembered the idea I had for a brewpub many years ago,” Sikka said. “In fact, India’s first couple of brewpubs had opened in 2009, which made me believe now was the right time to get into it.”
Birth of a partnership
Why Arbor Brewing?
“I had decided from the beginning that working with experienced partners would be essential to the success of this project, and Arbor was the first name that came to mind,” Sikka said. “I still feel a strong bond with the city and culture of Ann Arbor, and I couldn’t think of a better brand than ABC to be associated with.”
It took some convincing to get Greff, along with his wife and business partner Rene, on board with the idea.
“In 2008 we got this e-mail from India out of the blue, less than two years after we opened Corner (Brewery in Ypsilanti), so we kind of had our hands full,” Greff said. “It wasn’t the first time someone approached us with a franchise idea, so our standard response was ‘Thanks for your interest, but no thanks.’”
But Sikka persisted, and a year later his efforts paid off as the Greffs traveled to Bangalore in October 2009 to formally seal a joint venture deal, thus giving birth to Arbor Brewing Co. India Ltd.
“We’re acting as consultants, licensing our name, our beer brands, and the whole concept,” Greff said. He and Rene also maintain a 5 percent interest in the joint venture.
‘Chomping at the bit’ for beer
The partners have high hopes for the venture. According to Sikka, beer is the beverage of choice in southern India, particularly Bangalore, although it is mostly of the light, mass-produced variety.
“Bangalore is the home of Kingfisher, India’s most popular beer, and is known across India and Asia for its strong beer culture,” he said. “This city has a great many beer drinkers who are now yearning for more choices and variety, and that made the decision to locate here quite easy.”
Kingfisher, notes Greff, is the Indian equivalent of Budweiser or Miller, and he and Sikka say the country is ripe for a microbrewing revolution similar to the one that began expanding beer quality and taste in the United States in the early-to-mid 1990s. (Arbor Brewing opened in 1995.)
“The economic boom in India has created a lot of new wealth, and people are beginning to travel across the world and become acquainted with the finer experiences of beer, wine and gourmet food,” Sikka said. “Disposable incomes are rising, and people are eager to spend money on international concepts as long as they get quality and value.”
Greff put it more simply: “They are just chomping at the bit for good beer.”
Starting from scratch
The project is moving ahead steadily. In June, Sikka signed a lease on a 10,000 sq. ft. space in downtown Bangalore in the heart of the city’s main shopping and entertainment district. The architect and design teams are expected to be finalized in the next week, with work commencing shortly thereafter.
Perhaps most interestingly, however, the new pub’s brewing system is being designed entirely from scratch by Mike O’Brien of Ypsilanti, a figure familiar to many of the area’s craft beer aficionados as a kind of brewing Renaissance Man.
New brewpubs in the United States often have the option of purchasing used brewing systems from failed breweries in other area of the country, but in India, a nation of 1.2 billion people and approximately five existing craft brewpubs, locating a used system wasn’t feasible.
“We subcontracted with Mike to create the schematics of the system here, but the materials will be sourced and the equipment assembled in India,” Greff said. “When the time comes, Mike will also travel to Bangalore to oversee the installation.”
Nothing else like it
O’Brien will not be the only one making the long journey east to help establish Arbor Brewing India.
“For the first 6-12 months, we want to station an Arbor brewer here because we don’t want to compromise on the quality of our beers,” Sikka said. “There are brewers in India but very few who have experience with the range and depth of American craft brewing.”
“There’s nothing else like this over there, so we’re working on a way to get some of our staff to go over and help wait tables and manage the bar in order to instill the American sense of casual dining,” Greff said. After that, locally trained staff would take over, he says.
Selling India Pale Ale to Indians
The truly important question is: What beers will Arbor India sell?
“For the most part, the pub will sell our existing beers, and then we’ll develop some special recipes that rotate on and off and fit the local vibe,” Greff said. “For example, we’re working on a recipe for Chai PA, an herbally spiced IPA (India Pale Ale), as well as recipes that will make use of fruits and other ingredients indigenous to the area.”
Speaking of IPA, a style developed for British soldiers and administrators stationed in India during the colonial period, Greff tells a funny story involving Sikka’s father, Sanjeev, who is also invested in the project.
“He didn’t know what IPA stood for and when we told him, his eyes grew wide and he said, ‘Do you have any idea how much India Pale Ale we could sell in India?'”
Bottles and tap handles of Arbor’s IPA, Sacred Cow, feature a cartoonish label that plays off the holy image Hindus accord to the tastiest of animals — something that has raised concerns among Sanjeev and other investors.
“Everyone we’ve talked to so far loves the name, but it’s safe to say we will change the beer’s logo for India to avoid upsetting anyone,” says Greff.
A worldwide celebration
According to Sikka, the brewpub is scheduled to open in the third quarter of 2011, with the major hurdle being — what else? — approval from that enemy of human progress and happiness everywhere: government bureaucracy.
“Excise policies are drafted at the state level, and Karnataka (the state Bangalore is located in) has taken longer than expected to finalize its brewpub policy,” Sikka said. “Laws have to be drafted, and I’m in constant touch with various government departments to ensure our license is issued soon. Unfortunately, this is one of the main drawbacks of setting up new businesses in India.”
Sikka ultimately envisions franchising Arbor India brewpubs in other cities throughout the country, but his focus now is obviously on getting Bangalore up and running.
“We have no specific plans for the grand opening, but I can promise you it will be big!” he said.
For their part, the Greffs say they are excited for this next step in the evolution of the Arbor brand.
“We’ll have grand opening festivities in Ann Arbor, too — a worldwide celebration,” Matt said, laughing. “We’d also love to get as many of our friends and customers as we can to India for the opening there.”
Sikka agrees. “Without the support of Arbor’s many patrons over the years, we would not even be talking about ABC India today.”
You hear that, Arbor regulars? Start saving those pennies for the beer run of a lifetime.
David Bardallis is a freelance writer and editor, blogger, bon vivant, and man about town. Visit his website, DavidBardallis.com, to engage his services or read his latest. E-mail your beer-related thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org, follow @dbardallis on Twitter, or join the "All the Brews Fit to Pint" Facebook page.