At any given moment, I could walk into a local grocery store, corner store, or even a gas station and find at least one craft beer option on the shelf.
The amazing growth that the U.S. craft beer industry has experienced over the past few years has, sadly, made many of us American craft beer lovers take it for granted. Especially where I live in Northern California, a region of the country that boasts some of the greatest brewers in the world. Most of my neighborhood bars and restaurants have at least one craft beer, if not only craft beer, on the menu.
But, this is not necessarily the reality outside of California, or even the U.S. Unfortunately, most of the countries in this world (I’m assuming over 90%) have little to no craft beer available in the market, let alone craft breweries. This brings us to India.
Quite ironically, the country known for inspiring the most popular and most brewed category of craft beer — the India Pale Ale — does not boast a thriving craft beer culture. Partially due to its lack of craft breweries, the majority of beer being produced and sold in India is, as one can assume, yellow fizzy macro lagers. Well, until now that is.
In just the past few years, India’s beer industry has experienced a lot of change. Small craft brewpubs have emerged and a few foreign imports, such as Boston Lager, Paulaner and Chimay, have become available in the Indian market — giving Indians a new taste for craft beer and creating a demand for it in the process.
Enter Independence Brewing Company, a new craft beer venture focused on igniting a craft beer revolution in India. Dedicated to offering independence from uninspired, yellow fizzy beers to the emerging beer connoisseurs in India, Independence Brewing Company is the brainchild Avanish Vellanki and Shailendra Bist — two passionate and devoted craft beer geeks with strong ties to India.
What makes IBC’s story so unique, is its support and backing from the illustrious CEO & co-founder one of the U.S. largest and most beloved craft breweries, Stone Brewing Co., Greg Koch. Known as one of the most powerful and strongest voices in craft beer, Greg is not the type to enter into partnerships lightly — especially ventures that involve his greatest love, craft beer. But IBC’s mission struck a chord with Greg, as I am sure it will with other craft beer lovers around the world.
Upon hearing the news surrounding the development of Independence Brewing Company and Greg’s involvement, I reached out to its founders and to Greg to learn more about the project. They granted me an exclusive interview, which I am extremely honored to share with you today. Hopefully, after reading it, many of you will be inspired to get involved in IBC and help to make their amazing dream a reality! Cheers!!!
“Putting the India Back in IPA”
An Exclusive Interview with Avanish Vellanki and Shailendra Bist of Independence Brewing Co.
(with inserts from Greg Koch)
An award winning brewer/ mechanical engineer and a Wall Street investment banker is quite a powerful partnership. How did you two meet?
Shailly: Back in 2010 we were both independently exploring the possibility of starting a brewery in India. One of our common friends, a brewer who recently started a brewery in Singapore, suggested we meet. We met in late 2010 over a couple of beers and it instantly seemed like a great partnership. Over a couple more meetings we decided to join forces and start Independence Brewing Co.
How did you both first get into craft beer?
Avanish: For me, it was about experiencing variety. I think a person can have water downed lagers for only so long before they start venturing out. In my view, the craft beer market is the natural evolution of any beer market – people anywhere will want to find variety and greater depth to their brews than the industrial lagers are able to provide.
Shailly: I came to the US in mid 2001 for my masters at Purdue. Had my first craft beer, a pale ale, at a local pub brewery in Lafayette, IN where coincidentally I also met my wife to be! You could say that my two loves affairs started back then.
Every craft beer professional has at least one pinnacle craft beer experience that completely changes his perspective on beer. I refer to this mind-blowing moment as a “craft beer epiphany.” What was your first craft beer epiphany?
Shailly: From the first time I tasted a fresh craft beer I knew I had a special liking for it, but it was all still a little distant. The first time I tasted my own craft brew, an all extract IPA which was not necessarily all that good, it totally changed by connection with beer. I felt like it was a friend I knew intimately.
Avanish: It’s hard for me to identify the “epiphany” moment since I think it was very gradual for me. At one point, around 2008 when I was in New York, I noticed that if a venue didn’t offer some craft brews on tap, or at least some bottled craft beers, I would push for my group of friends to find another venue. I personally haven’t had one of the mainstream US lagers in over probably over 5 years.
Why did you choose to build a brewery in India? Why not the U.S.?
Avanish: The obvious reason is that India doesn’t have craft beer. It was a chance to bring something new to the market of our heritage. It was really, ultimately, that simple.
But if I were to put my Banker hat on, I would say the US is a mature beer market and while the craft beer segment is growing, there are a ton of players. With over 2,000 breweries and over 700 breweries preparing to launch, it would be much more difficult to differentiate ourselves, especially related to where the bar is set in India. In India, there are only 12-15 bottled brands available in the country, with only another 10 or so pub breweries that have just recently been set up. And that is in a nation that is quadruple that of the US in terms of population. Again, it was quite clear what needed to be done.
The main goal of Independence Brewing Co. is to provide a variety of fresh, craft brews for the emerging beer connoisseur in India. What is the current beer drinking culture like in India? How is it different from past years?
Shailly: The beer drinking culture is rapidly transforming. There used to be a time where drinking beer was done discreetly and almost no women drank beer. With rapid economic development and changing social norms beer drinking is becoming common place in any and all social events, sports events etc. This is the reason why beer volume sales are doubling every 3-4 years! Unfortunately all of this beer is industrial lagers. There are 2-3 good brew pubs that have sprung up and a lot of imported craft beers are entering the market as more and more people demand something beyond that yellow fizzy stuff. We hope we can provide locally made awesome craft beer that Indians can enjoy and be proud of.
Why did you choose the name Independence Brewing Company?
Shailly: We started IBC with the singular aim to introduce real craft beer to Indians and do our part in brining Independence from boring beers! to India. Bring independence, from fizzy yellow stuff, to our consumers by offering far superior choices to what’s available currently and make them aware of what real craft beer can be.
Although Indians have moved on, our struggle for independence from foreign rule and our struggle to establish ourselves as a stable forward looking nation still evoke strong emotions. Our name is also an ode to the independent spirit and identity that we have carved out as a nation.
Why did you choose to partner with Greg Koch on this project?
Avanish: Greg’s success with Stone speaks for itself. To me, outside of the reputation that Stone has, I really appreciate Greg’s love for the craft brewing space and devotion to spreading that message around the world. But what I most admire about Greg is how he has approached building a brand - Greg used unconventional branding tactics to assemble a very loyal following, and I think there are tremendous lessons in that. I think his approach with Stone could be used as a case study for almost any business.
Greg Koch: I did? From my perspective, I just approached the building of Stone and our reputation from the position of a beer geek. As in, “what, as a beer geek, would I do?” So, that’s the voice that I’ll be giving to Avanish & Shailly. And the reason that I agreed to be an Advisor to them is that they too are devoted beer geeks. I also think they’ve both got great heads on their shoulders. I’ll be pushing them not to listen to their heads too much, and instead listen to their own inner beer geeks, and to make decisions more from the latter than the former.
What is Greg’s main role with Independence Brewing?
Shailly: Mostly as an Adviser on our brewery operations, brand building and business in general.
Greg: There’s that “brand building” phrase again! <laugh> I’ll be giving my best advice all along the way, all the while telling them to ignore everyone and do it THEIR way. Of course, by “ignore everyone” I really mean “ignore everyone who does not share your vision, but DO listen to advice and perspectives from those who do share you vision.” My role is in that latter camp.
You also have an extremely experienced adviser on the team. Who is Pradeep Gidwani and what does he bring to the Independence Brewing Co. team?
Avanish: Pradeep is a veteran of the brewing world in India. And since India is a very nascent culture with regards to the beer market and brewing, Pradeep literally knows everyone in the space. Although Pradeep’s prior roles were entrenched in the mass market lagers, launching Carlsberg, Tuborg, Palone and Fosters in India, Pradeep is a true connoisseur of craft brews. Pradeep, like Greg, wants to see Indians embrace craft beer. It will be tremendously beneficial to have Pradeep’s input as we move forward.
In addition to investors, how else are you raising funds for the brewery?
Shailly: We will be launching a fundraising campaign soon on Kickstarter (crowd funding, www.kickstarter.com) to raise some additional funds. It’s amazing what a lot of people with small contributions can do when they get excited about an idea. We are excited about our campaign; we have a very interesting video on there featuring Greg in it! Greg in his latest fuzzy look! We also have some very cool gifts to give away, many of which are made by traditional craftsmen in India, like a tap handle made using the ancient art of lost wax casting by tribals from Bastar region in India.
Greg: That region is missing a ‘d.’ Oh, and don’t let my “fuzzyness” distract from the message. Independence Brewing needs support on an important and historic venture. My beard has got all the support it needs (although maybe I’ll need to start my own Kickstarter campaign so I can afford to replace the razor that I clearly lost).
Have you broken ground on the brewery yet? If not, when do you plan on breaking ground?
Avanish: We will initially be leasing a facility rather than building because of an abundance of existing venues in India that would be a great fit for us. We would also prefer to use our financial resources to make the best beers we can and find ways to reach as many people as possible.
How big of a system will you be brewing on?
Shailly: We will have a 10hl steam fired brew house with 70hl of fermentation space. We will keep some room for expansion down the line as and when the demand picks up. I can’t wait to start brewing on it! It will be the most well equipped micro brewery in India.
What styles will you be focused on brewing?
Avanish: The goal is to bring to India the diversity of global beer styles. So we will have quite a variety. Of course Shailly and I spend the majority of our time drinking American pale ales so the American influence in our beer portfolio will be clear. I, personally, also love the Bavarian Hefs.
Shailly: We like all well made beers, although we can be partial to west coast hop bombs, Belgian triples and British brown porters. Quite frankly starting out we will do an array of styles from a wit to an IPA and slowly we will gravitate to a few core styles. And I am sure the core will have a very Indian identity to it. We will probably never do lagers, though.
Do you have any beer names in the pipeline that you would like to leak to inquiring minds?
Shailly: There are some names but we cannot disclose them at this time. Some very interesting names from our ancient history and then some more contemporary ones. Some names will also reflect our California roots.
Will you be exporting any of your beers to the U.S.?
Avanish: I would love to bring beers to the US, but that’s not in the near-term plans.
What craft brewers, breweries and beers inspire the Independence Brewing Co. team the most?
Shailly: The list is huge! I have been more inspired by home brewers than breweries, but let’s stick to the point, with no particular order:
- Vinnie Cilurzo, Russian River Brewing
- Matt Brynildson, Firestone Walker Brewing
- Jerry Vietz, Unibroue
- Russian River
- Firestone Walker
- Unibroue (sadly taken over by Saporro)
- Abbey Westmalle
- Brasserie Dupont
- Samuel Smith’s
- Three Floyds Brewing
- RR Pliny (younger and elder), Supplication, Damnation
- Avery Maharaja IPA
- Firestone California Pale, IPA
- Stone IPA, Arrogant Bastard
- Unibroue La Fin Du Monde, Maudite
- Westmalle – Tripel, Dubbel
- Fullers London Porter
- Samuel Smith’s Tadcaster, Oatmeal Stout
- North Coast Brewing Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout
- Duchesse de Bourgogne
Avanish: For me, of course Stone is a major influence. My favorite beer is Stone’s Levitation. For me, the breweries of influence are the one that have great business stories behind it; I love the history behind Brooklyn Brewery and the lessons that Steve Hindy and Tom Potter shared as they experienced the inherent business risks of relying on third-party distributors. I’m also very impressed with Surly Brewing in Minneapolis, my hometown.
Stone has become famous for its collaboration brews. Since Greg is a big part of Independence Brewing, do you have any plans to collaborate in the near future?
Avanish: In the near-term, I think we are going to have our hands full, but down the road, we would expect collaborations with a variety of brewers to play a large role in our effort to bring craft beer to India. But honestly, we’ve never asked Greg about that.
Greg: I’m sure they’ll have plenty of opportunities for great collaborations…eventually. Once they develop a reputation, craft brewers from other parts of the world will naturally think to themselves “Visiting India and brewing with Avanish & Shailly at Independence Brewing sounds like a really cool idea.” I know I’ll be doing it at some point, perhaps with someone else from Stone in tow. That would be really cool. Also, once the craft brewing industry grows a bit with other entrants doing their own thing in the country, then there will be collaboration possibilities within the country. It’s a nice thing to think wistfully about, imagining a future where that would be possible in India. In the meantime however, they’ve got a lot to do and will be focusing on rolling up their sleeves and launching their brewery.
What role will social media play in Independence Brewing’s marketing strategy?
Avanish: Social media will play a very large role, but when the time is right. Shailly and I have a lot of work to do to prepare the business for the future, so over the near-term, we are going to be focused on execution first and foremost. However, as we move closer to the official opening of the business in India, we promise that we will be quite active in the social media channels. We hope everyone in the US follows along as we try to foster the craft beer movement in India!
Follow Independence Brewing Company on Facebook and @IndeBrewCo on Twitter.
For fun, if you were a style of beer, what would you be and why?
Shailly: A Saison, easy going but can sneak up on you.
Avanish: Russian River’s Pliny the Elder, because it’s a serious beer. Shailly always tells me I need to loosen up!
Last but not least, what does craft beer mean to you?
Shailly: History, passion and innovation in a glass.
Avanish: To me, craft beer is a brew that has extravagant simplicity… where to truly appreciate it, it requires a small degree of concentration but, at the same time, it hits you with a composition that is much more than the sum of its parts.