Back With A Bite

Updated: Nov 15 2003, 05:30am hrs
Cobra Beer, one of the most successful Indian brands in the UK, is now coming home in a big way. In the next five months, the pound 56.8 million (Rs 399 crore) company will begin production on Indian soil. The process of tying up its Indian subsidiary, Cobra Indian Beer, with different breweries is already up and running.

The companys founder and CEO Karan Bilimoria also has plans to develop India as an export base for the rest of the subcontinent, and to be the No 1 premium lager in the country. Still, Cobras circle of success is a story more dramatic than most would honestly be able to tell.

Recently the companys founder and CEO, Karan Bilimoria, added another to his string of business awards the Entrepreneur Of The Year Award, 2003 from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Growing Presence
Currently the highest selling Indian beer in Britain, Cobra Beer has sales in 30 countries, and Mr Bilimoria has an ongoing drive to brew in different locations, though bringing Cobra back to India is clearly a special step.

At present, Cobra beer is only produced in the UK, and is being imported by India. We are evaluating several options and may even acquire a brewery here, says Mr Bilimoria. Prices will go down, once that happens, he says.

The beer is available in New Delhi, Mumbai, Goa, Pune, Kolkata, Hyderabad and Bangalore. Its reach will expand across India once production commences, he adds.

But the dynamism of Cobras success lies in the establishing of an image of success in a relatively short period of time. Recently, Cobra introduced a new bottle for its beer, a bottle with eight embossed symbols that when pieced together weave the beers intensely involving story with each symbol connoting something relating to the evolution of the product.

Bangalore Beginnings
The story began in an army mess in Bangalore where Karan Bilimoria had his first fateful trysts with beer with his father, a senior army officer with the Gorkha regiment. Shortly after, Mr Bilimoria went to the UK to study law at Cambridge University and qualified himself as an accountant at Ernst & Young. It was at this time that he also studied eating and drinking habits particularly British and envisioned a beer that could perfectly accompany Indian cuisine (Britain has more Indian restaurants than any other country apart from India).

The beer itself came to life in 1989, the recipe created by another Indian, Dr Kariapa a PhD in brewing from the Czech Republic. Scores of tryouts and tastings later, the first ever Cobra beer was ready in India. Brewing shifted from India to UK in 1997.

Focussing on Indian restaurants and off-licence industry in Britain (which is controlled almost completely by Indians), Mr Bilimoria went back to the UK where he personally persuaded restauranters and shop owners to stock Cobra beer. People tried the beer, liked it, orders came forth.

Global Push
Internationally, Cobra beer is looking to push into newer markets for growth. The company has recently set up a subsidiary in South Africa and the US and is looking to ramp up production from a brewery in Europe, he says.

As the companys website says, homecoming is usually the end of the story, but in the case of Cobra, its another start. Also on its India radar, is talks with Indian wine companies to possibly acquire an Indian wine for Cobras wine portfolio which sells under the General Bilimoria wines brand. At present, we have wines from France and South Africa. The Indian wine would subsequently be bottled in India and be exported. The addition of new world wines has proved extremely popular, reflecting the demand for a superior wine to go with spicy cuisine, Mr Bilimoria says.

General Bilimoria wines, named after his father, now sells in excess of 3,50,000 bottles a year, created initially as a wine to accompany, again, spicy Indian food.

General Bilimoria wines are being chosen by Indian restaurants worldwide to offer consumers a premium house wine of exceptional quality, he says. When Cobra beer finally begins local production and retail at the start of 2004, prices will slide down, according to Mr Bilimoria, from the current Rs 99 for a 330 ml bottle.

And right at the end of the Cobra beer website, theres some advice. It says, if you ever bump into Mr Bilimoria, get him to buy you a Cobra. Then buy him one in return and ask him about Cobras next ingenious plan. Going by Cobras story of 13 years, its ambitions could scarcely be prefixed with a more appropriate epithet.