Bangalore, one of India’s busiest IT hubs, is not the first place that comes to mind when seeking a tasty microbrew and a warm Ann Arbor welcome.
But one of the most congested intersections in the city is home to a building that all the discerning drinkers — and many U-M alumni — frequent for that very reason. The sign on the third floor is barely visible from below. Just walk past Nalli’s, a lively clothing shop, at the front of the building, and follow the colorful sari-clad mannequins as they point toward some hidden stairs near the back.
Soon you’ll find a place that everyone here calls “the Arbor.”
It’s late afternoon, Arbor Brewing Company India hasn’t yet opened for the day. But the place is buzzing with activity. A professor from the University of Arkansas Business School is visiting with his students – for work, not play. It seems this brew pub has more on tap than meets the eye.
“It’s a great case study of how an American microbrewery has thrived in a city where laws about microbreweries didn’t exist a decade ago,” says Anuradha Nagarajan, a professor at the Ross School of Business. She has been taking her Michigan Ross students to ABC India for the past three years.
Gaurav Sikka, managing director of ABC India, speaks candidly to the students about the challenges of starting and managing a microbrewery in a market where most beer drinkers have long favored German-style lager. ABC India opened in 2012, and Sikka has spent the past four years shifting the market toward a new taste.
“The time is right,” he tells the visitors from Arkanas. “Different cities in India are just opening to the microbrewery concept.”
Indians drink 425 million cases of beer annually. They also are among the world’s biggest whiskey drinkers. As income levels rise, taste buds are becoming more selective, Sikka says. But flavor and variety are not the only two qualities this new breed of drinker desires in a brew. A sense of connectedness seems to be just as important.
“ABC India is creating that community where the beer maker and the drinker have a connection,” Sikka says.
Sikka, an alum of U-M College of Literature, Science and the Arts certainly made that connection himself as a U-M student hanging out at the original Arbor Brewing Company Pub and Eatery on Washington Street in Ann Arbor. Married entrepreneurs Matt Greff and Rene Greff opened the microbrewery in 1995; they’ve since grown the operation to include a second pub, along with a bottling and distribution facility in Ypsilanti. But when Sikka first approached the Greffs about growing internationally — in Bangalore — their answer was no.
Sikka was not deterred. He invited the Greffs to Bangalore to experience the city’s burgeoning microbrew culture. He saw the market opening up, and wanted to bring his favorite Ann Arbor haunt back home.
“There wasn’t even any legislation in place then,” says Sikka, sitting in his modest office at the back of the brewery. “I didn’t know how I was going to do it. All I knew was that I wanted to start ABC India.”
Looking back now, Rene Greff says, “We are so glad that [Sikka] didn’t take no for an answer. We fell in love with the city and the country.”
There is no taste like home
The Greffs retain a 5 percent ownership stake in ABC India and also serve as consultants on the project, with audit controls for beer recipes and quality. The local brewers experiment with custom flavors and other innovations, but Sikka keeps close tabs on quality, and he is involved in every detail of the business.
Entrepreneur Siddharth Mangharam, an alum of Ross School of Business clearly remembers the day ABC India opened.
“It was like having a piece of Ann Arbor in Bangalore,” he says. “It has been the default venue for all U-M events in the city – watching football and basketball games, reunions, meeting smaller groups of alumni, or just catching up for a drink.”
Mangharam’s company Floh hosts events for singles and he regularly chooses ABC India for his events. “The vibe is what I’d call casual-chic, and it seems to attract a really good crowd through the week, making it a great spot to grab a craft beer and some great food.”
Alumni often drop by ABC India whenever they are visiting the city. U-M professors and students come by. In fact, the brewpub has become the natural gathering place for anything related to U-M in India, Mangharam says.
Sikka envisioned an open floor plan for the brewery. One side of the space caters to large groups who are amenable to sharing long tables and benches with old friends and complete strangers. On the other side, cozy tables and chairs welcome smaller groups. And all eyes are drawn to the giant tanks filled with local brews that will soon flow from the taps.
Patrons at ABC India can choose from eight beers, depending on the season. The Indian Pale Ale known as Sacred Cow in Ann Arbor is called Raging Elephant at ABC India and is always a favorite. Michigan native Logan Schaedig is head beer brewer for ABC India; he makes a special brew called Independence Lager to celebrate Indian Independence day in August. Ingredients include saffron, white pepper, and green mango. Similarly, American Magic Wheat is a special brew for July 4, complete with ginger, tamarind, and orange peel.
“I have seen ABC India evolve, and Gaurav has managed well in a changing environment,” says Professor Nagarajan. “He has thought through everything — from the food that is served, to how the place looks, and even the expansions.”
It has not been easy, as Sikka explains to the business students. Just navigating the customs and clearances for everything needed to launch a microbrewery, right down to the imported hops and malt, has been tough.
To further complicate matters, each state in India has its own array of regulations and taxes on alcohol and its trade. “It’s like having 29 different countries within India,” Sikka says.
But never one to shirk from a challenge, Sikka now has his sights set on Hyderabad, another IT hotspot, for further expansion. He also is thinking of starting a bottling plant in Goa.
Back in Ann Arbor, Rene and Matt Greff are excited about the bottling plant and its potential. In fact, they are planning to head back to India to help set it up.
Sikka enjoys the continuing U-M connection too. “It’s great to interact with the professors and students,” he says. “It’s a two-way street. I get bold and interesting ideas and I expose them to how a local culture can shape the beer industry in a country like India.”
He hopes to continue this relationship and is open to new collaborations as he continues to make big plans to grow the craft brew movement in his home country.
“We are just testing the market,” Sikka says. “The potential is absolutely massive.”