Nobody goes to Assam to sell craft beer. The state in the north-eastern part of India is best known for tea gardens, beautiful wildlife and nothing much else.
Except, Prabhtej Bhatia did.
Bhatia is 27. Dressed in a casual violet tee and jeans, and a black turban. It is evident he comes from privilege. The gateway to his house in Raipur falls slightly short of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Gatsby mansion. His family owns multiple businesses in Raipur, Chhattisgarh—restaurants, schools, fisheries and liquor manufacturing and bottling. We are travelling together in his Hyundai Santa Fe, an SUV sold by the Korean car company in India, and not sold very much. Inside, Bhatia is somewhat distracted by all the attention. At this very moment, a salute from a police guard. But I’m here for answers.
What made you go to Assam?
“I studied in Shimla,” he says. “I had a lot of friends from the North-East. There is something Western about that area, the hip-hop culture. I knew some people in Assam, so we took a chance and it worked. We did it very differently. We took a little more than one-third of the hoardings in Guwahati [the largest city in Assam] for about 20 days and advertised our brand. Being a non-metro, the promotion cost me just Rs 10 lakh.”
But you can’t promote alcohol in India…
“We didn’t say craft beer on the billboards. Just the name Simba (and its logo) started the conversation in town and made people curious. Those billboards opened the doors of distributors for us and that’s how we arrived.”
The word arrive doesn’t quite cut it.
In 2017, Simba, the craft beer brand sold by Sona Beverages, entered Assam. As of July, it sold 70,000 cases in the state, up from just 800 in July 2017. A case has 12 bottles of 650 ml each. That’s sales of 8,40,000 bottles of Simba every month. That’s 28,000 bottles every day. About 1,166 bottles every hour. Not bad for a craft beer brand that’s just two years old. Better still, not bad for a beer company you may not have even heard of, whose most distinguishing feature is its mascot—a lion with Aviators.
The company has a long road ahead of it though. In June this year, it ventured into the metro cities for the first time, launching in Delhi and Gurugram—and the competition is fierce. Bottled craft beer is an increasingly crowded segment, and Simba is just one in a slew of brands that launched in the past three to four years.
At the same time, the overall beer market in India is on the decline. And on top of that, liquor regulations in India are notoriously difficult to navigate, varying wildly from state to state.