Blue Sky Thinking – the birth of a new beer

Blue Sky Thinking – the birth of a new beer

Given that lots of people decide to go dry in January, I wondered if they might enjoy a story about a beer even if they aren’t drinking one. 

Blue sky drinking

Given how many military families there are, where generation after generation join up, often to the same regiment, it was perhaps something of surprise when Karan Bilimoria decided he didn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps.

Karan’s father, Faridoon, had commanded a regiment of Gurkhas when India fought on behalf of Bangladesh in the 1971 war of independence. Faridoon went onto become the commander-in-chief of the central Indian army, with 350,000 men under his command.

However Karan decided the military wasn’t for him and chose to go into business instead.

“If I had followed in my father’s footsteps I was worried that I would always be compared to him, and be in his shadow,” he said in an interview with the BBC. “I decided that the army for me would have been too constraining … I wanted more blue sky”

And it was with some ‘blue sky’ (original, creative) thinking that Karan was to make his name.

It was while he was at Cambridge University in the late 1980s that inspiration struck. Karan like many students was a lover of beer but for him there was a problem, none of the existing beers went really went with a curry.

He recalls: “The lager was too fizzy, too harsh and too bloating. It meant that I couldn’t eat or drink as much as I would like. At the same time, I found real ale to be great in a pub, but too bitter and heavy with food. So I came up with the idea of creating a beer with the refreshment of a lager, but with the smoothness of an ale.”

His idea for what was to become Cobra beer was that “I wanted it to not just be drinkable in its right, but a great accompaniment to all food, and particularly Indian cuisine.”

Despite having no experience of the beer industry, Karan decided to take his idea to the head brewer at what was then India’s largest independent brewery. Luckily the brewer liked the idea and so together they developed the recipe for the smooth-drinking, refreshing lager which would be targeted firstly at Indian restaurants.

The first deliveries from India arrived in the UK in 1990, and came bottled in big 600ml bottles. Without realising the benefits this would bring, Karan and the head brewer had simply chosen a bottle size similar to other beers sold in India.

Looking back Karan can now see how this point of difference gave the business an immediate advantage, as the bottles stood out in curry houses.

“People sitting at other tables would see the bottle and say, ‘What is that?’ The popularity spread like wildfire, people loved the taste, and we got 99% reorders.”

The business grew rapidly and so in 1997 brewing was switched to the UK from India to help meet demand. A switch that didn’t faze his drinkers “They didn’t mind where we brewed. This is logical as the Indian food you eat here is not flown over from Delhi.”

Karan Bilimoria was knighted in 2004 for his services to business and entrepreneurship and was appointed to the House of Lords two years later. 

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