A head for business
Fresh from a meeting with the Indian Commerce Minister and on his way to Parliament to discuss more ideas, Cobra beer founder Lord Karan Bilimoria spoke to Libbie Hammond about people, his passion for UK/India business relations and creating the perfect beer
Cobra Beer was founded with quite a simple premise – a beer that goes with all food. The development of its first product goes a long way to highlight the character of its founder – at the time still a student in debt, with no experience in brewing, but fired by a dissatisfaction with the lagers he was being served and a love for real ale. With a taste and texture set in his mind and a determination to transform this vision into a reality, Karan Bilimoria, aged just 27 at the time, began on the path that would lead him to become not only the founder and CEO of Cobra Beer (now turning over more than £50m per year) but also a life peer in the UK House of Lords, Chancellor of the University of Birmingham, Chairman of the Advisory Board, Cambridge Judge Business School and most recently, Vice President of the CBI.
With these honours and responsibilities, it would be easy to think that Lord Bilimoria’s dedication to the creation of the perfect beer may have waned, however nothing is further from the truth and his love of, in Shakespeare’s words ‘a dish for a king’ is as strong as ever. “I loved ale from the moment my English friends introduced me to it,” he agreed, before explaining why he undertook the adventure to create Cobra. “Ale is too heavy and bitter to drink with food, and the lagers I was drinking were too gassy and bland. I could envision an Indian beer that had the refreshment of a lager and the smoothness of an ale. It needed to have a globally appealing taste and had to accompany all food, including Indian food.”
The flavour firmly pictured in his mind, Lord Bilimoria then proceeded to gain an introduction to the largest independent brewery in India; Mysore Breweries in Bangalore. “They had the finest brewmaster in India, Dr Cariappa, who had spent six years in Prague in the Czech Republic, the home of Pilsner beer. Not only did he know everything about brewing, he also had a PhD in biochemistry, and we teamed up – we sat in the laboratory, with me communicating the taste I had in my head, and through this process we created the recipe literally from scratch.”
The extra smooth taste that Lord Bilimoria wanted to achieve wasn’t easy and the unique recipe was complex, involving not just the usual beer ingredients of malted barley, water, yeast and hops. “We use three varieties of hops, as well as maize, rice and wheat, and although Cobra isn’t looked upon as a craft beer, in fact, given the intricacy of our recipe and our processes, it should be regarded as such.”
This drive to create incredible tasting beers that, most importantly, can be drunk with, and even enhance the taste of food, is still as fervent today as it was in 1989, and Lord Bilimoria pointed out that Cobra’s point of difference, whether that is for the Cobra Original or any of its newer additions, is always that the they are ‘brewed smooth for all food.’
Not only this, it is the quality of the products that sets them apart. “Take our Cobra Gluten Free, for example – when compared to any other gluten free product, this is the one that most closely resembles the original product – in fact you can hardly tell the difference and I often challenge people to try! This is also true of the Cobra Zero alcohol free beer,” added Lord Bilimoria, and his total pride and delight in how his new products are created becomes even more apparent as we move onto King Cobra.
“This super-premium, 5.2% full-bodied beer is made at Rodenbach, a 200-year-old brewery in Belgium, reputed to be one of the most specialist, finest craft breweries in the world by far,” he explains. King Cobra is initially brewed like Cobra Original, using the same ingredients as a Pilsner lager. “But then we add an ale yeast into the lager beer, put it into a champagne bottle and seal it with a champagne cork. It is placed in warm cellars, where we raise the temperature to 24 degrees for two and a half weeks, and a double fermentation takes place inside the bottle just like champagne. Leaving the yeast in the bottle, we then cool it down, and the end result is, in my opinion, the ultimate craft beer. There is no other beer I know in the world that is a Pilsner lager, double fermented with an ale yeast in a champagne bottle. I would go as far as to say we have created one of the finest craft beers ever!”
His inspiration was also behind another of Cobra’s new products, the Malabar Blond IPA. “I found that while the existing craft Indian Pale Ales (IPAs) in the market were aromatic, with a nice bitter aroma and taste, they were difficult to drink, and didn’t go with meals. We set ourselves the challenge producing an IPA that is as smooth as Cobra, and can accompany all food.
“It took me over two years of trial and error, using the same basic ingredients as Cobra, and with traditional techniques – in open squares with a top fermenting ale yeast, and five varieties of British hops including dry hopping. I would say that the end result is the most drinkable IPA in the world by far, and the only IPA that goes really well with food.”
As he speaks about the technical side of the creation of King Cobra and Malabar Blond, it is clear that Lord Bilimoria had a very close personal involvement with product development and he confirmed this is where his heart lies. “When it comes to innovation, that’s my passion, that is what I am very focused on. I will quite often will initiate the ideas, and I will always work to develop them and see them through to coming on the market. I already have two more ideas in mind for our next products!”
Having referred to the ‘trial and error’ aspect of developing a product, Lord Bilimoria went on to explain that much of the testing goes on outside the lab, with consumers. “I learnt a lesson very early on that feedback from the end user is utterly critical to the success of a product and it was our brand name that highlighted this to me.
“When we were first starting out, I was in India focusing on developing the product, and my business partner, Arjun Reddy, with whom I founded the business [Arjun left six years later] was in the UK trying to sell it. We had originally chosen to call our product ‘Panther’, but Arjun called me two weeks before the bottling of our first batch and said that people just didn’t like the name.
“Luckily the printers had not started on our labels, so I told him to try Cobra instead, which had been our second choice. Within a day, he said that they loved Cobra – don’t ask me why! We had to delay the bottling, and redo all the marketing and labelling and it turned out to be the best decision I ever made – the Cobra brand is our most valuable asset.
“I still don’t see anything wrong with the name Panther, but this taught me such a valuable lesson as an entrepreneur – you can come up with the ideas, but don’t go forward until you have tested it with the consumer first.”
It is hard to imagine the now entrenched brand of Cobra as Panther – and looking back over the nearly three decades of Cobra’s history, to many people it feels as though the brand has been around for much, much longer. But as with all brands, periodically they need a refresh, and over the past three years Lord Bilimoria has been working with a team from Brand Opus (one of the top packaging design companies in the world) to take the already iconic Cobra packaging into its next evolution. Not only does this mean he is creatively very much part of the new visual brand identity, but this level of involvement from the founder and CEO brings its own benefits: “If I am at the table, as the founder, and as an entrepreneur, it makes a huge difference – in this case the founder and chief executive of Brand Opus was there as well. So, the best people at the agency were working on my project, and I take a partnership approach, and in my experience this leads to extraordinary work.”
Trusting the team
Working to enhance packaging that already broke the mould with its story embossed into the glass of the bottle was always going to be a challenge, but Lord Bilimoria highlighted that this was an evolution not a revolution, retaining the neat and recognisable look that Cobra already had, and taking it to a new level. “The tessellation of the outer packaging is particularly wonderful when lined up on a shelf, and also our new draught Cobra font, which is due to be released in early September, is amazing and very different.”
This approach of assembling the best team possible and trusting them to create what you need represents Lord Bilimoria’s overall approach to his own company and he credited his father, Lt. General Faridoon Bilimoria PVSM ADC as the inspiration behind this philosophy. “He was the General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Central Indian Army when he retired, and he was in command of 350,000 people. I noticed the way that he managed and led, and I asked him his secret. He said ‘it’s not just having an efficient team, it is having a happy and efficient team’. I really believe in that and it is a question of, in simple terms, having people who are brilliant at what they do, and then giving them the freedom and the space to get on with it. I trust them completely and it is most important to have that trust. Everyone is frank with each other, and we constantly challenge ourselves, and never stand still.”
From speaking to Lord Bilimoria, it is clear that he loves his work, and while discussing the new beers, his enthusiasm for growing the company and its potential for the future is a refreshing change from the guarded, careful predictions we are somewhat used to hearing from business leaders. He clearly has no intention of slowing down.
“My two aims from the very beginning were to brew the finest ever Indian beer and make it a global beer brand. The first part of the mission I think we have well and truly achieved – Cobra beer has been awarded 111 Gold medals now, and we have done very well in terms of our quality, and we are very proud of our products.
“Becoming a global beer brand is something we are working on and we have already made great progress on that journey. We export to 40 countries, and our growth potential is so large just in the UK alone, we could be many times bigger than we are today. We are present in several European countries in a small way, and we’ve got a presence established in countries like Australia and Canada. We are very fortunate that our joint venture with Molson Coors brings us the strength of one of the largest brewers in the world, and all that offers in terms of manufacturing capability, distribution, sales, marketing, and back up. This allows us to produce the best quality and to scale up, and the combination of an entrepreneurial founder, still very much full engaged in the business, combined with a giant business is very powerful.”
With three breweries based in India and the country still a major source of inspiration behind the brand, Cobra’s Indian heritage is an essential ingredient to its success. Lord Bilimoria has always felt that the UK is in a unique position to work with India – to the extent that in 2007 he founded the UK India Business Council, in order to support UK businesses with the tools and strategies needed to succeed in India. Such has been his influence on UK India trade relations, that at the end of June he was presented with an award for his ‘Significant Contribution to UK – India Relations’ at the UK India Awards.
“I have always felt that India had enormous potential, and I believed its economy would open up – which of course it did and is now emerging as a global economic superpower. Britain’s long-standing relationship with India gives it a big advantage, as well as our position as the gateway to Europe for Indian companies. So, I am very involved in putting the two countries together from a trade and business investment perspective, and I feel the potential for India in the UK on all fronts is absolutely huge.”
This is true of Indian students wanting to study in the UK, with demand significantly outstripping supply. “We have the best universities in the world here in the UK along with America, and we should continue to attract Indian students and far more of them.
“In the UK, the Indian diaspora is the most successful ethnic minority community, at 1.5m strong, with Indian candidates now reaching the very top in every field. India has phenomenal quality, highly-skilled people at all levels and they are very capable and impressive. I think the potential for bilateral trade and business investment between the two countries is massive, and in many ways, we are just scratching the surface.”
The story of Cobra has a fairy-tale quality, with its penniless founders (Karan and Arjun had £4 between them at one point) being driven by a belief in an idea, and by working hard and not wavering their dream has come true. It hasn’t been plain sailing either – the JV with Molson Coors occurred after Cobra went into administration in 2009, but as Lord Bilimoria highlighted above – this development brought a strong foundation with it, and since that time Cobra has experienced year-on-year growth and expansion.
Understandably, Lord Bilimoria is extremely proud of his company, but especially, his beloved beer. “To have created a beer that has become a household name in Britain and that people genuinely love is a wonderful thing, especially in the UK, which is the most competitive beer market in the world,” he said. “It is a great product for anyone who sells it and it is a great product for those drink it, and I am so proud to have created something that the whole country loves.”