A Passage to India

. May 16, 2012.

This time is different; actually to be exact, halfway-around-the-world, immersed-in-a-different-culture, pioneering-a-newborn-and-fragile-brewpub-culture different. But, hey, Matt and Rene Greff, owners of Arbor Brewing Company, are seasoned veterans, and with experience comes knowing what to expect — which, basically, translates into understanding you should never think you know what to expect. In late December, Current talked with of Rene, who along with Matt, left late last year to oversee the company's latest expansion in Bangalore, India with partner, India native and UM grad Gaurav Sikka. They return to Ann Arbor in March.

How is the process going thus far, and what is the timeline for completion? 

The project is going about as we expected — behind schedule and over budget!  It is much better now that we are on the ground in India and able to attend construction meetings, monitor and push contractors, and communicate in real-time with our partners on a daily basis. Just like our recent expansion and renewable energy projects at home, the project here has encountered innumerable and often undecipherable layers of government bureaucracy, contractors who over-promise and under-perform, foreseen and unforeseen delays and over-runs, etc. Add to that a very different culture where people are much more likely to smile and nod and say 'yes sir, no problem sir, we’ll have it tomorrow sir' than to give you an honest assessment of potential setbacks and realistic timelines. But as they say, 'if it were easy, everyone would do it.'

We have our liquor license and are about 3/4 of the way through construction. We designed our own brewing equipment and are having it fabricated here in Bangalore. We expect to start taking delivery of the tanks, the kitchen equipment, and the furniture toward the end of January. Right after the new year our hiring will begin in earnest.  We have already hired our chef and hope to have our general manager and procurement manager (here restaurants have one employee who does all of the purchasing and manages the inventories for everything from plates to office supplies to food and beverages). We hope to have kitchen and front of the house staff hired by early to mid-February.

Like I said, unfortunately we are behind schedule because we had a lot of problems with our tank fabricator and we are going to have to do a lot of hand-holding to keep them on schedule. We were planning to open Feb 7 and stay through March 17 to allow us plenty of time to help make the necessary tweaks after opening. Now it looks like best case scenario is soft opening first week in March and grand opening right before we leave to come home (in mid-March).

What has been the most enjoyable part of the process?

We absolutely love India and just getting to spend so much time here is amazing.  We also love our partner Gaurav and are having a blast working with him. And he was married in December and we participated in all of the traditional wedding festivities. Along with opening night, I am sure that will be the highlight of the trip.

What has been the most challenging? 

The cultural differences are a challenge.  There are different expectations here for timeliness, communication, and follow-through than we are used to and so we are both working on finding the right balance of practicing patience while still driving things forward.

What cultural differences have you had to take into account — either that you were prepared for or that you have had to adjust to?

There are a lot of things that we have had to take into account operationally. There are some areas where we intend to buck the system and do things differently – like giving everyone a day off every week (workers here are expected to work 10 hour days 7 days a week). Female servers are also very rare and we plan to have a fully-integrated service staff.  We will also offer American-style service which is hard to find here.  Service here is often very stiff and formal and hierarchical.  We will be working to create a more casual, interactive and friendly service environment befitting a brewpub.

We are taking into account differences in the Indian palate for both the beer line-up and the menu. Indians appreciate very flavorful and often spicy foods.  But younger and Western-educated Indians also like American and other international foods so our menu will blend those traditions. And as for the beer, the Indian beer market is basically where the American beer market was in the 70s – dominated by a proliferation of fizzy, bland, light lager. While we anticipate that the majority of our clientele will be expats and western-educated Indians dying for the full-flavored brews they loved in the US, Great Britain, Germany, etc, we also want to make sure that we are making authentic but accessible brews for those who have never ventured past Kingfisher
(India’s Budweiser). 

Have you had any problems with rules or regulation of Microbreweries in India? 

It has all been a challenge. The law legalizing brewpubs in Karnataka (the state where our brewery is located) just passed in February (of 2011). So all of the bureaucrats are doing things for the first time and often making things up as they go along. Other than that, our biggest challenge is a law that was passed several years ago when a conservative religious party took over that requires bars to close at 11pm. As you can imagine, there is a lot of pressure to get that changed and (expanded hours) will certainly have a very positive impact on
our business. 

How similar will the beer be to your Michigan products?

Some of the beers are the exact recipes and names from home like the Big Ben House Mild, Bavarian Bliss Hefeweizen, and Michael Faricy’s Irish Stout. The Sacred Cow will be brewed with the same recipe but renamed Raging Elephant (or perhaps Raging Bull). We are replacing the Strawberry Blonde with either a Mango Blonde or a Pineapple Blonde – depending on sourcing availability. And then we are going to brew some beers that were designed especially for this market like the Chai P A and Garam
Masala Pale Ale.

Our head brewer from Corner Brewery, Logan Schaedig, is going to come for 6 months to brew and to train his counterpart here, and I am sure that he will have a lot of fun playing around with indigenous ingredients and developing new recipes based on customer feedback.

Why is now the right time for an expansion in India? 

India is on the verge of a craft beer explosion since states are now legalizing brewpubs. After the passage of the homebrew law in the US in 1979, states began legalizing brewpubs and the number of breweries grew from less than 100 to more than 1900 today. The same thing has already begun in India and we are really excited to have the opportunity to truly help pioneer an emerging craft movement.

Would you consider another future expansion in a different country? 

We’re incorrigible entrepreneurs and we love to travel so I’d have to say that would be a yes. Our partner here has the brand rights throughout the sub-continent and plans to open several branches and then possibly to franchise. So he might be keeping us busy for the foreseeable future but we certainly aren’t ruling anything out.