Growing up in a family of fifth generation entrepreneurs, Van and Sumit Sharma ‘have been conditioned to turn lemons into lemonade’. Van tells CSP that their family background from their grandparents' family businesses in India and Kenya, to their parents starting their restaurateur careers in Europe and then relocating to America instilled in their DNA how to build businesses from scratch. Van says Covid-19 was a very unfortunate time in history; however it helped them adopt better systems and technology to hit the ground running.
Born in West London, the brothers moved to Portland in the US in the early 90s. With a family history of over forty-five years in the restaurant business, their parents carried that legacy to the States, launching three Indian restaurants in different cities across Maine. The brothers have launched their own brand of brew to pair with Indian food which is spicy and full of flavor. Launched in 2020, their brew, named Rupee, launched in 2020, is available in 12 states in the US. This June, they launched their ‘Mango’ beer to mark International Mango Day. They were named the Best Beer For World Food’ recently.
Your family was predominantly in the food industry, with three hotels in a part of the US that doesn’t have many Indians or Asians. What was your business model?
Our parents launched three of the longest running Indian restaurants in New England in Brunswick, Portland and Bangor Maine in the early 90s when they immigrated here from Germany and the U.K. Three decades ago, Maine was the least diverse state in America, with a very small population of people who were of color. Since then, it’s become a bit more diverse, but nowhere close to larger metropolitical cities such as New York, Boston, and Washington D.C. Our dad always had a vision to serve classic North Indian favorites, helping elevate the cuisine and part of the world he was from - Punjab. The menu for over three decades has been very similar to its original offering with staple Punjabi favorites such as Butter Chicken, Saag Paneer, Tandoori Chicken and loads of traditional breads.
What motivated you and Sumit to start Rupee Beer and what is the story of how you chose the flavor and brewing techniques.
We've always enjoyed beer. There are loads of pictures of us behind the bar or at our parents' restaurants, running around when we were younger in front of Kingfisher signs. In the early 90s, a lot of beer distributors didn't carry top Asian beers in our region of America as it wasn't considered a high volume region with not much demand to sell imports. Slowly Indian beers become available which our families’ restaurants were top buyers of. When Covid hit, we both had just come back to the U.S. after living abroad for several years in Australia and England, and we noticed that the global supply chain was disrupted and because of it, Indian beer wasn't able to ship to Maine. This got us thinking as working in the business and hearing customers of many years asking where is your Kingfisher or Taj Mahal beer, as they wanted to add it onto their take-out order which we were open for still.
We knew we had an idea and aligned with a highly influential world class beer brewer who happens to live not far from our families’ home, and was also a customer of our restaurants. Through a year of extensive research, developing, taste tests and brewing, we all agreed on a recipe which was truly made to pair with the flavors and spices we grew up eating, and we are grateful things have taken off.
The American craft beer market is highly competitive. What unique qualities or skills do you bring to your brewing that sets you apart from other brewers in the US?
Yes, beer is crowded and competitive. The American craft segment has a lot of options available to the everyday consumer. What started as something we wanted to simply serve as a lager available at our family's restaurant during Covid, we are grateful has grown into a brand which continues to expand. We were recently named ‘Best Beer For World Food’, which brings home our original mission to also create a beer which was made to actually complement the rich and complex flavors Indian cuisine is known for around the world. We've aligned with top brewers to help produce the best possible premium beers we can, while also helping mainstream America learn more about India, and our heritage via beer.
Could you explain the key differences you've noticed between the beer preferences of Indian consumers and non-Indians? How have you adapted your beer offerings to cater to the American market?
There are loads of styles of beer, and typically an Indian consumer gravitates towards lighter lagers which are easier to drink, being less bitter and hoppy is what we have noted. IPA's are immensely popular with their craze across America and Europe, but traditionally not as popular in Asian markets. Hotter climates always gravitate towards lagers which are light and easy to drink in warm weather.
Was pairing with food the main motive of your starting this enterprise? Many people believe that one needs a beverage to wash down rich or spicy Indian food. In India we often see nimbu pani, chaas or lassi offered.
Being from the Indian restaurant business, it was important for us to ensure the beers we produce be the best possible beverages meant to pair with desi flavors. We brew with basmati rice which help make our lager smooth, and brought down the average standard of how carbonated the beer is to ensure when pairing with spicy or heavy food, that the consumer would have an easier time digesting and not feeling as uncomfortably or full.
What brewing equipment and techniques have you found most useful in your brewing process in the US? Are there any tools or methodologies that you've introduced to create Indian flavour?
We knew brewing beer wasn't something we had done before, which is why we aligned with some influential world class brewers to bring Rupee to life. We're using recipes which are very much inspired by Indian recipes and have adopted them with the help of science and brewing techniques to create easy to drink beers, all designed to pair well with International food. We've also incorporated key ingredients such as basmati long grain rice into our lager which makes it super smooth, and used mango flavor in our super popular summer mango wheat ale. Each new beer has a subtle connection to India and our mission.
We're grateful, we have some world class brewmasters and consultants who advise us along the way and are obsessed with quality control and making Rupee the highest and most premium quality liquid on the market.
Craft beer enthusiasts value sustainability. Can you discuss any sustainable practices or initiatives you've implemented in your brewing process or packaging?
We are doing as much as possible to ensure we do our small part to be more sustainable. As we scale, we are looking at innovative ways to become more sustainable in our production and distribution.
In the US, there's a growing interest in unique and experimental beer styles. You have launched a Mango flavoured beer. What outcomes do you foresee for your new offerings?
The beer industry especially in the craft category is always changing and innovating with new creative recipes. The current two SKUs we have on the market, our Basmati Rice Lager and Mango Wheat Ale have been received super well by an American audience. We are very excited to say, ahead of this Diwali, Rupee is launching our signature India Pale Ale, putting the India back into India Pale Ale.
How do you navigate the complex regulations and licensing requirements for alcohol production in the US? Are there any insights you've gained that you think are particularly important for other Indian brewers looking to enter the US market?
The rules and regulations are super complex as alcohol is regulated in America, and each state has its own variations in how they govern. We always consult top legal counsel.
Collaboration is a significant trend in the craft beer industry. Have you collaborated with other breweries, either in the US or abroad? If so, what were the outcomes and benefits of these collaborations?
Not yet but we have thought about it! If any India based breweries are interested, get in touch with us!
Marketing and branding play a crucial role in the success of a brewery. How do you market your Indian-inspired beers in the US, and what strategies have been most effective for you?
We take a very authentic approach to marketing. Rupee for us is lager than us and its also very much the story of Sumit and myself. We look very Indian just like our can design. The name is very Indian just like our names, yet we are based in America, and on a mission to showcase our culture in the best possible light. It's very much in line with how we both grew up in the Indian restaurant business, always having to to some extent be and act as ambassadors for our culture, cuisine and values - in a very homogeneous and American part of America in the 1990s.
Can you discuss any challenges or cultural differences you've faced when introducing Indian beer styles or flavors to American consumers? How have you overcome these challenges?
People always have a misconception that because we are Indian, that we are brewing an India Pale Ale. That very much was not the case when we launched Rupee's flagship lager, which was very much in line with most of the pale lagers you drink in India today ie: Kingfisher. It's interesting people sometimes think we add spices to our beer because we are Indian. Indian beer brands have been in America for decades, but never something that was as mainstream as how far Rupee has come.
Looking ahead, what are your goals and aspirations for your brewery in the US? Are there any exciting projects or developments on the horizon that you can share?
The Rupee of today is not the same Rupee as tomorrow. We are evolving and the Rupee brand is growing to offer more styles and ranges of beer. We hold true to our mission to bring Indian craft beer to the world, and we have some very exciting things brewing as we speak!
How do you see the future of Indian-inspired beer in the US market? What trends do you anticipate, and how do you plan to stay relevant and innovative in this evolving industry?
Rupee continues to grow and evolve and we are leading the way on how more Americans view beer, India and consider beer accompaniment with food. We feel the world wants more easy to drink enjoyable beers, which can be enjoyed with or without food. Beer isn't meant to be pretentious like wine. We are having fun with Rupee and will continue to produce beers our loyal drinkers want to experience.