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Raising the Bar

T.J. Venkateshwaran, Founder & MD

Rian Hospitalities Pvt. Ltd., Brand Owner of TJ’s Brew Works


Investor & Partner

TJ’s Brew Works, constantly upgrading!

T. J. Venkateshwaran has over 25 years of work experience in FMCG Sales, Marketing, Operations & General Management, at many blue-chip companies both Indian and Multinationals such as Eureka Forbes Ltd., Titan Industries Ltd., PepsiCo and SAB Miller India. He is currently the Managing Director at Rian Hospitalities Pvt. Ltd.

Born in Kerala, brought up in Chennai and setting shop in Pune, Mr T.J. Venkateshwaran talks to Sneha Nair, Brewer World about his brewery’s story.

How did you come up with the concept of your brewery?

Exposure to international markets and my previous work with SAB Miller, straddling nearly a decade, one could see the evolution of craft beer category at close quarters. It was almost a certainty that India would follow the same trajectory. India is going to have the world’s youngest population by 2020 and beer is at the threshold of recruitment category for the alcoholic beverage industry and a great opportunity for young aspiring individuals. As young consumers cross the legal drinking age and graduate to alcoholic beverages, they will have to pass through the threshold i.e. the beer category.

Originally this project was conceived for SAB Miller, India at an investment of a $1.0 Mn, as a route to increase per capita consumption of the beer category in India. As a big company, SAB Miller’s investment priorities were different at the time hence this idea had to be deferred for the company. But as an individual, mentally and emotionally I was too committed and convinced by the research that had gone into it, and I could see nothing but a huge prospect in terms of potential for the craft beer industry in India. So, I decided to bail of out of my employment and sail out alone to find my million-dollar corpus to kick start.

Being one of the first microbreweries to be set up in India, we had the first mover advantage and with it came the challenge of educating the consumers about craft beers.

Is this your first venture into the world of F&B? Do you have any earlier existing business?

I have had long stints in the FMCG industry with Pepsi and SAB Miller, so yes, I have worked in similar fields. My F&B journey started with TJ’s Brew Works and continues to grow stronger with every passing year. Who is to say, maybe this is just the stepping stone for bigger and larger things to come!

Today, while the board reads TJ’s Brew Works, people refer to the place simply as TJ’s. Using your own initials for the name of your establishment, is a strong statement. Tell us the thinking behind this?

An artist marks his finished piece usually with his or her name, initials as a sign off. A designer’s name is also usually attached to their clothing line as well. Most often it is referred to and known because of the designer and the aura built around him or her. Since craft beer is also a boutique category, it was perceived as a clever idea to create a unique branding around the personality of the promoter or the person behind the range of craft beers to be developed. It renders itself to be more real and credible when there is a real person associated with a brand. Hence, we decided to use TJ as a prefix to Brew Works on the brew pub brand and the beer brands individually.

Also for brand recall, a two-syllable word lends itself to easy recall and salience. Today while the board reads TJ’s Brew Works, people refer to the place simply as TJ’s which corroborates and vindicates the decision to go with the initials of the promoter. While all this is true, we also believe in giving a joyful experience and so it also serves as a simple abbreviation for Total Joy!

What does your brewery offer that others do not?

When we opened our doors to the public, like any other establishment we faced our very own challenges for the new category for Indian consumers. Being one of the first microbreweries to set up in India, we had the first mover advantage and with it came the challenge of educating the consumers about craft beers. We gave away tasters and a Beer card for people to read and understand the speciality of beers we produced relative to the normal commercial beers that they are used to. We experimented with new recipes, ingredients, and brew styles, to keep the interest alive and for consumers to keep coming back for more trials! All our beers are International style beers fine-tuned to suit the Indian palate.

We were pioneers in starting beer distribution in kegs in the country. We take pride in saying that we were one of the first establishments to have on board a formally qualified lady brewer (Brewster) Ms Ashwini Rajagopal heading and running the operations of the brewery. Innovators in using alternative materials like rice and super foods like quinoa & buckwheat for brewing. Our beers are not filtered or pasteurised and we ensure quality with every pour. We have now designed a food menu with spent grain (Spent grain is grain left-over from the brewing process, that are rich in micronutrients). We have an entire range of food crafted from spent grains. On a whim, in early 2013, we created and served green spirulina beer for the masses as part of our Irish Brew Festival that kicked off on St. Patricks Day. We called it St. Green! With good beer comes great responsibility – to spread the happiness associated with beer. We took a stab at having dedicated festivals centred on beer styles and countries of origin – Belgian Fest, Irish Fest, American Brew Fest and Oktoberfest, primarily to educate our consumers about various styles of beers from around the globe.

Currently trending in the top 5 percent of restaurants on Trip Advisor and having been rated a 3.8 on Zomato, TJ’s Brew Works was received very well by the public. Our beer brands are so popular that they are recognised and acknowledged well in other premium restaurants and bars where they are being served. We have retained regulars by ensuring personal involvement of the promoters, who interact with consumers at their table, take care of their needs, try to be helpful and joining in the fun, making it a coveted experience sought by our regular customers.

We aim at spoiling our customers for choice, and we hope to carry on that tradition at TJ’s Brew Works.

Tell us about the Brewster and the brews served at TJ’s?

We take pride to say that we were one of the first establishments to have a formally qualified lady brewer (Brewster) heading and running the operations of the brewery, Ms Ashwini Rajagopal, who hails from Chennai. She and her team have constantly strived to churn out new variants with exotic ingredients and international beer styles that suit the Indian palate. Ashwini has broken many rules to be in the field that she has yearned to be in. Just like the mythical character of Abhimanyu who learnt to penetrate the Chakravyuh from the time he was in his mother’s womb, she was inducted to the art of brewing while in the womb as her mother was busy looking into marketing and sales aspects of Golden Eagle beer and Old Monk rum. Her diligent research and discussions with veteran brewer Dr. Cariapa, with whom we have been collaborating for beer recipes since our inception, resulted in two first-of-its-kind beer variants, TJ’s Quin B and TJ’s Buck B brewed with superfoods quinoa and buckwheat.

While most microbreweries try to produce authentic, international-style beers, we are fine tuning international beers too to suit the Indian palate as we know it, making it more acceptable and session-able.

While TJ’s Devil’s Dark is the fastest moving beer in the dark lager category, we would like to categorise TJ’s Devil’s as ‘The Most Popular Choice’. In addition, TJ’s Zen Weiss is “The Connoisseur’s Choice”, TJ’s Premium Bock is “The Brewer’s Choice”, TJ’s Blonde is the “Common Man’s Choice”, and TJ’s Pale Ale is the “Mature Choice”.

Could you tell us about the challenges encountered while setting up the brew house?

Coming from a 5-day week background and a whole organisation to delegate to or depend upon, this operation can be so intense so as to suck up heart, soul, mind, energy and time. A new F&B brand with a totally new concept puts a lot of onus on the team to educate consumers from scratch in order to createawareness, brand salience and continued patronage. Industry experts and friends had to be roped in to develop our food menu and concepts initially for want of our own domain knowledge.

Like all other Industries in India, there are myriad licenses from multiple departments, authorities to meet and comply with through the application process that is time consuming and can potentially dampen the motivation of an entrepreneur who is eager to start trading after making huge investments.

Summing up a few of our hardships while setting up, I recall an instance when we had 21 tonnes of equipment to be installed on the second floor of a commercial building whose slab strength is usually built to take load between 400 – 600 kgs/square meter. Whereas our equipment which delivered a point load of 500 kg had to be installed after strengthening the slabs.

India is currently witnessing the expansion of beer markets, what are your thoughts on this?

India will be home to the youngest population in a few years. As a youngster moving into a legal drinking age, one has to pass through a beer (low alcoholic beverage) category before graduating to stronger alcoholic beverages like spirits.

If you look at the US market, craft beers constitute about 22 percent of the total beer pie delivering double digit growth. The popularity, market share of commercial beers is declining by a couple of points annually indicating that growth in the beer category is fundamentally due to craft beers. I am in no doubt that we will see a mirror image in terms of growth trajectory in India too and much faster than the time taken by the US market to evolve.

The fiscal year 2016-17 witnessed the largest expansion of microbreweries all over the country. With so many craft breweries in the vicinity do you have a unique selling proposition?

As mentioned earlier, at TJ’s we are constantly striving to provide new brews, new food, new fests etc. We were the first ones to introduce a self-dispensing beer system where consumers can dispense their own pints of beer through an automated prepaid card system, similar to that of a ‘Beer Wall’. Traditionally microbreweries have the retail brand name printed on glasses, we have gone an extra mile to short-list and brand the glasses for each brand of beer served. With the recent participation of an investor/partner, Girish Monie, we brought in a concept of India’s first NUDO pizzas which are gluten free, grain free and guilt free. We have 5 pizza crusts without the traditional wheat or maida or refined grains but made of only super-foods from the Palaeolithic era that have a glycemic index of less than 55, which makes them totally healthy. The sky is the limit, and until we get there we have a boat load of ideas waiting to be executed.

The industry is likely to be impacted by high taxation rates and the additional diktat on “no alcohol within 500 metres of a highway”. Your thoughts?

Beer tax in the country is the highest despite it being the beverage with the lowest Alcohol By Volume (ABV). For every `100 spent by consumers, `55 goes to the government exchequer. Meanwhile internationally, beer is taxed the lowest amongst alcoholic beverages. In India, the tax structure (excise duty + sales tax) means that, Rs./spirit alcohol tax is less than that of Rs./beer alcohol tax pushing consumers to choose spirits with ABV 26 percent and 42 percent relative to beer on account of spirits providing more bang for the buck. This inadvertently leads to more alcohol related health hazards and social problems.This is the reason why beer prices in India are the highest in the world and consequently the lowest in per capita consumption as well. As governments and policy makers seek to correct this skew or bias towards Spirits through tax reforms, we will see growth in the beer category too and beer will take its rightful place under the sun as a natural, safe, healthy and easily accessible alcoholic beverage of choice.

As you can see, 500-meter rule has already affected the industry adversely. Globally, per capita consumption is directly proportional to access points. When the access points shrink, per capita consumption and therefore the volumes will also decline. India has the lowest access points per 1000 population in the alco-bev category. So, if it further shrinks because of this rule, it will make the industry regress. However, there seems to be empathy towards the potential adverse effects and state governments seems to be waking up to take corrective actions in support of the industry.

It is very heartening to note that the nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court has explicitly clarified on the ruling that highways passing through the cities are exempted – which is very much welcome!

Any last thoughts, you would like to share?

Just two. The first being that “quality” should be the overriding consideration above all. Secondly, follow your heart, there is enough head room for all – Keep walking!