Britain loves beer. This might not be good for our wallets or our waistlines, but it’s true nonetheless. And perhaps no one knows this truth more than Lord Karan Bilimoria, founder and chairman of Cobra Beer.
Cobra (slogan: “impossibly smooth”), has become something of a British institution. Not only can you find it in virtually any supermarket and many pubs, but it is distributed to 98 per cent of Indian restaurants in the UK, and popular in Thai, Turkish and Chinese eateries too. It has managed to become the natural accompaniment to a classic British-Indian curry.
But Bilimoria himself is perhaps most interesting of all: a man born in India who has made Britain his home, and who exemplifies the best aspects of entrepreneurialism, globalism, and the indomitable immigrant spirit.
Ale’ll be back
Bilimoria came to the UK in the 1980s to study law at Cambridge University. The inspiration for the beer came to him because of his distaste for British lagers at the time.
“I found them too fizzy, gassy, and bland,” he says. “They were difficult to drink on their own, and tasteless. They were horrible with food because they made you bloated. I did take an instant liking to real ale, which my English friends introduced me to, and I still love a good real ale in a pub, but I find it too difficult to drink with food, because it’s too heavy and too bitter.”
The idea was to combine the refreshment of a lager with the smoothness of an ale, and that was a challenge Bilimoria was happy to take on.
After a slight diversion, starting a business with his friend Arjun Reddy selling polo sticks imported from India, he eventually founded Cobra from a flat in Fulham in 1989.
“The big idea – Cobra – was in the background. We felt that we had to build up experience first, but we got a lucky introduction to the biggest independent brewery in Bangalore – the home of brewing in India – and we were able to work with their brew master and create Cobra beer from scratch.”
The craft beer revolution has had a big impact on the beer industry. The explosive popularity of alternative brands like BrewDog and Camden Town Brewery (before it was acquired by corporate giant AB-InBev in 2015) over the past decade or so has created huge competition for established brands.
Pub pumps and supermarket shelves now have more choice than ever, and the big breweries have had to respond, either by producing new products (such as Hop House 13, the craft-beer-style lager created by Guinness in 2015) or by buying out smaller rivals (like the aforementioned AB-InBev).
Too much competition? No, in fact Bilimoria says that the craft beer revolution is wonderful.
“The UK was a country where you used to have breweries in every village, and where Burton upon Trent – where we brew Cobra beer – was the brewing capital of Britain,” he says wistfully.
“The breweries closed down around the UK when there were thousands of them, but now we’ve gone full circle, and we’ve got all these craft breweries opening up. It’s introducing people to a variety of beers.”
Beer isn’t easy: it’s a challenge for businesses to produce good quality brews in consistent amounts, which consumers don’t always appreciate. But, thanks to craft beer, Bilimoria thinks this is changing.
“It’s one thing producing a small batch of beer, it’s another thing with a brand like Cobra. We produce hundreds of millions of bottles and kegs of beer every year, and you expect it all to taste the same. It’s underestimated how difficult that is, and I’m glad that craft beer is making people appreciate beer more.”
Raising the bar
While the brand is nearly 30 years old, Bilimoria is still expanding.
“One aspect of entrepreneurship is the attitude of restless innovation. You always want to look ahead,” he says.
In this spirit, in 2017 he released Cobra Malabar – a blond India pale ale (IPA) that he claims is “the most drinkable IPA in the world” – and this year launched a gluten-free lager.
“There’s huge demand for gluten-free products, not just from celiacs, but from people who want to be gluten-free from a health point of view. The challenge there was that I’ve tasted lots of gluten-free beers compared to the originals, and I found that the gluten-free version always tasted far inferior.”
He adds that the brand has spent years working on producing a gluten-free beer of Cobra that tasted as good as the regular version. Has he been successful? He thinks so.
“It’s taken us two years, and we’ve got Cobra Gluten-Free, which I would challenge you to try side-by-side with the original and taste the difference.”
Lager than life
As well as his success in the business world, Bilimoria is deeply involved in politics. He was appointed as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords in 2006, and campaigned against Brexit, about which it’s fair to say he has strong opinions.
“I think Brexit is an unmitigated disaster. It really would be by far the best thing that we carried on remaining in the European Union. I’m so hopeful that we end up doing that, or at the least stay in the EEA with the Norway equivalent, where from a business point of view it would be seamless.”
He is keenly aware of the impact Brexit may have on exporters like his company – Cobra exports beer to 40 countries around the world – and suggests that the government should provide more incentives to exporters.
“There are countries where you get tax breaks to export, where they want to encourage exports, and we could possibly look to incentivise businesses more to export,” he says.
But despite his Brexit concerns, he remains confident about the future.
“Our mission is to brew the finest ever Indian beer, and make it a global beer brand. We’re on that path.”
There are no signs yet of last orders for Cobra.