It was 2005. Nirav Vyas was a few years out of New York University with a degree in finance and information systems when the entrepreneurial bug bit. Where, wondered the Indian American, as he chowed down a meal with friends, was the beer that was a perfect mate for spicy Indian food? From that moment of epiphany was born the first Indian American beer.
1947 Beer is a lager. Those in the business know that for newcomers, its delicate taste is more challenging than crafting ale. Water chemistry, hopping techniques, quantities of yeast, the fermenting and cooling temps, and many other factors have to be finely tuned to determine aroma, flavor, bitterness…
With zero experience but with determination, an entrepreneurial spirit and a love of the good chug, Vyas plunged headlong into the industry along with partners Suhel Jagtiani, Nipa Parekh and Vivek Baliga. Ten years later, 1947 Beer, headquartered in Long Island, Queens, New York, is distributed across 11 states with their inquiring gaze now shifting to California.
The brewery pushes out a considerable number of cases a month but refuses to cave in to the temptation of mass producing their brand; in other states they have contract brewers meeting the needs of local markets. Among the things they are proud of is that they have been invited six times to the James Beard House where they have been featured along with chefs like Navjot Arora, Akshay Bharadwaj and Hemant Mathur.
Vyas is friendly yet careful with his words, cognizant that that a brewery mature enough to be in the media is still too young to take knocks. The lifelong New Yorker is married to a fellow Indian American, and they are parents to boys aged 8 and 4. Excerpts from a chat with India-West:
Q: What does your beer do that others don’t?
A: We want to do with beer what has been done with wine and food. We noticed there wasn’t a beer that brought out the flavor of Indian food and its spices. We think our beer does it well.
Q: Indian cuisine is so varied, what exactly were you trying to pair it with? The chicken tikka, dhokla…
A: We took a more pan-Indian approach by taking a sample of Gujarati, South Indian and Punjabi food. We held tasting parties and noted what people liked.
Q: India doesn’t have a huge beer drinking tradition. Is it different with Indian Americans?
A: I think the craft beer revolution has changed how we look at beer. Brewing beer is an art now. We could complain about saturation with so many varieties of craft beer in the market, and pubs opening up at every street corner, but there is still so much excitement in the industry. Actually, we can draw a parallel with the way Indian chefs have created menus and taken the cuisine to levels where it has been noticed. It’s no more the same tried and tired dishes.
Q: Let’s start from the beginning…do you have a background in the food industry?
A: No. My connection is that I am a lover of food and beer! That’s it. I was at NYU when I put together a team. It included marketing people and those who knew the industry. Then I went to work with a brewery, speaking extensively with brewers and others in the field. We knew it was going to be a lager. We began brewing our own batches and testing them before we settled on 1947.
Q: Were there disappointments and when did you know you had what you were looking for?
A: It was never disappointing. We treated each batch and the tasting as a learning process. It was always, what do we want from the next batch? Over two years, we must have had about 400 people test our brews. Then we took what we were happy with to a South Asian event. We knew we were ready then.
Q: Can your beer be had with other food with equal results?
A: The short answer is, absolutely. We started with Indian restaurants because that’s where we had the contacts. Once in restaurants where the clientele is not mainly Indian, our footprint began expanding. Just recently, a distributor from the West Coast was at Junoon (the award winning restaurant in NYC), tried our beer and reached out to us. We are poised to enter the Northwest market now. Our business has largely been through word of mouth.
Q: How connected are you to India?
A: My family is from Gujarat. I was born and raised in New York and grew up going to cultural events. I have a lot of respect for our culture and am proud of being an Indian American and the way our culture and community is growing and showing up.
Q: Are you looking at the India market?
A: Sure. We envision this being a global brand. We have had people asking us to take it there. Right now, our key market is North America.
Q: You settled on the name 1947 because it was India’s year of independence…
A: It was a name that stood out. Other than what you already realized, add that number up and you get 21. That’s the legal age for drinking and the winning hand in blackjack. I pointed that out once at a show in at a casino in Connecticut and the response was terrific!
Q: A celebrity moment connected to your beer?
A: Anthony Bourdain. It must have been a month before his tragic suicide when I got a text from a restaurant saying he was there and had had four of our beers. I was willing to rush there but he was already leaving. That someone of his caliber was having our beer was exciting. There have been others but I want to say we are happy when anyone is having our beer, celebrity or not.
Q: Your favorite dish to have 1947 with?
A: My wife and I are partial to biryani!