Tricity Stars: A ‘beery’ good business

Get a juicy slice of the extraordinary lives and feats of the understated but not so ordinary Tricity-wallas

When you are one of the oldest microbreweries in the Tricity, (also the second oldest brewery in India in the original location), you have a terrific tale to tell, of how a bar project turned into a sweet shop, and a ‘do or die’ rebellion seized the day. We catch up with Priyanka Gupta & Amritanshu Agrawal — the livewire couple who, with their homegrown brand of microbreweries, Hops n Grains & The Great Bear, gave gourmet beer a brand new address.

A dream brews: “I am a great fan of good food and beverage, of places that have the power to literally fill your senses and provide a wholesome, memorable experience,” says Amritanshu. In the spirit of attempting the same, and much to his vegetarian-tea-totaller parents chagrin, he went location scouting to set up a bar in Gurugram only to be derailed by his folks and property dealer who convinced him that running a bar would be bad investment there. “Open a restaurant without alcohol, they advised, and before I could fathom, my bar dream turned into a sweet shop!” he laughs.

It was 2005, and Bengali Sweets set shop in Manimajra. But life took a 360 degree turn when he tied the knot with Priyanka in 2009. An MBBS whose heart beat for business and adventure, this was a match made in heaven. She instantly took to the idea of opening a bar, and Amritanshu’s dream came alive once again.

Lock, Stock & Beer Barrels: The sweet shop business was proving to be sour. “We didn’t have a free hand to do what we wanted and there was no scope for expansion. It didn’t lend that edge or excitement or experience we were craving for,” says Priyanka.

For 39-year-old Priyanka and Amritanshu, it was time to ‘raise the bar’. Energies were combined, brainpower was maximised, research engines were powered. Oh yes, there was resistance from the family, but the two were determined. They decided to open a bar. And not just any bar, “we had visited the microbreweries in Gurugram and Pune, and thought, why not Chandigarh?” That was their differentiator.

In 2010, Hops n Grains in Panchkula became the fifth brewery to open doors in India. “The two ingredients used in beer, hops and grains, hence the name,” says Priyanka.

With all that brewing equipment, people initially perceived it as a working place. Challenge number one was making a predominantly whiskey drinking junta familiar with the concept of freshly brewed beer.

The knowhow, the maintenance, rounds of testing, sourcing sweet barley from Germany, the brewing cycle, batches going bad, hiring, training staff, setting menu, aligning ideas with the chef, the restaurant regulations, mounting paperwork – there were innumerable challenges.

Each city presented its own set of dares. “We learnt on the job in Panchkula, and it took three years before we broke even. Chandigarh was tough in terms of licensing and regulations. Mohali project was hit by Covid before taking off this year,” they say.

Raising the Bar: Brewing, feels Amritanshu, is an art and science and you need passion and patience for it. “This was it for us. No backup plan. We had to prove our worth and make it worthwhile,” says Priyanka. This meant hiring the best man for the job and learn from him. India’s prominent brewmaster, Dr S Cariapa was called in from Bengaluru. He set up and commissioned their plant, showed them the ropes, and taught them valuable lessons. “Never sell your beer for free, and stick to the flavours. Pick four and do those four flavours as best as you can, he said. It’s been ten years of four winning flavours,” cheers Priyanka.

Growing the brand was always the natural progression, and once the Panchkula brewery took off, the husband-wife duo looked to Chandigarh for expansion. Green, open space with a starry constellation cover at night, ‘The Great Bear’ started brewing in Chandigarh in 2016. Fluent with the business by now, the two worked hard to establish a team, delegate and divide the work. “That we were husband-wife hardly interfered with work. Our shared passion and dream, respect for each other propelled us forward,” says Priyanka. While Amritanshu handles the accounts, administrative and licensing work, Priyanka takes the lead on seasons, menu and marketing. With two kids on the board, they manage it rather well. “It is important to create a good team, which we have in our HR head and now partner, Debdeep, and brewmaster Gagan Deep.”

The Highs & the Lows: Perhaps our biggest low was the liquor ban of 2017, they share. “We had done everything by the book, and yet clueless about the outcome,” says Priyanka. Covid almost destroyed them. “The Great Bear Mohali project got delayed. Running expenses were mounting during lockdown, and it was stressful,” they add. We operate in an extremely over regulated industry, and hope it could be streamlined into one window system, hopes Amritanshu, who deals with the daily load of licensing and formalities.

But there have been highs. “Breaking even, being recognised, loving every moment of our work and our people, creating this culture of great food and beer in the Tricity – it’s been a tough but rewarding journey.”

The Secret Sauce: “You are your first customer. If you are not happy with what you’ve got or created, then don’t expect others to,” shoots Amritanshu. Don’t be risk averse, adds Priyanka. “Believe in yourself, take the plunge, you will reach your destination.”

Tricity Calling: For Hops n Grains, 90 per cent of the staff was hired from UP and Himachal. “Skilled, quality, trained staff in hospitality lacks in this region, and we hope that changes about Chandigarh,” says Priyanka. While Tricity is changing in terms of crowds and trends, they’d love to see more experimental palette for cuisine and beverage. Their plans include opening a true blue joint on the lines of European cafes. Finally, they confess there is a wide gap in the brewery business. “If anyone is serious about opening a brewery, we are here to guide them.”

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