Long before the era of the craft beer and the micro-brewery; in a time when ties were wide, ale was warm, and lager was for Germans; aeons out from the first double-hopped, triple-filtered, juniper-spiced, oak-smoked young pretender; — there was Cobra: the original beer with an idea.
“There was no Eureka moment — I didn’t go running through the streets of Cambridge naked.” says Lord Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra and one of the country’s true brewing innovators. “But It was an idea that evolved. I always loved beer and I took an instant dislike to fizzy lagers” he tells me. “I couldn’t drink them on their own and I couldn’t drink them with food. And that’s when it started to form: the idea of a beer with the freshness of a lager and the smoothness of an ale.”
There was nothing like it on the market (“in fact, there still isn’t”). But Lord Bilimoria — back then simply plain old Karan Bilimoria, of course — would not be daunted. After a childhood in India under a decorated military family, Bilimoria came to London to with heady dreams of chartered accountancy and a stable desk job at Ernst & Young.
Soon, though, he had become sidetracked by the pull of Cambridge University and its dreaming spires. It was here where he developed his first entrepreneurial play as the university’s premium importer of polo mallets. “Indian mallets were made out of bamboo: Lighter, more flexible and cheaper. I was soon selling them to the Royal Family, too”.
By the time he’d dreamt up his curious hybrid super beer, Bilimoria possessed £25,000 in student debt, a tiny flat share in Fulham, and a battered Citroen 2CV named Albert. (“It was our delivery van — we would park it a little ahead of the restaurants so they wouldn’t see it.”) But he was determined to make things work, despite the immovable monolith of the beer establishment and the gentle disapproval of his family. “They weren’t supportive at all, though they meant very well” he says. “Back then, entrepreneurs were seen as second-hand car salesmen.
“We were up against giants. Beer brands tend to be ancient — Stella Artois was founded in the 14th century, Grolsch has just celebrated its 400th anniversary, Kronenbourg was founded in 1664. I could go on.” By contrast, Lord Bilimoria’s beer empire consisted of a a car that needed jump starting every morning and a name. The latter, at least, proved to be pivotal to the brand’s early success.
“There was no Eureka moment — I didn’t go running through the streets of Cambridge naked...”
“There was something about Cobra,” Bilimoria says. “Short sharp, punchy, memorable — takes you back to India without doing it in an obvious way. And it’s cool and contemporary on the one hand, but still lets people think that it’s been around forever.”
When the brand celebrated its 25th birthday in 2015, scores of fans wrote to Lord Bilimoria to tell him there had been some mistake — they were certain it was really much, much older. “Even now” he says, “I meet former British Army officers who tell me ‘I remember drinking Cobra in India before the war!’”
As it happens, Cobra almost never reached its fifth birthday, let alone its 25th. “I’ve nearly lost my business three times” he says. “And the last time was in the financial crisis. And I hope that really is the last time.”
Like many businesses at the tail end of the noughties, Cobra’s valuation was based on growth projections rather than capital. “And then the crash happened. Cash used to be king. Suddenly, it was emperor.” Cobra soon re-structured, selling a 51% stake to beer giant Molson Coors, and the company marched on. “You have to adapt or die.”
In June 2006, Karan Bilimoria became Lord Bilimoria, Baron Bilimoria of Chelsea, when he was created an independent crossbench life peer in the House of Lords. At the time, he was one of the youngest peers in the chamber’s history, and is the first Zoroastrian Parsi to sit in the upper house. “As an independent, I can say whatever I feel and try to be constructive.” he says. “I’m not whipped to any party line.”
This is Lord Bilimoria’s unique trick, again and again — to be an individual and a rogue spirit, yet an integral part of the whole. He is the outsider’s insider, his soft, lilting southern Indian accent tumbling with clipped, cut-glass English vowels. And he is a staunch advocate for the institution that so many wish to abolish.
“The House of Lords has more breath and depth of expertise than any other Parliamentary chamber in the world, multiplied many times over. You name it, we’ve got world experts in it. I always challenge people to name me one world expert in the House of Commons — they can’t” he says. “So any legislation, any topic that we are debating, you have people with world authority speaking on it.”
The whole is more than the sum of its parts. “My favourite word is integrity. It comes from the Latin and Greek words ‘integram’ and ‘tegral’ which mean wholeness.” Lord Bilimoria says. “I have used it on the mission statement for Cobra, which is taken from my great grandfather, an entrepreneur himself — ’To aspire and achieve against all odds, with integrity”’ he recites in his gently rippling tones. “Which, now I think about it, is almost a perfect definition of entrepreneurship.”
This article was taken from the March/April issue of Gentleman’s Journal. To join the club, subscribe here…