From political advisor to shaking up the Indian and British lager market with an artisan craft beer; this businessman explains how he changed his career
In late 2014, Surj Virk came up with the idea for his Midlands-based craft beer business, Empress Ale; intending to add fizz to the market with a product designed to offer an artisan alternative to those big-brand lagers you’ll know from the local curryhouse.
The start-up entrepreneur’s mission was to develop a beer he’d happily order himself to complement strongly-spiced food. And, after a year of research, testing prototype batches on willing volunteers, and honing Victoriana-inspired labels reflecting the brand’s British-Indian heritage, Surj deemed Empress Ale ready for market.
The beer was debuted at a range of local food and beer festivals, and garnered positive reviews from leading industry voices including ale authority Roger Protz.
Then came the hard part: cracking the restaurant market. Right from the start, Surj aimed for the (Michelin) stars, and tenacity eventually saw him secure Atul Kocchar’s Mayfair restaurant Benares as one of his very first clients in early 2016.
The entrepreneur’s first success was not his last. Surj soon gained further listings with high-end London venues like Cafe Spice Namaste and Jamavar, and also took Empress Ale to the Houses of Parliament as a guest beer.
Taking the leap
Yet it wasn’t until late 2016 that Surj was able to quit his day job as a political advisor and turn Empress Ale from side hustle to full-time career.
It could have been a disaster, but the gamble paid off. With the extra time and energy he could pay it, Empress Ale flourished further; first showcased alongside big brands like Jaguar, Mulberry and McLaren in the Government’s GREAT Britain marketing campaign, then, in spring this year, scoring investment from ex-Countrywide CEO and Zoopla board member Grenville Turner.
Since then, Surj has kept the pedal to the metal when it comes to restaurant listings,
working with both fine dining venues like Asha’s in Birmingham, and the hipper end of the market with cool London venues like Rola Wala, Chai Naasto and Calcutta Street.
Plan to succeed
Success can lead to the temptation to roll out too fast, too soon, but Surj aims to maintain a healthy balance between ambition and caution. His strategy for expansion involves building his market within his current distribution areas of London and the Midlands before moving further afield, and slowly widening Empress Ale’s reach from Indian restaurants to bars and venues serving all sorts of spice-led cuisines.
Listings are all well and good, but they alone don’t necessarily create sufficient brand awareness and visibility. For Surj, it’s about seeking out quirky-but-relevant opportunities to showcase his product – recent sponsorship of London’s The Beauty of Being British Asian art exhibition a case in point.
Social media, Surj says, ties in with this sort of activity. Rather than merely handing out free bottles of beer, the entrepreneur launched an Instagram competition inviting guests to share their images from the event, featuring Empress Ale and tagging the brand in posts. ‘Likers’ and ‘sharers’ might not all have tasted the product, but they’re all getting a flavour of what the brand’s all about.
What’s next for Empress Ale? Rather a lot, as it happens: scaling up the business, looking at export opportunities, taking the beer to music festivals; offering it as an option for private parties, weddings and events; working with pop-ups and social influencers; and continuing to build up a strong, varied portfolio of restaurant clients. Surj has put his brand on the map; now it’s all about continuing the journey.
Surj Virk’s 5 top tips for start-up entrepreneurs
- Be patient As a start-up, I’ve now realised that almost everything you do takes longer – and is more expensive! – than you initially think it will be.But everyone has to start somewhere, and it doesn’t all happen overnight.
- Don’t be scared of making mistakes – inevitably you’ll make a lot when you start, and still make them when you are growing, but the important thing is to learn from them and move on.
- Have a key sounding board It’s great to have someone to bounce ideas off and seek advice from. I realise that not everyone will have someone like our chairman Grenville Turner on board, but his experience, mentorship, advice and vast wealth of knowledge has proven invaluable to me and the company.
- Go with your gut Having said the above, it’s also important to trust your instincts when making decisions. I often find that the people who have the most ‘advice’ to offer are salaried individuals in a secure position, and don’t see things the same way as start-ups who risk a hell of a lot on every choice.
- Believe in yourself and your business If you don’t, don’t expect anyone else to.