How a Northeastern graduate is using his brewing company, Rupee Beer, for cultural diplomacy, not just good times

Vanit Sharma drinking Rupee Beer
Vanit Sharma founded Rupee Beer with his brother to create a smooth-tasting, lower carbonation lager that would pair well with the Indian food he grew up eating in his parents’ restaurant. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When Vanit “Van” Sharma graduated from Northeastern University in 2011, he wanted to be a diplomat. Instead, he created a brewing company, but it turns out they’re more similar than you might think.

Founded by Sharma and his brother, Sumit, during the COVID-19 pandemic, Rupee Beer is a lager designed to be paired with Indian food, but it’s more than that. Rupee is a way to honor their family’s Indian roots, their parents’ legacy as entrepreneurs and show the world the beauty of Indian culture. 

“This is beer diplomacy 101,” Sharma says. “We’re representing the culture.”

What started as an experiment in their parents’ Indian restaurant in Maine has become a successful brew that’s available in three major retailers in 10 states. And that’s only the beginning. Sharma says there are plans to expand Rupee into the South this summer and that the company is laying the foundation to bring Rupee to London.

The brothers have big dreams, but if anyone is equipped to make them a reality, it’s Sharma. Entrepreneurship runs in his family’s blood. His parents originally hail from India but have spent their lives globetrotting, from Germany to London, where Sharma was born, to Maine, where they eventually settled and opened a few Indian restaurants in the early 1990s. They still live in Portland and run their flagship restaurant, Bombay Mahal, a Maine institution and the oldest Indian restaurant in the state.

Video: The story and science behind Rupee Beer, a lager designed to be paired with Indian food

Some of Sharma’s earliest memories are connected to his parents’ restaurants––the tastes, the smells, the energy. Growing up in one of the few Indian families in Portland, which at the time was even less diverse than it is now, wasn’t always easy, Sharma says. But his father often told him and his brothers to be “good cultural ambassadors for India,” something Sharma took to heart, especially as he started studying international relations at Northeastern. 

By the time Sharma had graduated with degrees in political science and international relations in 2011, he had gone on five Dialogues of Civilizations. His taste for global experiences brought him back to Northeastern, and he graduated with a master’s in international relations and global studies in 2013.

After graduating, Sharma returned to London to work in sales and continue entrepreneurial ventures on the side. He founded Work Spot, a coworking space startup, in London with another Northeastern graduate, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Both he and his brother, who was in Australia at the time, were forced to return to the U.S. due to pandemic lockdown procedures. They suddenly found themselves back in Portland, working at their parents’ restaurant like they had when they were younger.

Like a lot of restaurant owners in 2020, Sharma’s parents fell victim to supply chain issues, particularly when it came to major Indian beer brands like King Fisher and Taj Mahal. 

“A lot of the containers coming over from India just weren’t coming as consistently, and the ones that were coming, they were giving preference to the distributors in the larger regions, like New York City or Florida or California, since that’s where they sell the bulk of their beer,” Sumit Sharma says.

That was enough to spark the Sharma brothers’ imagination. What if there was a domestic-brewed Indian beer, one that actually complemented Indian food?

Sharma and his brother knew they weren’t brewers, so the first thing they did was find a partner who knew the ins and outs of the brewing world. Fortunately, they found someone right down the road from their parents’ house: Alan Pugsley, the founder of Shipyard Brewing Company. Known as the Johnny Appleseed of craft brewing, Pugsley has helped launch more than 80 craft beer brands in his more than 40-year career.

Sharma and his brother met with Pugsley, and he had them set up a tasting at their parents’ restaurant with different beers and different Indian dishes. The core concept of what Rupee would be––and, more importantly, what it wouldn’t be––came out of that early tasting.

“The one problem that we were always trying to solve is that when you are having something like chicken tikka masala and butter naan, those are really heavy things already,” Sharma says. “If you take a really gassy traditional beer that’s mass-produced, that’s not a vibe. You’re going to be burping, having indigestion. Going out, you’re going to feel really uncomfortably full.”

To account for that, Rupee has a lower level of carbonation than most beer. It also is made using rice, maize and malt, as well as three different kinds of hops, to smooth out the taste and complement, not interfere, with the powerful flavors in Indian food.

“You want to taste those flavors, those intricate spices, and other beers were competing with those,” Sumit Sharma says. “We wanted to make something that was very smooth, that still had its own flavor but complemented the food and didn’t overpower it.”

It took two and a half years and four pilot brews to finalize the formula, but Sharma says the final result was worth the wait. Rupee is now available in Whole Foods, Costco and Total Wine in 10 states, from Maine to Virginia. It’s also the only Indian beer offered at their parents’ restaurant.

Rupee contracts with Dorchester Brewing to brew, package and ship its beer, and currently produces 60 barrels––about 600 cases––per month. With plans to expand its operations into the South this summer, Sharma anticipates the operation will double in size this quarter. Sharma and his brother also have their eyes on London, which Sharma calls the “curry capital of the world.” 

“We chose [the name] Rupee because it was iconic, and now we want to execute our mission to bring more iconic Indian inspired items to an audience that wants a little more masala in their lives, a little more flavor, a little something different,” Sharma says.

Cody Mello-Klein is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @Proelectioneer.