I remember when I qualified as a sommelier (India’s first and ‘summa cum laude’, no less) it was all about wines under the ferment section. We spoke distantly of ciders, curiously of sake and there was never any mention of seltzers. Fast forward, I am still an awesome taster but today I talk about wine only for 50% of the time. The remaining is all about the other ferments.
Recently, I interacted very closely with two such products. Hill Station Hard Cider Ales and Grizly Hard Seltzer Ales. Both these come from the house of Bira 91, India’s fastest-growing homegrown beer brand, as it expands its presence and range, extending it into categories which are similar but go beyond beer.
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Hill Station comes in three variants, with a label that features a steam engine and three shades to distinguish the three styles—Original, Strong (below 8% abv) and Berry Twist. No trip to the hills was complete without a walk down mall road and a short ride on those toy trains which chug along lazily curving along the hillsides. So, the branding is quite on point. Ciders as such are not a new category— most micro-breweries make some across India—but this is the first time that a brand is making it nationally available in a bottled format. The label says all natural which is a good thing. Sure, the strong packs a punch but to me, it was the most pair-able with savoury dishes or even an Apple Crumble and/or a Strudel. The response, from the event that I personally attended, showed that there was no one singularly popular variant but a room divided almost equally across the three styles which just goes to show that the consumer is really one fickle creature.
And this brings me to seltzers. If we started tracing how the word which originally referred simply to water from the Selterser springs and wells and was a synonym for plain soda at one point, eventually ended up referring to flavoured alcoholic sweetened fizzy drinks, this space wouldn’t be enough. Instead, let’s focus on just how unmatched their growth has been in the last few years. In fact, India is a bit late to the party as in the west, no other category of drinks is anywhere close to how fast these are growing in popularity.
Bira 91 has made a foray here as well with Grizly, a young fresh take on the category. Few things set their product apart from the others out there—no artificial adjuncts, low on sugar, and instead of being mono-flavoured these are concocted like cocktails with more than one main ingredient in each. For example, the peach version is balanced with grippy black tea, the blueberry with some herbaceous rosemary tinges and the strong seltzer with pineapple is balanced with Okinawa black sugar from Japan (which, to our Indian palate, would come across as a cross between jaggery and caramelised sugar). Each fruit flavour aptly juxtaposed with something contrasting to give the drinks balance with a tactile twist. Personally, I don’t see myself drinking too much seltzer, but I do think these are well made without being cloyingly sweet. It certainly sounds like a healthier gateway drink for those who are new to alcohol or just curiously exploring the category.
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In all this, I have discounted spirits from the conversation but before I sign off, I must talk about a new brand on the block—Short Story. I think we have been through two cycles of locally-produced alcohols—first we made sub-standard stuff with drab labels (for example, almost any spirit which was launched more than two decades ago and still sell in bulk but you wouldn’t wish it on an enemy), then came the glorious last few years when forms evolved and product design took centre-stage, not just superficially but also with regards to stuff within. These are the premium brands which have won much international acclaim—Stranger & Sons and Terai gins, Paul John and Amrut single malts, Camikara rum, and few others. Now, I think we are entering a third era when more affordable stuff is being made to global gold standards. These will be products which we can quaff daily without feeling guilty about breaking the bank. Short Story is precisely that brand. Their rum was my favourite (best Indian white rum I have tried so far) but even the gin and vodka were commendably made. They have made sure to keep it simple and slick—minimal branding, versatile flavour profiles and easy-on-the-pocket pricing. They are growing so be sure to check them out as also to keep an eye for other similar launches.
The writer is a sommelier