Remember the time when a glass of cool Rasna was almost a staple for kids during the hot summer evenings? Or the ‘soul-refreshing’ Rooh Afza and khus sharbat that were prepared whenever a guest arrived? A glass of iced shikanji (lemonade) rehydrated instantly, while aam panna and jal jeera catered phenomenally to the spice-heavy Indian taste during the scorching summer months.
Times have changed, though. Carbonated soft drinks in myriad hues, packaged juices, milkshakes and strangely even energy drinks now dominate the beverage shelves at local shops and supermarkets. Convenience sells. According to a report by Statista, the revenue of India’s soft drinks segment amounts to $8.85 billion in FY23 and is expected to annually grow by 5.40% between 2023 and 2027.
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Although the consumers’ taste and preferences have shifted, especially since the 1990s when India’s economy opened for large multinational corporations, the country’s rich summer beverage culture still holds value.
Chaas (salted buttermilk) remains a staple summer drink in the deserts of Rajasthan and Gujarat, as does lassi in Punjab. Both versions of the simple buttermilk have cooling properties and help rehydrate. When speaking of buttermilk, Bengal’s Gondhoraj Ghol warrants a mention. The drink, which can be both sweet and salty, is prepared with curd, iced water, and the state’s prized Gondhoraj lime.
While the Mughals are credited with bringing sharbat to India, this summer coolant has taken different forms when fused with the local ingredients. In Bihar was born the sattu sharbat, which took the shape of kokum sharbat in Maharashtra, kuluki sharbat in Kochi, and nannari sharbat in south India.
Wood apple (bael) is a native Indian fruit, and its soft, brown pulp makes for an excellent sharbat, consumed in several Indian households during summers. The same holds true for the falsa berry.
When speaking of sharbat, Rooh Afza has held its place and stood the test of time and a bloody partition. Its roots lie in the pre-independence Old Delhi when Hamdard founder Hakim Abdul Majid, in 1906, prepared a herbal mix to beat the summer heat, and named it Rooh Afza, meaning soul-refresher. Since then, the drink has travelled the length and breadth of the sub-continent and continues to be equally popular in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. It becomes especially popular during the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan when many break the fast with dates and a glassful of Rooh Afza. The popularity is such that several hotels and restaurants experiment with it to offer summer drinks.
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With the change in consumers’ preferences over the years, Hamdard, too, has tailored its classic rose syrup to offer several versions such as sugar-free, fizzy, a fusion drink with fruit juice, and even ready-to-drink Hamdard lassi and milkshake.
Dabur calls its rose syrup Sharbat-e-Azam. “This year, we have expanded the Sharbat portfolio with the launch of new flavours like Badam and Khus to cater to varied consumer preferences,” says Monisha Prasher, AGM marketing—beverages, Dabur India.
Similarly, Indian ethnic foods brand Mother’s Recipe, which also sells rose syrup, mango panna and khus syrup, has received “very positive” feedback from sampling, as per its executive director Sanjana Desai. “The demand among retailers, as well as consumers, is high. These are ambient products that require no refrigeration, and retailers earn good margins on them,” she adds.
Although with the popularity of fizzy beverages and bottled drinks, it might seem that India’s traditional summertime beverages are becoming vestiges of a bygone era. But when looked into deeply, almost every Indian and multinational beverage company has incorporated Indian summer in its product portfolio.
The Bengaluru-based Paper Boat stands out here. A traditional Indian foods and beverages brand by Hector Beverages, it offers consumers the old and nostalgic flavours, but in a new avatar. Its ready-to-drink bottled offerings include beverages like aam panna, jal jeera, sattu sharbat, neer more, kokum juice and panakam, among others. You name any traditional Indian drink, and Paper boat sells it. Riding on nostalgia, the company’s revenue reached Rs 331 crore in FY22.
According to a report by Fortune Business Insights, the global ready-to-drink beverages market size was $718.72 billion last year. It is expected to grow from $749.17 billion in 2023 to $1,155.14 billion by 2030 at a CAGR of 6.38%. If the global scenario is an indication, Indian consumers’ preferences too are tilting toward ready-to-drink beverages and convenience.
Soft drinks remain a strong segment. Bringing the nostalgia element back, Campa-Cola, which once rivaled Coca-Cola and Pepsi before fizzling out in the 1990s, is making a comeback. Last month, Reliance announced the relaunch of this iconic beverage, almost after 23 years since the brand stopped selling cola in India.
While MNCs like Coca-Cola and Pepsi remain strong in their carbonated drinks segment, they, too, have products invoking the Indian summer feel. While Coca-Cola has Maaza, a mango-based drink, Pepsi has 7up Nimbuz, a lemonade-flavoured drink.
“Mangoes are indeed one of the beloved fruits in India, and when it comes to mango-based beverages, Maaza is Coca-Cola’s homegrown brand that stands out due to its popularity and wide availability,” a company spokesperson says. The brand reportedly trumped Coke in terms of sales in India in FY21 by clocking total sales of Rs 2,826 crores. “For the love of raw mangoes in the country, Maaza also launched its new flavour, Aam Panna, made with real green mangoes and delicious Indian masalas, to refresh the Indian palate,” the spokesperson adds.
In the packaged fruit juices segment, Dabur expects “a strong summer season going forward,” says Prasher. The company sells fruit juices under its brand Real. “Many new products are lined up going forward in the season, which will further help accelerate demand,” she adds.
According to Prasher, there has been a shift in consumers’ preference towards healthier beverages.
“Real Activ 100% Juices with no added sugar have gained traction. We will continue to strengthen the juice & nectar portfolio through the launch of fruit beverages with Aloe vera goodness under the Real Aloe Power range,” she says. Rasna, too, has witnessed a shift in the demand of consumers who are now “demanding healthier and higher quality products,” says Rasna Group chairman Piruz Khambatta.
Interestingly, energy drinks have become a common sight on beverage shelves at local shops and supermarkets. Although a late entrant in India’s beverage market, Red Bull was the first to enter in 2002, they have become more common in recent years, especially those in the affordable category. For example, Pepsico sells the 250 ml bottle of its Sting energy drink at just Rs 20.
Speaking on whether Rasna is looking at switching to ready-to-drink form, Khambatta says, “Rasna is best known for its honest pricing. It is so reasonable that in many places it is cheaper than a glass/bottle of water. We are still selling products at Rs 2 per glass. At this price, we’re not making a profit, rather cherishing the fact that millions of children, especially in the lower income group, can enjoy healthy drinks at just Rs 2 per glass, that too with vitamins and minerals. We believe that is our DNA, and to keep that DNA alive we need to always be present across the mass segment, which requires a focus on powder concentrate.”
Speaking on new launches, Khambatta says, “We also have a new product launch coming up this summer which will be a sector first.”
Similarly, Mother’s Recipe has recently launched beverages in five Indian flavours —aam panna, rose, jeera masala, lemon ginger and khus. “We pleased by the response, and we are already planning new flavours for next summer,” adds Desai.