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As India shifts to vegan and gluten-free options at the bar, cider becomes popular

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As young people express an interest in vegan and gluten-free options at the bar, cider — a fermented summer drink made from apples — attracts interest in India

A bite into a crisp apple, its juices dripping down your chin, as tart and floral flavours dance upon your palate. These memories are now being translated into a heady summer drink: cider.

In the Indian market since 2017, the drink, which is made from apples and is fermented with minimal processing, has an alcoholic content ranging from 1.2% to 8.5% ABV (Alcohol by Volume — a standard measure of how much alcohol, or ethanol, is contained in a given volume of an alcoholic beverage).

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Ciders can be still or carbonated, based on secondary fermentation and carbon dioxide injection. Sales have seen an upward trend despite craft beer and whiskey ruling the roost, as young Indians look to shift consumption towards vegan and gluten-free offerings at the bar. And apple drinks offer the added advantage of antioxidants.

Homegrown cider brand, Wildcraft Beverage, headquartered in Maharashtra, uses apples from the northern hills of the country. “Kashmiri apples are sourced directly from the farmers, and the Himachal variety is sweet, but more importantly, not genetically modified which is why we chose it . We also use the skin of apples, in our Hard Apple cider which really celebrates the fruit,” elaborates Priyanka Patel, who helms the operation with her husband Mehul.

In addition to the classic Hard Cider available in bottles at ₹180 each, Wildcraft Cider offers a wide repertoire of fruity options — mulberry (from Mahabaleshwar), coffee-orange (from Karnataka and Maharashtra), mango and strawberry ciders. Ayush Arora, co-founder of Mumbai-based restobar, Hammer & Song is impressed, “It’s a great beverage for those who dislike the taste of alcohol and like something sweet and fruity. They have greatly appreciated the balance and the use of indigenous mulberry.”

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Patel adds, “. We have seen some of our consumers even turn our ciders into cocktails and desserts.”

Omkar Shivhare, a regular patron in Mumbai adds, “When I moved back from the UK to India, I was on the look out for a good cider. The cider itself isn’t too sweet or too dry like most ciders tend to be. The 8% plus alcohol level is just the cherry on the top.”

Kapil Kanetkar, owner, Genuine Broasters Chicken, Mumbai, concurs, “Hard Apple Cider was a very interesting introduction to our customers. Patrons mostly come for beer bucket offers. However, once they gave it a go, they practically switch over.”

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Despite the rousing reception, the pandemic forced a pause and pivot. “For a brand that started in December 2019 with no idea that a pandemic was looming, it sure has taken its toll on us. With excise relaxing norms on home deliveries, we had a little relief. It also gave us ample time to focus on innovation,” explains Priyanka, as the brand plans to expand its operations to Karnataka and Goa by the end of the year.

Steal the best ones

Thirsty Fox Cider, the newest kid on the block, brings a Massachusetts staple to the Indian market. Siddharth Sheth, founder-CEO, spent much of 2014 through 2016 chasing the perfect cider in Somerville, Massachusetts. He sent a handwritten note to the founders at Bantam Cider requesting them to be fellow travellers in his mission to bring all-natural, craft apple ciders to India.

Thirsty Fox cider paired with food

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Why Thirsty Fox? Foxes are notorious among orchard owners, with their uncanny ability to steal the best apples; so the label bears the wily thief as well as hand illustrated botanicals, inspired by 17th Century Belgian botanist, Pierre-Joseph Redouté.

Sheth explains, “We started with apples from Himachal Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir. But unable to achieve the desired product profile, we finally zeroed in on the right blend of apples from Washington State and Oregon. We would be more than thrilled to find a local source that exceeds the standards of our current supplies which would lower transportation costs and import taxes and duties, which account for 70% of the basic cost of the materials.”

With two gluten-free iterations, priced at ₹300 per stubby bottle, Thirsty Fox Izzy, is a golden cider, with orange blossom honey, and Thirsty Fox Reed, a ruby-red, semi-dry cider, conditioned with tart cherries and peppercorns. While all retail sales are routed through premium shops in Mumbai and Pune for home delivery, Thirsty Fox also sells via online platforms and its own website. Sheth is confident that his ciders will soon find space at tables in Karnataka, later this year.

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Notes of whiskey

Morgan Beverages, which has brought Paladin wines from Italy and Marchigue Panul red and whites from Chile, entered the cider market in 2018 with 200-year-old Sheppy’s Cider, and Australian favourite, Three Oaks Cider. Sheppy’s ciders are fermented using naturally occurring wild yeast from Somerset’s (UK) cider and dessert apples, giving them a distinct flavour, not mimicked by other yeasts. The amber juice from fresh apples is matured in oak vats which have been in the Sheppy family for almost 100 years. Shashank Rathore, marketing head at Morgan Beverages says, Indian drinkers, still prefer more familiar notes to full bodied-ciders.

Sheppy’s cider

“Sheppy’s 200 Special Edition Cider goes down smooth, since it has notes of whiskey, having been aged in oak barrels, while the classic draught version is an acquired taste. Three Oaks Cider, made with freshly crushed Red Delicious, Pink Lady and Granny Smith apples from Adelaide, is smooth with light and crisp notes.”

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Rathore points out that Chennai has been a dream market for their ciders with a younger segment of buyers, and a lower price point compared to Mumbai. While Sheppy’s is available only at premium TASMAC outlets at ₹470, plans are afoot to offer the ciders at bars and restaurants once there is a semblance of normalcy. “The curious aspect of cider in the Chennai market is that it falls under the wine category since it uses fruit and is a fermented beverage.” With plans to expand, post-pandemic, Rathore is confident of taking his ciders to Goa and the capital as well.

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