A few weeks ago, my husband brought home a bottle of chilled beverage that wasn't on the grocery list I had sent him out with. It was a bottle of pre-packaged sugarcane juice – a novelty in a market flooded with bottled soda and mango drinks. But one sip of the drink and I was transported back to my childhood summers.
I grew up in the southern city of Chennai, where summers are scorching. And sugarcane juice was a popular seasonal cooler. I would stop for a tall glass of freshly pressed juice from a street vendor on hot afternoons. The sunburned man would pass the plump cane stalks through his machine and turn its big wheels with his hands. A pale green juice would flow out on to a steel container on the other side.
This was a cool, refreshing and rare treat, long before the idea of cold-pressed juice came into vogue. As I grew up and moved away from home, the sugarcane juice vendor continued to tempt me across cities, but the siren song of his machine was drowned by warnings about water-borne diseases that echoed in my head. Vendors often added ice made from unfiltered water, a common cause for stomach infections.
So, finding sugarcane juice after all these years, in modern and hygienic packaging, felt like a game-changer. And that's when I began to notice that the market is starting to get flooded with such beverages from my childhood. They are traditional, seasonal drinks, once sold by street vendors or made at home by mothers and grandmothers. Be it aam panna, a drink made of the sweetened pulp of green mango, considered cooling in summer, or golgappa ka pani, the spicy, sour and sweet mix of water served with a popular street dish, or common juices like sugarcane, consumers can now buy these uniquely Indian, semi-forgotten tastes at shops and supermarkets.
The beverage companies selling these drinks are new and homegrown, like Paper Boat, Milk Mantra and Raw Pressery. In a market dominated by big multinationals like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, they are luring customers by playing to Indians' soft spot for local products and flavors (the most popular cola in the country is the local Thums Up, now owned by Coca-Cola). They are offering customers something fresh, yet familiar – a combination of traditional tastes with authentic Indian ingredients.
Paper Boat is offering a strong pinch of nostalgia in their drinks. The beverages they sell are otherwise mostly forgotten, ranging from the uniquely regional panakam, a festival drink of jaggery with a hint of ginger and cardamom, and kokum, a berry that is a traditional souring agent used in western India, to seasonal drinks like thandai, a slightly spiced milk drink served during the spring festival of Holi. The company's name itself harks back to childhood holidays – long, leisurely afternoons spent making paper boats to sail in ponds and puddles after heavy monsoon downpours. On its website, the company spells out its motto: "If you could make people taste memories, you should."
Their marketing seems to be working for many. "I love it that Paper Boat is promoting Indian drinks," says Priya Pathiyan, a journalist in Mumbai. "We have a wealth of ingredients and flavors that are also suitable for our weather." And the company's "ads take me back to my childhood," she adds.
A company like Raw Pressery on the other hand, is marketing good health, with promises of fresh ingredients, with no additives or artificial flavors. The company started off by offering cold-pressed, mixed fruit and vegetable juices with a "detox" theme (Trim, Flush and Glow were some of the initial flavors). More recently, it has introduced more conventional fruit juices like orange and apple, in clean, contemporary bottles and indeed without any additives. "We wish to establish that our juices are comprised of fruit in their raw, untainted, natural and [the] most glorious form," founder Anuj Rakyan tells us via e-mail.
Health conscious parents seem to be happy to give their children these new drinks (especially Paper Boat), without the guilt that typically accompanies a serving of fizzy drinks. Sathya Saran is a writer and yoga-enthusiast from Mumbai who enjoys these juices because they "suggest health without tasting ugh." She also prefers that her granddaughter drinks them instead of colas and other aerated beverages.
Not everyone is convinced by the health claims.
"I don't believe that any packaged food can be entirely "pure" or free from sugar and preservatives as they claim," says Malathi Srinivasan, a working mother of three, based in the southern city of Bengaluru. But like many urban parents, she views these drinks as the "lesser of the two evils." She would rather give her kids an anar (pomegranate) or aamras (mango juice) from such brands, than even conventional fruit juice brands like Tropicana or Real.
Whatever the reasons behind Indians buying these drinks, it is clear that this fledgling industry is growing. According to Indian newspapers, the homegrown beverage market is now almost as big as the cola market in India.
As for me, I'm still hooked by the rekindling of long-forgotten tastes. And I can see myself spending my summers drowning in these flavors.
Charukesi Ramadurai is a freelance journalist based in Bengaluru, India.