Hard Seltzer: Will The Drinking Trend Fizzle Or Sizzle In India

For most of us who entered the drinking arena in the 2000s, the pickings were slim. Fresh off the birthday boat and eager to sample the enticements of the adult world, we surveyed the options before us. Rum, whiskey, vodka, beer and that’s all she wrote. Indian drinking habits for a long time have been dictated by tradition and an adherence to old-world values. So while dark rums and premium whiskeys are well suited to moustachioed men drinking toasts to days gone by, for the younger crowd there was precious little to get excited about. We dipped our toes in the pond that is flavoured vodka. A phase that our tastebuds and livers still haven’t forgiven us for. We dabbled in alcopops and got stung by their treacherous sugar crash, and drained our meagre college budgets on overpriced cocktails. But never quite felt like got the experience we had envisioned. 

Come the end of the 2010s however and revolutions were afoot. Mixology was on the rise, brewers had sprung up offering lovingly curated craft beer, and the country’s Gin-aissance was in full swing with local crafters in every major city. India had finally made the leap to a more considered approach to drinking. More options were on the table and people had both the information and access to make more informed choices about the quality of alcohol they drank. 

It was around 2019 that the world was suddenly introduced to the concept of Hard Seltzer. We say ‘the world’, but really it was just the USA and an astronomical spike in the sale of White Claw. But unlike some other beverage trends that came and went before India caught on (looking at you dry ice), by 2020, India got stuck into the fray with its own homegrown labels and production, and Hard Seltzer was perfectly poised for a revolution of its own.

But before we even begin to understand how that came to be, we need to understand what a Hard Seltzer is. A seltzer is a carbonated water. No bells and whistles, just good old H2O with carbon dioxide pumped through it to make it fizzy. And Hard Seltzer is just that plus alcohol. Usually, the process uses sugars fermented with yeast to produce the alcohol content (ethanol), and on some occasions, it includes malted barley. Charcoal filters or a centrifuge machine then filters out the alcohol from the by-products and it’s cut with an amount of purified water according to the desired alcohol content. At this stage, flavours can be added and that is a completely open arena, any flavour that can be imagined and produced in real life can be yours for the taking. The last stage is carbonation, which is done the same way as any fizzy drink before being bottled, canned or kegged.

Image Credits: Barney's Hard Seltzer Range


So, fizzy, alcoholic water, simple enough right? Turns out, not so much for India. The ready-to-drink (RTD) market in India wasn’t a priority for alcohol manufacturers with the only frontrunners in the RTD space being alcopops, therefore limiting the ease of production. In fact for Ruchi Gupta and Gaurav Sharma of Barbrew Beverages – the makers of Barney’s Hard Seltzer – the process of development began in their home kitchens with a single carbonation machine during the lockdown. “We knew we wanted to enter the market with an RTD, but we knew we couldn’t compete in beer which was already such a crowded space so we started looking for other options. Then we saw what a high demand there was for alcohol during the lockdown, with hundreds of people queuing at every store. Seltzer had just become big in the US, and we saw our chance,” says co-founder Ruchi, “We started trying to make hard seltzers at home, and since both of us are teetotallers, it was an interesting experiment!”

Both novices to the beverage space, the duo trialled different flavours until they hit upon the right formula before rolling it out to friends and family for test runs. But it was after they had obtained patents and were all set to begin large-scale production that a new problem arose. “There just aren’t many facilities in India that can do this,” sighs Ruchi, “We needed very specific equipment and we were adamant about using cans because that’s the sort of convenience we aimed for as a product.” Since Hard Seltzer requires so few ingredients, the quality of the finished product depends entirely on how fastidious you are about every element that goes into it. For Barney’s, that meant ensuring only the purest water which was pH tested for each batch, and internationally sourced flavours were good enough for the premium experience they’re striving towards. Eventually, they found a manufacturing plant in Goa that met their standards and since November 2021, they’ve been canning and distributing their 3 flavours – Lemongrass, Grapefruit & Apple, Apple & Rose and Strawberry & Blueberry – in Goa, Pondicherry, Australia and Delhi with plans to roll out to more Indian metro cities well underway.

But Ruchi and Gaurav weren’t the only ones who saw the gaping hole in the market. India was ripe for a change and when Krupa and Kunal Shah launched IST Hard Seltzer in April 2022, they had a very specific goal in mind. “We were in the US during the seltzer wave,” says Krupa, “We saw how wide the appeal could be and we wanted to make a drink that tasted good and made you feel good too.” With IST they envisioned a way you could drink and not have to feel guilty with a consciously-driven drink that eschewed any chemicals or additives. But at the same time, they wanted to honour the Indian palate. “We worked with an international flavour house for ages until we got it right,” says Krupa, “We loved the idea of fresh, clean grapefruit, but then we realised it was too bitter and nobody here would go for it. So rather than adding sugar or any sweetener, we decided to try natural pomegranate essence which balanced it out perfectly!”

Image Credits: IST Hard Seltzer - Grapefruit & Pomegranate 

And that steers us neatly into the reasons why Hard Seltzer has been taking off in the first place:

1. They. Taste. Good.

India has a food-centric culture. We celebrate life, death and everything in between with very specific sets of dishes that take on the identity of the occasion itself. Try serving modaks outside of Ganesh Chaturthi and you’ll see what we mean. We love sweets and are uncompromising about flavour and that attitude extends to our drinking culture too. Ethanol, the chemical compound of alcohol is, by nature, pretty gross. You wouldn’t want to take a swig of that, and the validity of the entire alco-bev industry hinges on the ability to mask that taste well enough to make it drinkable. 

There was a day when dumping a can of Coke into everything was the go-to solution to make every alcohol drinkable, but aside from the tears that would be pouring down your bartender's face at that move, it didn’t fit into the country’s evolving mindset. We were quickly becoming aware of the risks that came with artificial sweeteners and the need for a healthy lifestyle. This brings us to the fact that…

2. They do your workout for you

Ok, not exactly, but they’re definitely healthier than most alcoholic beverages out there. In the last few years and especially in the wake of COVID, we’ve come to learn the real value of staying healthy. This could mean exercise, dieting, eating better or generally taking a hard look at your habits and seeing whether there’s room to improve. Alcohol is usually an easy way to cut back on calories, but it often comes with cutting back on socialising too. 

With around 90 calories per serving, Hard Seltzers provide a low-cal, zero-sugar hall pass for you can go out and enjoy drinks with friends while still staying true to your health goals. Plus because most Hard Seltzers are being produced with relatively low alcohol by volume (ABV) it comes with less of those irksome day-after slumps. Plus with no heavy malts or headache-inducing tannins which could adversely affect your body, most people won’t feel bloated or tired after a few drinks. 

And really when you’re out and about, you don’t want a drink that actually gets you drunk, just one that will keep you pleasantly buzzed. Because more often than not, people are more likely to pick the drink that –

3. Makes you look good

Like how we slid right into that last one? Of course you do! Because who doesn’t love a little bit of flair. And that’s exactly what Hard Seltzers bring to the table in spades, the promise of something new, premium, aligned with your needs but still within the price bracket of any other RTD beverage. 

It helps that the USA was already toting that bandwagon all around town, they laid the groundwork by making Hard Seltzer a cultural phenomenon so when it did make its way across the seas, it was already a style statement. It also helps that most Hard Seltzers are positioned for a younger audience who are happy to experiment with new drinks, new brands and new personas to match them. 

Also, unlike most alcopops or RTD beverages, Hard Seltzer is completely gender neutral. Although it’s unfortunate that we’ve not evolved past the point where being seen with a pink fruit-flavoured drink is considered an indicator of a person’s masculinity, the transparent, uncomplicated nature of Hard Seltzer does increase its appeal across all genders. But no matter how you identify, there’s one place where buying alcohol hurts us all equally. The pocket.

4. The Price Point

For the foreseeable future, Hard Seltzers are going to be a young person's game and by and large, young equals broke. From college students to young professionals, nobody’s looking to drop thousands on a drink that will be gone in a few sips, and that’s why the price point of Hard Seltzers is playing such a crucial role in their success. 

Priced around the same as a beer, it means that consumers aren’t worried about punching up or down, they’re just moving laterally to a product that is tailored more specifically to their needs. India has a 52 billion dollar alcohol industry, and sometimes competitive pricing can make all the difference. Classy cocktails have their place, but convenience just seems to be pulling ahead. 

Though there are plenty of reasons why Hard Seltzer is perfectly suited to India’s youth, it doesn’t mean it's smooth sailing from here on out. Adults over the age of 45 still make up the largest sector of drinkers in the country. And they’re a notoriously stubborn category to break into with a new product. Something as totally alien as a Hard Seltzer would be a difficult sell to an older audience but does that have to mean defeat for the beverage somewhere down the line?

“Absolutely not!,” says Ruchi, “after all, you wouldn’t be asking me these questions if you thought it was a passing trend.” (The lady makes an excellent point) “I truly believe that this is the future of drinking for us in India. After COVID, everything about the drinking trends changed. People want healthy, premium drinks that meet the level of quality they’re setting for the rest of their lives.” 

Krupa too is adamant that Hard Seltzer’s going nowhere. “Easy drinking is the new thing,” she says, “People don’t want to drink to get drunk, they want something light and refreshing that they can sip on through the afternoon and not feel bloated and tired. Hard Seltzer can do that and taste good too. It’s just a matter of creating more awareness about the category. If that can be done, then there’s no looking back.”

The stage is set for Hard Seltzer to break into our daily drinking habits, and given that it has everything working in its favour, we're placing bets that its here to stay.