In a pre-covid world, on humid June evenings in McLeod Ganj or Shimla in the hill state of Himachal Pradesh, the market would be abuzz with lights and hawkers cramped into narrow, single-lane roads. Thumping music from bars and restaurants would provide the background score as you navigated through cows and crowds, sometimes, unrelenting rain. Many would take shelter at the wine shop on the mall roads in these markets—and one thing that would always catch the eye of both tourists and locals, was home-grown apple cider, tucked between the famous fruit wines.
The cider brands have interesting names: Jolly Maker, Cidekick and Gold Home, to name a few. “It’s not too expensive and tastes better than beer,” says 25-year-old Anil Rana from Shimla, who usually finishes a bottle every three days or so. “One drinks other things too, but when my friends introduced me to cider I realized ek bottle mein banda set ho jata hai (one bottle is enough to give you a buzz), and it costs just around ₹150.” He’s right—these sparkling apple beverages pack quite a punch. They are sweet and fizzy, and contain 8% alcohol. Rana says they are popular at local weddings for all these reasons—price points and palatable taste.
The branding for Cidekick, a product of what is arguably one of Himachal Pradesh’s most popular brands of wines, juices, jams, pickles and more, is particularly striking. It features the caricature of a mustachioed gentleman, in a green Himachali topi, holding a bubbly beverage in one hand and flashing a thumbs-up sign with the other. This gentleman is, in fact, Girish Minocha, CEO, Minchy’s Food Products, who launched the brand in the 1990s.
Though this year’s tourist season was washed out because of the pandemic, Minocha says demand has actually increased—this January, they went from a basic unit to a fully automatic plant and enhanced their production capacity to manufacture 600-800 cases of cider a day. Every case has 12 bottles of 650ml each. “You will be surprised when I tell you, I have got a 300% growth year-on-year, quarter- on-quarter, during the lockdown. Just on the cider,” says Minocha.
An electrical engineer from the Delhi Technological University, Minocha decided to return to his home town of Shimla to set up something locally—and Minchy’s was born in 1993. By 2005, it had already become easier to get liquor licences in the state, and he expanded to wines, and just over three years ago, he launched a pilot unit for apple cider at his son’s suggestion. “I am a purist—usually apple ciders are still and not sparkling, but that doesn’t work with the Indian palate; still, I believe this is a great product,” says Minocha. Cidekick was launched in 2017.
“We are an apple state and cider is 75% apple juice—the quality of apples is important in terms of quality of the cider. With the same formulation, process and method, I would end up with a miserable product if I don’t have the right kind of apples to go into that product. Final product is only as good as the raw materials available,” says Minocha.
An article published in 2016 in The Smithsonian Magazine, headlined The Ancient Origins Of Apple Cider, noted that apples were not eaten initially since they were often too bitter. “Instead, for thousands of years, people would press them for the juice and leave it to ferment, letting it bubble away until it turned into boozy hard cider,” it said. “By the time the first Romans sailed to the British Isles in 55 B.C., the locals were drinking a cider-like drink made from apples, which their new visitors quickly fell in love with... Soon enough, cider spread through the Roman Empire and across Europe, becoming popular with people from the Germanic tribes to the Normans, whose conquest of England in the 9th century brought apple orchards and the very word ‘cider’ into the English language.”
One of the first apple ciders in the Himachali market, however, the popular Gold Home, came from Sandeep Chadda, now 70, in 2006. Born and raised in Delhi, Chadda had moved to New York to help his elder brother run a wine shop. But he eventually returned, hoping to get into liquor manufacturing. An ad in the classifieds section of a newspaper helped him recruit a chemist, Rajneesh Tyagi, who eventually led Chadda to the plant they now run in Batu, near Shimla. He moved bag and baggage in 2006.
Chadda says cider has been fruitful for the state and the village, as he “generates employment to 70 persons from Batu directly in the plant”. Like the other entrepreneurs, he too believes it’s the region’s apple that makes the drink so popular. “Every state has its own special fruit and that is the taste of the region. Here, many fruits tend to get wasted—one set is sent to metros, one is meant for middle-class consumption and the others rot away in the gardens, they aren’t spoilt, just surplus. So I decided to use those fruits and make apple cider, apple wine, pickle.”
Minocha says the demand covers every demographic—from restaurants and bars to local dealerships, from the everyday local drinker to the more upscale golf players in the region. Chadda fondly recalls a newspaper clipping of actors Ajay Devgn and Kajol that shows them having a pint of Gold Home in Himachal Pradesh.
The companies, though, are not stopping at apples. Minchy’s, for instance, is creating cherry and orange variants—which hit shelves this year.
Rana, among others, has been keenly awaiting their arrival.