In a modish second-floor cabin across the derelict Sitaram Mills Compound in Mumbai, where cotton mill workers once broke their hours with cutting chai, Anuj Rakyan and Shuja Ahmed kick off a tasting session for flavoured almond milk.

Twelve 250ml bottles of the bisque-coloured liquid, all unlabelled, occupy the centre table. A batch of Charcoal Lemonade, also unlabelled, lies in wait for flavour improvisation analysis.

“Would you like some?” Rakyan asks, offering a cup of almond milk.

“Sure.”

“What do you think?” he asks as I take a sip. “Would you pay for it?”

Dates. That’s the predominant flavour. Would I pay for it? Yes. But how much?

“I like it. Almond milk is a blank slate otherwise.”

“Hmm. I’ll meet you outside. If you stay here longer, you’ll have to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement),” he jokes.

Since its inception in 2013, Rakyan’s Raw Pressery, the flagship brand of Mumbai-based Rakyan Beverages Pvt. Ltd, has raised Rs 183.5 crore ($25.8 million) from Sequoia Capital, Saama Capital, DSG Consumer Partners and Alteria Capital. It’s extended its ‘clean label’ (all-natural, cold-pressed, sugar-free) from juices, cleanses and smoothies to nut milk and ready-to-drink soups. Coming soon: probiotic drinks and “alkaline water”.

The irony of ‘disruption’ is that one man’s revolution becomes another’s establishment. This also applies to packaged foods. Brands that threaten the status quo always, whether inadvertently or not, become leaders in their cubbyholes. It’s the nature of the FMCG ghoul.

Take Raw Pressery, in whose wake a gaggle of startups like Rejoov, Juro, Juice Up (now Imagine) and more hanker for your wallet. Got (almond) milk? So do some six other brands, who’ll go one up by also offering oat milk. Or milk with vanilla, straight from the bean. Milk with “spring water”.

Imagine, a brand that came to be after Raw Pressery, now claims to offer India’s first cold-pressed probiotic juice. How else could it set itself apart? Raw Pressery noticed, and wants to make its presence felt in the segment.

The quest to differentiate, however, can go to naught if you overlook one tenet: the road to a consumer’s heart is not through the stomach. It’s through the tongue—even when you’re a brand that prioritises health over mere flavour. People may not want refined sugar, but they also don’t want their tongues invaded by chlorophyll and little else.

The road to a consumer’s heart is through the tongue — even when you’re a brand that prioritises health over mere flavour

Enter food technology, flavour innovation and product development. Weapons of choice in the never-ending war among FMCG companies, and the crack teams of food scientists in their employ.

At Raw Pressery, Shuja Ahmed, head of product and R&D, is the one who plumbs the depths of the brand’s ingredients lists. He’s the bridge between flavour and functionality, the one who can explain why their almond milk range contains only 5.1-7.5% almonds.

AUTHOR

Roshni Nair

Roshni P. Nair joins us from Reuters, where she was an online producer. With a background in weekend features at Hindustan Times and DNA, Roshni has written on subjects ranging from India’s amateur UFO investigators to the provenance of sambhar. When not pursuing story ideas, she enjoys reading, making a great cuppa adrak chai, playing with street dogs, and avoiding large gatherings. Roshni will work out of Mumbai and can be reached at roshni at the rate the-ken.com

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