Cheers! Creating the best in alcohol-free drinks

Anna Chalov and Nataliya Peretrutova, above, founded Bemuse in 2021. Here, they tell us how they went from start-up to success and begin by telling us what inspired them to set up the company

Bemuse was established from a shared passion to create a new alcohol-free drink that challenged existing perceptions and encouraged people to ‘Bee Inspired to Drink Differently’. Our experience was that the non-alcoholic drinks category was dominated by beer, sugar-rich sodas or options that had little depth or taste and we wanted to work with natural ingredients to develop a delicious drink with more complexity and which had none of the negative health implications of some of the other alcohol-free alternatives.

As often happens with the arrival of children, we both drank our share of low alcohol drinks but were disappointed with the options available to us – in both numbers and quality. We regularly had to resort to the traditional choices of juices, lemonade, tonic water or sugary-sweet alternatives. Even as children get older and a sober lifestyle is no longer a necessity, it became obvious that as modern women with an active and positive outlook there was little space for alcohol consumption and subsequent recovery. Whether it’s quality family time, productive work meetings, efficient gym workout, or immersive artistic experience, it is important to have your senses working 100%, be in control of your body and mind and be able to live your life fully.

From there, our passion for the natural world was the catalyst for developing Bemuse as we wanted to create a full-flavoured non-alcoholic drink that responded to the consumer demand for healthier lifestyles and one that balances everyday life with nature. Production of an award-winning product with great flavour is a big enough challenge at any time, but we chose to do it from different countries during lockdown with all our research, testing and development conducted remotely.

Tell us more about mead. Why did you focus on that? 

Mead is thought to be the world’s oldest alcoholic drink, with natural honey fermentation recorded over thousands of years and there is evidence of brewing mead in its simplest form through fermentation of honey and water in ancient Greece and China and everywhere in between. It offers great versatility and can be light or rich, sweet or dry, or sparkling and in the Middle Ages mead was often served in the same way that we might drink sparkling table wine today. Its simplicity made mead a popular drink in Celtic and Anglo Saxon culture and it features in the Old English classic poem, Beowulf.

Traditionally, mead was drunk by newlyweds during the month-long celebrations following their marriage, supposedly creating the term ‘honeymoon’. Despite losing popularity to a new generation of beverages, such as cider, perry, grape wines and spirits, often inspired by overseas expeditions mead has been making a comeback in the last 10-20 years. After extensive research we identified that non-alcoholic mead was the best fit for our brief of creating a natural, healthy product that provided a delicious tasting drink with depth and complexity that would appeal to a wide group of consumers. The reimagination of mead for today’s consumer was an unfamiliar innovation but became our preferred development route, creating an innovative and unique drinks category in the process.

How did you two meet? What do each of you bring to the business? 

We met through mutual friends when based in Amsterdam and realised we had many shared interests, most notably a thirst for finding out more about the world around us. We find stimulation through exploration at museums, shows and events and learn from nature, loving the energy and stimulation of being outside to reconnect with nature.

As the low and no-alcohol movement started to gain momentum, we were excited to see modern technologies emerging which allowed production of high-quality substitutes for alcohol. We started giving a lot of thought to innovation that would give consumers a premium drink with a complex taste palate but without the negative consequences of alcohol and knew that our combined business experience could be augmented by specialists in certain areas we were less familiar with.

Nataliya has worked in new product development in different markets for over 20 years either as an individual or in a project team including many well-known alcohol & soft drinks companies who were developing new flavours, formats and packaging. Combined with Anna’s experience in start-up banking we believed we could explore the opportunities in sophisticated low-alcohol beverages by bringing our expertise together to look at the market creatively.

As friends first and foremost, our vision has always been to form a team which will grow by nurturing our shared interests, understanding and an ethical approach to business. We discuss ideas and opinions openly, making decisions together and constantly seek inspiration to develop a successful breakthrough brand.

You recently launched a funding round. How do you hope that will work? 

Research shows that alcohol is not part of 29% of pub and 37% of restaurant visits and a third of people in the UK are now teetotal, with consumption of low and no alcohol drinks expected to rise by a third globally by 2026.

As we approach Bemuse’s second anniversary it is satisfying to see how the brand has become established, with a strong network of B2C stockists, a string of awards and rave reviews to its name and on-track to achieve its long-term growth ambitions.

From this solid base that acknowledges quality and demand, crowdfunding investment will enable us to employ and grow the team, particularly strengthening our sales capacity. This will enhance our profile and presence to obtain new listings in more outlets in on and off-trade, and online and secure new partnerships. But this is only the beginning in the resurrection of mead! Our crowdfunding closed 138% invested and we are already planning the implementation of our recruitment and growth strategy.

You have recently agreed a distribution deal in the Netherlands. How did that come about? 

We believe that there is a huge opportunity for international growth due to the unique nature of Bemuse and the world-wide interest in alcohol-free drinks that are both tasty and support a healthy lifestyle. Bemuse has ongoing dialogue with potential partners in North America, Asia, Europe and Australia and has already secured distribution in the Netherlands.

We met when we were both based in Amsterdam and Nataliya is still based in the Netherlands so we have extensive contacts in the region. This was, therefore, a natural place for our second market once Bemuse was launched in the UK and has already established a loyal and passionate group of advocates for the brand.

You’ve won a few awards along the way. Tell us about them.

The strength of Bemuse is reflected in the diversity of awards the range has been recognised in. Bemuse was named the Best low or no-alcohol drink and Best sparkling drink at the World Beverage Innovation Awards soon after launch in 2023 and was also a finalist in the Best beverage concept and Best packaging design categories.

For taste, Bemuse has been a finalist in two rounds of the Free From Awards and claimed two silver and two bronze medals in the IWSC taste awards. At the Global Masters Spring Tasting Awards 2022, Bemuse was awarded one gold and three silver medals and a further gold was received for quality at the London International Honey Awards 2022.

Our business achievements have also been successful, as a finalist in the Food & Drink Federation Awards 2022 for brand launch of the year and with Anna being named as one of the Highly Commended (top 10) Daily Telegraph 100 female entrepreneurs to watch.

What advice would you give any people who are thinking about starting their own business?

Do everything you can to make it happen and don’t have any regrets about what you could have achieved. Once you have the germ of an idea about a potential business opportunity do all the research you can – on consumer demand for your product or service, competitors, innovation in the space and future growth potential.

Speak to everyone you can to get help and advice and draw on the expertise of those with knowledge and experience of your sector or the support services you will require – finance, marketing, production and so on. Ensure you have the finances to get established, create a robust business plan and keep revisiting it to make sure that it remains fit for purpose.

Surround yourself with people who will encourage and support you – through the good and difficult times – and make sure that, although you give it your best, it doesn’t take over your life completely.

Where do you hope the business will be in, say, five or ten years?

When we created Bemuse we wanted to establish a different way of building business – one that it is not only about profit, but which has ethical values that drive a sustainable and responsible operation to support our team, suppliers, customers and the world around us. We believe in providing a flexible working environment that empowers our team to be the best they can and which draws from biomimicry, enabling enterprise and the natural world to learn from and support each other.

Our company culture empowers everyone, but has a particular focus on women who have so often had to compromise their career development for the sake of their family. We explore creative solutions for the team to be more time efficient and this has been relatively straightforward for a small team but as we implement our expansion plans, we know that it will be harder and more resource will be given to offer the support, motivation and flexibility that we want to achieve.

Our recent crowdfunding success will enable us to execute our growth strategy and expand our network to secure a rounded business model. By implementing our business plan we expect Bemuse to secure listings in major supermarkets and become established in some major pub groups, as well as independent outlets. The low and no alcohol drinks market is expected to keep growing year on year and, having created a unique category, Bemuse will continue to spearhead the innovation in providing a wider range of delicious non-alcoholic drinks that offer consumer choice within an environment that supports a healthy lifestyle and the natural world.