Despite the Covid pandemic wreaking havoc with life as we knew it for the best part of two and a half years, thankfully there has been the odd silver lining story to enjoy.
One such example is that of Haelu, a non-alcoholic functional drinks brand, co-founded by local residents Stuart Coleman and Jamie Kelly along with Stuart’s brother Rod.
If you haven’t spotted the trendy metallic cans which sport a pretty navy and floral motif lining the shelves of hospitality hotspots in Tunbridge Wells such as the Old Auction House, The Allotment, Chapel Place and Even Flow, then chances are you soon will as the two varieties available – Salerno Spritz and Havana Heat – are proving to be incredibly popular since their official launch in March this year.
I’m meeting Haelu’s co-founder Stuart Coleman at another of its key stockists – the Tunbridge Wells Hotel on The Pantiles – in order to discover more about this success story which was borne out of a desire to drink less alcohol but still have fun doing so.
I’d previously tried one of Haelu’s drinks – the Salerno Spritz – at a social gathering a few weeks ago and couldn’t believe there wasn’t any alcohol in it as it tasted and even looked like an Aperol Spritz.
“Well that’s good to hear,” smiles Stuart before telling me that since the brand launched they’ve received lots of positive feedback.
He explains that the catalyst for the non-alcoholic functional drinks brand spawned from the initial lockdown in March 2020.
“Like a lot of people we were drinking every night in order to soothe the pain of the pandemic but I had also lost my events business, so in a way creating something was done pretty much out of necessity.”
Stuart says that initially he, Jamie and Rod had set up a charity – in just four weeks – with the aim of feeding front line NHS workers. But the plug was pulled at the eleventh hour by MTW NHS Trust.
“The idea felt like such a good thing to do we decided to set up a business together.
“We’d been drinking two or three glasses of wine a night and were all wanting to become healthier so we thought why don’t we create a drink that makes you feel good, but without the hangover? And that’s where it all started.”
Stuart says they were put in contact with a company called Alkemista and spent 18 months working with them to perfect the product.
“When I look back at the start of Haelu it was about creating a product that helped people moderate their drinking – and to be happy.”
“The guy who started Alkemista used to be Head of Innovations at Diageo so he knows what he’s doing. We presented them with our market research, and our desired flavour profile – which was citrus based – and they went away and created the recipes”
But Stuart adds the vision for Haelu extended to more than formulating a non-alcoholic drink. Its founders wanted to also create what’s known in the ‘No and Low’ sector of the industry as a ‘functional’ drink.
“There are two sides to Haelu: there’s the flavour side of it and the functional aspect of it. This is what we call the Haelu Happi formula which was created to stimulate people’s happy hormones thanks to a slew of natural and botanical ingredients.
“We have 11 in the mix including key adaptogens such as ashwagandha and lemon balm which are natural relaxants. Then we have five types of Vitamin B, Vitamin D and iron. We’re hoping that the next drink we create will have the super mineral magnesium in it.
“All of these have either been used in Ayurvedic or Chinese medicine for thousands of years – or there’s scientific evidence that proves their efficacy in reducing anxiety or enhancing people’s moods.
“The effect we wanted to replicate was when you have an alcoholic drink you feel calm, happy, relaxed and sociable. So we also worked with a herbologist who came up with this selection of adaptagens, minerals and vitamins which in turn naturally stimulate endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin without the need for alcohol.
And how, I ask Stuart, did the name Haelu come about? “A friend of ours who is an English teacher came up with it. It’s actually an ancient Anglo Saxon word which means health. People believed if you lived in harmony with the world around you then you’d be filled up with ‘haelu’ and if you didn’t then your haelu would diminish and you’d get ill.
Currently Haelu boasts nearly 30 stockists, the majority of which are local. So has the town been receptive to the brand? “Amazingly so, if the world was Tunbridge Wells I’d be a millionaire within a couple of months!”
Elsewhere Haelu is stocked in various venues in Brighton and Surrey and it’s slowly gaining a firm footing in London. “We’re already in a place on the Kings Road and are about to do a trial with a couple of Fullers’ London bars – one in Greenwich and one in the City,” says Stuart.
“We also worked with a herbologist who came up with this selection of adaptagens, minerals and vitamins which in turn naturally stimulate endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin without the need for alcohol.”
Having spoken at length it’s clear there’s a well thought through and interesting narrative behind this drinks brand I tell him.
“When I look back at the start of Haelu it was about creating a product that helped people moderate their drinking – and to be happy. The money’s nice but it’s not the thing that ultimately drives us.”
Whilst Stuart is the only person on a full-time salary, he is enormously grateful to his colleagues for their commitment.
“Jamie is working without a salary, my brother Rod has a full-time job and is doing this around that. Rod’s wife Cliona, who does our marketing, is on a part time salary and our Finance Director Luke Moscrop is giving up his day off every week to make this work. It’s humbling to be with a team of people who are so committed to making this a success.”