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Kiwi drinks company Alcohol-Free (AF) sets sights on US market

06 Mar 2023 9:14 AM | Mike Hearn (Administrator)

Kiwi-based non-alcoholic drinks company Alcohol-Free (AF) is launching across the United States this April.

Founder Lisa King said the company has “just done a really soft launch online” on its website and Amazon US, and is now preparing for its launch with premium US grocery retailer Sprouts Farmers Market.

Set to market in the US as Free AF, King says, “We very much play to the meme. Sometimes we’re called curious AF, sometimes it could be sexy AF or posh AF. We wanted to make it really fun and not boring.”

King told the Herald: “From April 1, we are going to be arranged in almost 400 stores nationwide in the US.”

She said AF will be sold at 393 of Sprouts’ 400 outlets across America. She says Sprouts is similar to NZ-based grocery retailers Farro Fresh and Moore Wilson’s.

“That’s a really massive win for us,” King said.

Sprouts is an Arizona-based retailer that attracts smaller, health-focused suppliers in the US including food startups. The company reported US$1.6 billion in total sales in its latest quarterly earnings last November.

Kings said US retailers are “where New Zealand supermarkets were a couple of years ago”, having limited options for non-alcoholic drinks.

“AF will be one of the first products that they will stock in this new category.”

She said: “We always wanted it to be a global brand, and so the way we’ve kind of designed it and the business model around it was to always take it beyond New Zealand.”

AF drinks are available at most supermarkets in Aotearoa and on their website coming in at around $45 for a 12-pack of 250ml cans.

King said the AF team first visited the US last June to gauge the market.

“There was this big opportunity. There weren’t many products like ours and the supermarkets hadn’t quite got into it and so we just saw this window for us to get in there,” King said.

“Only six months ago, we were standing in LA with no plans. Now we’ve just made our first production of AF over there before Christmas.”

AF launched the Curious AF Bottle Shop in Ponsonby last year, which King said was initially a pop-up store.

She said the store gave Kiwis access to global brands “people hadn’t seen in New Zealand before”.

“There were alcohol-free beers, wines that actually taste decent, champagne, spirits.”

“We actually went and tasted about a hundred different products from around the world and we curated the best 30 and bought them in,” King said.

She said: “That was so popular that everyone asked us to make [the store] permanent. And so we opened up a permanent shop on Crummer Rd in November.”

“I’m still quite surprised with just the amount of people that are coming,” King said.

King started AF after she stopped drinking alcohol a few years ago.

“I was really missing my gin and tonic and I could see this trend was happening overseas, particularly in places like the UK,” she said.

King said the “sober curiosity movement” was gaining traction internationally and saw an opportunity to fill the gap in the market at home with products “that just tasted really good, were really complex, and not highly filled with sugar”.

“I just thought something that was ready to drink, really convenient, tasted really good and sophisticated was missing in the market, so it became a bit of a lockdown project,” King said.

She said a factor in the brand’s success is their pioneering Afterglow ingredient which AF’s website says “is a 100 per cent natural botanical extract that mimics the pleasant warmth of drinking alcohol without the alcohol”.

King said: “Afterglow is really unique in making you feel like you are actually drinking something alcoholic.”

She said her team has focused on food science and reconstructing the “depth and texture” of alcohol in their products.

“When you take alcohol out of something, it tastes quite thin and watery so we knew we needed something to give you that kind of complexity and mouth feel,” King said.


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