Athletic Brewing Just Reinvented Beer
What sets Athletic’s award-winning craft brews apart? They prove that you don’t need to compromise on taste or your health to enjoy great beer.
When you pull up to Athletic Brewing Company’s taproom in Stratford, Connecticut, you’ll see a familiar scene: a warehouse flanked by a large fermentation tank and a scattering of picnic tables crowded with folks drinking beer. But there’s one key difference: the beer everyone’s drinking is non-alcoholic.
Live Without CompromiseAthletic reinvented beer with an uncompromising approach to brewing. Turns out, that same approach to living can help you live your best life.
“Non-alcoholic beer has always been this penalty box, what you drink when you can’t participate,” said founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing Company, Bill Shufelt. “We wanted to turn that on its head and make non-alcoholic beer something that was positive—what you want to drink when you want to feel good rather than feeling like you need to turn the label around and hide it.”
The Athletic Brewing taproom is the first of its kind in the United States, and was a pretty immediate success. When the taproom opened in 2018, Shufelt was the guy behind the counter pouring beer. He served people who had driven from all over the country to visit, from as far away as Tennessee, Ohio, and Florida. In the summer of 2019, people in Massachusetts figured out what day the Athletic truck delivered to Whole Foods and Wegmans and took to intercepting it in the parking lot. The beer was selling out before it even made it to the shelves. Since the product is non-alcoholic, it can be sold online and shipped, so Athletic became the first beer company to do true e-commerce. They were selling out there, too.
“We were perpetually out of stock for the first two years,” said Shufelt. It became clear that Athletic was filling a void in the market that no one had touched for decades. “Non-alcoholic beer was this thing nobody ever wanted, and now there was a huge shortage.”
Suddenly this product that was typically brought up only as the butt of a joke had become extremely popular. At first it may seem surprising, given that alcohol is so deeply entwined with being an adult in American society. Advertisements make it appear that everyone is always drinking and that there’s room for alcohol at any and every occasion.
The vision for Athletic started as a personal pain point for Shufelt, who stopped drinking in 2013. He was about to turn 30, was working at one of the world’s biggest hedge funds, and didn’t have time to feel like crap—and he didn’t want to. At restaurants, when he’d ask about nonalcoholic beverage options, he’d be handed the kids’ menu. He wondered why not having an adult beverage meant that he had to settle for a kids’ one. There had to be a better option, right? On a walk to dinner one night, he complained to his wife that in the midst of the craft beer revolution someone should be making a better non-alcoholic beer. She grabbed his shoulder and told him that he should do it.
Athletic Brewing Company was born to address not only people’s individual decisions to cut out alcohol but also the larger problems society has with the substance—in 2016, 14 percent of deaths among people aged 20–39 were attributable to alcohol, and in 2019 there were 14.5 million people aged 12 and up with an alcohol use disorder. Shufelt wanted to offer up a solution in the form of an alternative: a beer that looked like a craft beer, with the colorful and cool cans, tasted like one, but had none of the alcohol.
“I looked at the positive impact that stopping drinking had on my life, my family, and my performance. I saw that many adults basically don’t drink. We could include those people in social situations and make them feel comfortable,” he said. “And if we can help make moderation easier or more socially acceptable, rather than this anonymous shameful place, then I thought there was just an unbelievable amount of good that can be done for people’s health and overall happiness.”
But at the beginning, says Shufelt, the interest around a company aiming to reinvent the non-alcoholic beer scene “was definitely less than zero.” The industry wasn’t seeing a demand for non-alcoholic beer (the same options had existed for decades), but Shufelt did an informal survey and found that 50 percent of consumers had a willingness to at least try it. The process of trying to find someone to help him make the beer was arduous, too. He got rejected by more than 200 brewers until John Walker, an award-winning brewer at Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, reached out.
“He was the only one who was excited about the innovation challenge. I could immediately tell the wheels were turning,” said Shufelt. “He saw that we could have a positive impact on the relationship with drinking in this country.”
Walker, a co-founder of Athletic, immediately moved his family to Connecticut to work with Shufelt. In mid-2017, after some 50 batches spent trying to perfect the recipe, they finally had something that tasted like real craft beer—what would become the Upside Dawn Golden Ale. With that, Shufelt found investors and built the Connecticut taproom around that first beer. To raise awareness about the product, he started going to races he was going to run anyway—obstacle races and half marathons—and pouring beer. Within 10 months Athletic had outgrown the Connecticut taproom they thought they’d be in for five years. They added a huge San Diego location to keep up with West Coast demand and have grown to a team of 150 employees.
“This company didn’t grow out of a marketing department. We’re at trailheads and everywhere people are having a good time and happy and sweaty. We want to incorporate non-alcoholic beer into those moments,” said Shufelt. Molly Seidel, one of the company’s ambassadors, just won a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics in the marathon. “Our whole mission is to positively impact the health, happiness, and activity of our customers and then their communities and the environment.”
Their mission is resonating with people, and now, following Athletic’s lead, dozens of brands have started creating non-alcoholic beers.
“It’s awesome because it helps knock down the stigma of non-alcoholic beer,” said Shufelt. “We’re excited to help build the category. And seeing how the second we put our beer on the shelf it just started flying off, I think that signals how big a part of the beer world this is going to be in the future.”
At Athletic Brewing Company, we are pioneering a craft revolution. We believe you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your ability to be at your best to enjoy great beer – so, we created our innovative lineup of refreshing, non-alcoholic craft brews.