Alcohol and Fitness? How One Unique Brewery Is Bridging the Gap
The practice known as Dry January is a trendy way to hit the reset button as a new year begins. Abstaining from alcohol for the entirety of the month can give your body a fresh start, and for those making fitness resolutions, doing so can unlock better results not just in the gym, but with wellness in general.
From improved sleep cycles to better dieting habits, cognitive function and more, there are plenty of perks that can come from putting down the bottle. Yet, for most of us, it can be difficult to foresee an entire booze-free year when thinking about all the weddings, friendly gatherings, game days and stressful work weeks ahead.
Let’s face it. Alcohol and social settings are in a strong marriage, and it can be difficult to overcome the stigmas surrounding non-alcoholic options, even if it means sacrificing some of your training potential. Additionally, for beer enthusiasts, finding a worthwhile alternative to your once hoppy standbys can be a struggle — fountain drinks and water just don’t hit quite the same spot, especially when everyone around you is enjoying a crisp, hearty pint.
Choosing to live a more sober lifestyle can be a huge change of pace for some athletes, but in this day and age, that switch is easier and more accepted than ever. Non-alcoholic beer sales are reaching historic highs thanks to better options and greater awareness. These booze-free brews aren’t stashed in the back of the distributor’s fridge anymore, and a big reason is the success of one brewery: Stratford, Connecticut’s Athletic Brewing Company.
Crafting tasty non-alcoholic beers for the sake of reimagining the way we look at our drink of choice, this once-small operation has grown tremendously since founders Bill Shufelt and John Walker got started in 2017. According to the 2022 Nielsen Report on non-alcoholic beverage consumption, Athletic Brewing is recognized as the top contributor to non-alcoholic growth ranked by absolute dollar change — which is quite the feat considering non-alcoholic beer makes up 85.3 percent of sales, worth $328.6 million, in a non-alcoholic drink market that’s seen a year-over-year growth of 20.6 percent.
But this brewery isn’t solely focused on giving fitness enthusiasts a suds-free way to celebrate a well-executed workout or a completed marathon. No, the backstory of Athletic Brewing spans far beyond gym walls and race routes.
We tapped Shufelt to discuss the brand’s roots, as well as the rising popularity of the non-alcoholic beverage market as a whole. Here’s the heavy pour on how one of the most popular non-alcoholic breweries came to be, its innovative beer-making process and how it’s rewriting the social constructs surrounding drinking.
A Light Bulb Moment
Back in 2012, Shufelt’s career was vastly different than it is today. Working in finance at one of the world’s biggest hedge funds, he had to be mindful of how much drinking he partook in, as the job requirements included a laser focus and accountability every day, down to the second.
“But I had work dinners probably three of four nights a week. and then things with friends, family on the other nights, weekends,” he says. “And so, in any given week I was looking at six or seven drinking occasions.”
Around this time, Shufelt was also embarking on his love affair with fitness (he jokingly says this occurred after playing football at Middlebury College). Running longer and longer distances with each training session, he took the plunge into ultramarathons in 2013, and decided to abstain from drinking leading up to his first race. Between his daily tasks in finance and a rigorous fitness regimen, he didn’t wish to give alcohol the chance to affect his sleep, diet and cognitive function — which we know the substance can do.
That decision to sober up for the race, according to Shufelt, was the big light bulb moment that set him on the course leading to today.
“I was sleeping through the night,” he recalls. “I was eating well, I felt great. I was razor sharp at work, I had no problem ever hitting the alarm at 5 o’clock and getting right out of bed. When I removed alcohol, it was like it took this performance ceiling off my life.”
While Shufelt enjoyed the performance benefits and wellness boost he saw with sobriety, there were still those weekly work events and gatherings, and it wasn’t the alcohol he longed for, but the experience: “I was going to sports bars, restaurants and everything, but what I was missing was something in my hand that was delicious, that was a great meal pairing.”
He also had an underlying suspicion that his experience with non-alcoholic options and the ostracizing social scenarios wasn’t unique to him, and after conducting some research, Shufelt discovered his theory held merit. He found that 50 percent of adults don’t drink with any regularity, and 30 percent of adults abstain from alcohol completely.
“So, I was just thinking a huge subset of the adult population is totally on the outside of these great social occasions, work occasions and even just like weeknight routines and meal pairings,” he explains. “It was just this sort of small idea that emerged authentically out of my lifestyle, and once I started researching it, I realized, ‘Wow, there has been no work, no innovation and this enormous potential opportunity hiding in plain sight.'”
Planning for a Revolution
With research and personal experience on his side, Shufelt began business planning in 2014 for what would become Athletic Brewing. It wasn’t an easy transition to make, though; non-alcoholic options weren’t as prevalent or prosperous as they are today, leading some to caution him about investing too much in an industry seeing very low sales numbers. Yet Shufelt saw the potential, and wanted to champion the idea of good adult beverages that could be enjoyed by everyone.
“Before I left my job [in finance], I was surveying,” he notes. “Non-alcoholic beer was 0.3 percent of the overall beer market. But every time I would run the survey asking people if they would drink a great non-alcoholic beer, about 55 percent of adults said they would with some regularity. Between that 55 percent and the 0.3 percent, there’s a huge gulf that the market was missing, so I definitely knew that there was a really potentially explosive opportunity there.”
But to ignite that explosion, you can’t just do what others have done and slap a shiny label on a less-than-stellar product — a fact Shufelt realized from the start. No, this journey needed a fresh and innovative take, so he sought out Santa Fe-based brewmaster (and future Athletic Brewing co-founder) John Walker, challenging him to create an entirely new way to brew non-alcoholic beer. Through multiple home brewing test runs and trials, the two landed on a proprietary setup that allows Athletic Brewing to create flavorful profiles that maintain the mouthfeel and taste of traditional beer — aspects that can be robbed from other NA options simply due to the production process.
To make traditional non-alcoholic beer, brands typically contract out to different facilities, brewing alcoholic beer and then stripping the alcohol at the end, either via vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis. This can leave drinkers with a concoction that lacks body and carries a metallic, less desirable flavor profile. To achieve better-tasting results, Shufelt, Walker and co. keep everything in-house across their multiple brewing locations — one in San Diego and two in Connecticut, capable of producing millions of cases annually — flipping the brewing process on its head with adjustments in key areas like ingredient selection, packaging, natural variables and more.
The brewing process is still patent-pending, so there’s plenty of secrets surrounding how Athletic’s brews taste so much better (giving major Willy Wonka vibes) but Shufelt has said that the de-alcoholization equipment commonly used in vacuum distillation or reverse osmosis is not present in Athletic Brewing’s setup, instead replaced with a cornucopia of natural elements. The traditional water, hops, yeast and barley are still in each recipe, with key variables and times tweaked to achieve an alcohol-free final product.
Whatever the brewing process, it appears the team knows what they’re doing. Athletic Brewing has won multiple awards for its efforts, achieving success across the lineup. For example, the brewery’s Run Wild IPA has won gold as the U.S. Open of Beer in 2020, 2021 and 2022, “Best Non-Alcoholic Beer USA” at the World Beer Awards and bronze at the 2021 International Beer Challenge. Upside Dawn Golden, another year-round offering, has claimed a gold medal at the 2021 International Beer Challenge, silver at the 2020 Best of Craft Beer Awards and was named the “Best USA Gluten Reduced” at the 2021 World Beer Awards.
“I think both the differentiated process and that we make it all ourselves in our own breweries with our own team really shows up in the awards we’ve won,” Shufelt says.
With the hardware to prove its quality — as well as a library of well over a dozen NA beer styles that rivals many craft breweries — the team has the backend of brewing down. But an award-winning lineup is only fruitful if people begin to adopt the non-alcoholic lifestyle, which is the constant challenge Athletic Brewing faces. Thankfully, for both business and wellness sake, more and more athletes and beer aficionados are getting on board.
Crushing the Stigma
The thinking used to be that non-alcoholic beer was only for recovering alcoholics. Athletic Brewing is rewriting that book, proving that in actuality, non-alcoholic beer is for anyone, anytime.
“Most people drink one day a week. We wanted to give people great beer they can drink any night of the week,” Shufelt says. “There’s all these really unexpected reward occasions where you’re like, ‘This is amazing, I can have a good beer right now.'”
“Another thing, we call it a six-pack challenge. We encourage people to put a 6-pack of our Run Wild IPA in their fridge and they’ll be shocked at how much faster they drink that than an alcoholic six-pack next to it.”
When you stop and think about it, he has a point. You can’t exactly crack open a cold one in the middle of the workday, considering the potential side effects that can inhibit your afternoon. But a non-alcoholic beer? There are no bounds. Shufelt encourages those “sober curious” individuals to give NA beer a try in different scenarios, from the golf course to the boat dock to your work desk and more. There really are no limitations, allowing anyone to enjoy that hoppy beverage without the typical consequences.
Plus, the beers are much lower in calories than you’d see in a traditional craft brew. A typical IPA can range between 200 and 300 calories, depending on ABV, while Run Wild IPA comes in at just 65 per 12-ounce can. For light beers, you can expect about 100 calories per bottle or can, but Athletic has that market slimmed down, too, thanks to the brand’s 25-calorie Athletic Lite. These low-cal numbers showcase how easy it can be to choose one Athletic’s offerings, eliminating some of the dietary guilt you might feel when reaching for your standard suds.
Of course, it’s one thing to tell someone to try a product, quite another to get them to realize it’s actually available. As the trend of non-alcoholic living continues to grow, so do Athletic’s marketing efforts. The brewery holds key partnerships with organizations like USA Triathlon, Ironman and the Association of Volleyball Professionals — and has even gotten into the all-too-vital beer commercial game, with clever campaigns starring NFL veteran JJ Watt.
Still, Shufelt isn’t above just packing a cooler full of brews and taking off to a race or the beach to hand out. “We’re really trying to meet people in their own communities,” he says. “We tend to just bring beer to races that we were going to run anyway. It’s fun to just put a beer in someone’s hand and change their mind about non-alcoholic beer.”
It’s also worth noting that the brand isn’t trying to cater solely to sober people. “Eighty percent of our customers do drink alcohol at other times during the week or during the month,” Shufelt says. “One of the biggest things is that you don’t have to be making a lifelong pledge of sobriety to enjoy great beer on a Tuesday night anymore.”
As someone that falls into that 80 percent of sober-light athletes, I can attest to the uniqueness and breath of fresh air Athletic Brewing can bring to your drinking habits. I’ve tried all of the brand’s year-round offerings and have yet to find a bad batch in the mix. The flavor is unlike any previous NA offering I’ve tested, with Upside Dawn being my go-to for a midweek meal pairing or post-workout treat. The flavor notes of citrus and honey definitely come through and resemble its alcoholic counterparts, without any of the negative effects or thoughts if I decide to grab a second.
I’ve been lucky enough, too, that my local distributor keeps Athletic Brewing in stock, but online sales are also a convenient option for times when I want to expand my non-alcoholic palette with one of the brand’s seasonal tastes. The only problem I’ve run into with Athletic Brewing? There’s no case offering — though I’m happy to keep stocking up on six packs.
Looking Toward the Future
Athletic Brewing could rest on its literal laurels, continuing to produce high-quality beverages and following the same marketing strategy that’s landed them among the top five most popular non-alcoholic options in America, per Nielsen. As with a well-structured workout routine, though, you eventually need to add some weight and growth — even if you stick with the tried-and-trusted regimen.
“Really, we’re looking to do a lot of the same stuff we’re doing, just at bigger scale,” Shufelt says. “Right now, our products only have about 15 percent distribution penetration nationally, and our awareness is probably still at 10 or 20 percent. So, we’re trying to just get award-winning beers in the hands of a lot more people who we know are going to enjoy them.”
Thanks to a growing interest in non-alcoholic lifestyles — and a recent investment from Keurig Dr. Pepper — it doesn’t seem as if Athletic Brewing will have any trouble filling more coolers anytime soon. And for those embarking on their first Dry January this year, Athletic Brewing has partnered with popular fitness tracker WHOOP in a “Give Dry a Try” Challenge, embracing the opportunity for sober interest and providing athletes with a unique chance to enjoy going dry like never before.
From authentic epiphany to award-winning brewery, the Athletic Brewing story is one to behold. So, whether you decide to abstain for a month, a year or a lifetime, know that at least one operation is more than willing to supplement your glass — without the side effects or negative health implications. Just crisp, tasty beverages worthy of a toast.