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An avid ultramarathoner, Bill Shufelt gave up drinking alcohol in 2013 when he realized that happy hours and hangovers were keeping him from performing his best at work and on the trails.
Tired of sipping on Diet Coke and cranberry sodas at weddings, restaurants, and other social gatherings, Shufelt realized he might not be the only one frustrated by the limited nonalcoholic options for health-conscious adults with sophisticated palates—so he decided to create one.
In 2017, Shufelt founded Athletic Brewing, the name a nod to his dual passions for fitness and quality beers. And the timing couldn’t have been better. Over the past few years, even occasional imbibers have been pressing pause on their alcohol consumption, with the number of “sober curious” drinkers and abstinence challenges like Sober October and Dry January rapidly growing in popularity.
Initially launching with just two beers—the still best-selling Run Wild IPA and Upside Dawn Golden Ale—the brand now boasts 61% of the country’s nonalcoholic beer market and counts 2021 Olympic marathon bronze medalist Molly Seidel among its fans.
Here’s how the former hedge fund trader built the country’s leading nonalcoholic craft beer company.
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Perfecting the Athletic Brewing formula
A graduate of Vermont’s Middlebury College, Shufelt had long been a fan of craft breweries like Otter Creek Brewing and Magic Hat Brewing Company. But when he gave up drinking, he found the nonalcoholic options at the time lacked “the innovation and interesting flavors” he had come to love in his favorite boozy brews.
Pouring over brewing textbooks at night and on weekends and chatting up German nonalcoholic beer makers, Shufelt eventually quit his day job in finance in 2017 and teamed up with award-winning brewer John Walker, formerly of Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The duo brewed hundreds of batches on home equipment for several months to perfect their formula. The result? A self-described “sophisticated, sessionable beer” with less than 0.5% ABV, which qualifies it as “nonalcoholic” (NA).
While they are tight-lipped about their exact process, Shufelt says it varies from traditional brewing by at least 10 steps and credits Athletic Brewing’s all-organic base malt with giving their products the “nuance, esthers, and aromas of the most highly-awarded alcoholic craft beers.”
The brand officially launched its 10,000 square-foot Stratford, Connecticut, taproom and brewery—the first dedicated to NA beer in the country—in May 2018 with two beers: a fruity and hazy IPA and a gluten-free version of a traditional golden ale. Light and refreshing, the beers in their roster are between 50 and 85 calories each, appealing to discerning abstainers and mindful drinkers alike.
Athletic was also on the front end of the no-and-low alcoholic spirits boom, a now $1 trillion dollar global industry expected to grow to $1.44 trillion by 2025.
As Shufelt explains, when the brand launched, not only did the United States lag behind other countries like Germany and China in NA beer production and consumption, but the options that did exist were mass-produced, tasteless, and relegated to the back shelves of supermarkets.
Athletic Brewing filled a void in the market at a time when consumer interest in wellness-focused products was at an all-time high, and due to its NA category, the brand can sell directly to consumers online. (E-commerce sales, which include all 50 states as well as Australia, Canada, the European Union, and the United Kingdom, account for 40 to 60% of overall sales.)
Add in a savvy ambassador program that includes high-profile athletes like Seidel and Ironman vet Ben Hoffman, strategic partnerships with events like the Spartan Races and the AVP Beach Volleyball tournament, and Athletic could barely keep pace with demand in its first two years, maxing out production at its 10,000-barrel facility in Stratford.
And it’s still growing.
With a roster of more than 50 beers, ranging from rich stouts and porters to sour goses and crisp pilsners, Athletic’s sales were up 500% in 2020, prompting them to open a second brewery in San Diego with 18 times the production capacity of its original outpost that spring. Another 150,000-barrel location in Connecticut is set to open in 2022.
As its footprint expands, so does Athletic Brewing’s commitment to healthy living beyond its beers. Via the “Two for the Trails” grant program, the company donates 2% of all sales dollars—a total of $300,000 in 2020—to support eco-friendly and outdoor causes. Past grantees include the Appalachian Trail, the American Hiking Society, and the Green Mountain Club and Long Trail System.
Of their company’s success, Shufelt says “we just wanted to brew the beer we wanted to drink, and it turns out there were lots of other drinkers looking to moderate or abstain from their alcohol consumption. Athletic provides a socially acceptable alternative for drinkers who aren’t imbibing for a month, a night, or just one drink.”