Trail Running’s Newest Startup Is a Gluten-Friendly, Athlete-Driven Brewery

When Caitlin Looney got sick during a race and learned she was gluten intolerant, she immediately went looking for a gluten-free beer.

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When your body makes you suffer for ingesting gluten, it’s not just gluten-based foods you start to miss but also gluten-based culture: grabbing a late-night slice, breaking from work for donuts or birthday cake, ending a group run at a favorite brewpub. And so when, three years ago, Caitlin Looney got terribly sick during a Ragnar Relay in California, spent the night in a hospital and learned she had an intolerance to gluten, she immediately went looking for a gluten-free beer that she could drink at trail runs and races.

She didn’t find one. Gluten-free options were often not available, and, even where they were, Looney was faced with a bigger problem. Simply, “Nothing tasted good.”

“Brewing with sorghum and buckwheat and potato is all well and fine,” she says, “but it just doesn’t taste like beer.”

Looney’s husband was hearing her complaint a lot. Eventually, he paid for her to attend beer-making classes, as a birthday present but also as a challenge: If you’re complaining about what’s out there, why don’t you try to do better?

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To make a beer that can call itself “gluten-free” in the United States, naturally gluten-free grains must be used. Typically, that means sorghum, sometimes in combination with millet, rice or other ingredients. But the taste of such grains inevitably differs from that of the traditional barley and wheat. Sorghum-based beers can come out tasting at once harsh and sweet, as if someone had blended hard cider with a sour.

There’s something of a workaround, though: a chemical process that breaks down the gluten in beer that has been brewed from wheat or barley. The gluten content falls below the F.D.A.-mandated threshold, and the beer still tastes like beer. (Beer produced this way carries a different label—“crafted to remove gluten”—and some gluten-intolerance sufferers say it still affects them. As with most things, no two gluten sensitivities are the same.) This is the process that Looney began using.

Home brewing was addictive. Looney, who is 33 and lives in the Bay Area, attended workshops in San Francisco, and summer courses at the University of California at Davis.

At the time, she was working in marketing at the fitness-data company Strava. But she soon began dreaming of owning her own craft brewery. She came up with a business plan, then “spent a couple of years gaining some guts to go for it, saving money, acquiring knowledge and navigating the ABC”—the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control.

A close friend she met at Strava, Alyssa Berman, was Looney’s frequent sounding board. Over trail runs in the San Francisco hills, they’d talk beer and career aspirations.

Last August, Looney officially formed Sufferfest Beer Company in San Francisco. In December, Berman, who is 41, joined the company as its second member.

“I had a person in mind when I started brewing the beer, and it was Alyssa,” Looney says. “We’re never gonna win a race, we’re not top runners, but we sweat every day. We deserve a great-tasting beer.”

There are other gluten-removed beers on the market—Omission is perhaps most well-known—and there are other beers that, as Looney puts it, “are trying to penetrate an active consumer.”

What she says differentiates Sufferfest is its authenticity; the active consumer is not just another market but the whole reason the brand exists. “We’re trying to build the leading craft beer for athletes,” she says.

Craft-beer drinkers who run are no different than craft-beer drinkers who don’t: They’re all about the taste. In other words, brewing a great craft beer for athletes first and foremost means brewing a great craft beer.

Looney says every Sufferfest product will be “a beer that I could give to my friends who are tolerant of gluten, and they would feel just absolutely thrilled.” Her brewing philosophy is “taste, taste, taste.” (For the record, this writer has independently verified that the Sufferfest IPA and pilsner are, indeed, delicious by any standard.)

The company’s “active-conscious” thinking has influenced some other product decisions. Looney says she pays close attention to ingredient quality and nutrition content—with the caveat that “it has to taste awesome”—and she and Berman decided to package Sufferfest in cans, rather than breakable glass bottles, to make it a more outdoor-friendly beer.

But more than anything to do with the actual product, this focus on outdoor athletes is about associating the brand with a certain lifestyle, about becoming the imbibable equivalent of prAna jeans or a cotton Patagonia tee. The product labels wink at endurance athletes—the Epic Pilsner, the Taper IPA—as does the brand name itself. (“Sufferfest,” says Looney. “Definition: An activity whereby all participants ache, agonize, ail, endure, but by co-misery will have experienced a grand time.”)

As a key part of that effort, Looney and Berman are establishing a presence at Bay Area trail-running events. They’re bringing beer to local running meet-ups. In January, they poured at a book signing with Krissy Moehl, an accomplished ultrarunner and author of Running Your First Ultra. On Saturday, March 5, they’ll be in a Sufferfest Beer tent at the finish line of the Way Too Cool 50K—one of the country’s biggest early-season ultras—handing finishers cold, crisp beers in commemorative pint glasses.

When asked about why they chose to stake their brand identity on outdoor athletes, Looney says she didn’t conceive it as a marketing ploy. “It really wasn’t like, ‘Oh, there’s a hole in the market and we’re gonna fill it,’” she says.

Rather, she says, it’s been a “happy accident,” a passion-driven decision that happens to be good strategy. By focusing on a core group of consumers, she explains, “I think we’re growing a real feverish, excited following.”

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Getting a craft-beer business off the ground involved more than just beta-testing IPA recipes, Looney quickly realized.

She had to get her storage facility licensed, of course. To work out of her home office—not brewing or bottling there, just sending “alcohol-related emails”—she also had to do the same with her house.

The process involved “forms, fingerprinting, signage, long lines and money.” A police officer and a representative from Alcoholic Beverages Control had to walk through her house once a month. She had to hang a sign on her house announcing the license, to the initial consternation of neighbors. “We had an emergency HOA meeting because they thought I was some sort of beer distributor for the block,” she says.

But things came together. Last October, she quit her job—she had left Strava in 2013, but had since taken another marketing gig—to become a full-time brewmaster.

Now, several hectic months later, cans of Epic Pilsner and Taper IPA are hitting shelves for the first time.

Sufferfest’s distribution will be limited to the Bay Area for the moment. Looney and Berman say they first want to build a strong local base, then they’ll think about expanding. An ambassador team is in the works, as are more partnerships with local events and brands. And, of course, more varieties of beer.

“It’s awesome,” says Looney. “Alyssa and I are just where we want to be. We run in the mornings, or we run nights, and meet people and make beer during the day. So, right now, it’s a terrifying, thrilling dream.”

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