Alcohol doesn’t fit into Bill Shufelt’s life, but the ultramarathoner and former finance professional didn’t want to be left out. With less than stellar non-alcoholic beers on the market, though, he couldn’t find anything appealing to drink.
So rather than remain on the sidelines, he found a longtime brewer, John Walker, and together they started Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing Co., a beer company focused on making flavorful non-alcoholic beers.
“If you think about it, alcoholic craft brewing really only meets about 20 percent of life occasions,” Shufelt said. “Life is so busy and you have to be on point in so many occasions and there are so few beverages that met those demands. Whether it was careers, exercise, or family life, or anytime you need a clear head, the existing alcoholic landscape wasn’t meeting us.”
The craft beer industry did have something healthy beverages and non-alcoholic beers did not: complex flavors to keep palates interested. With this in mind, the duo set out to make a beverage that has minimal alcohol — all Athletic Brewing Co. beers have less than .5% — but has the full flavor palate one might expect from other craft beers.
“We brew without compromise; we don’t want to end up making a sacrifice in flavor or quality.”
Since there weren’t already similar beers on the market, they assumed the baseline existing technologies to make N/A beer weren’t up to making what they wanted. With that in mind, they hit the textbooks and tinkered with the brewing process from the start. “Our idea wasn’t to brew alcoholic beer and burn off the alcohol, even gently doing that alters the flavor profiles,” Shufeld said. “We made hundreds of batches to come up with a proprietary method. We definitely wouldn’t have gone to market unless we had something that was true craft beer in its fullest form.
“We brew without compromise; we don’t want to end up making a sacrifice in flavor or quality,” he added.
The resulting beers have won medals at competitions against full-alcohol craft offerings.
Athletic Brewing is now in full production mode, growing significantly, largely on the backs of its Run Wild IPA and Upside Dawn Golden Ale. The beer is available and shipping nationwide, as well as in Total Wine & More. Statewide distribution is available in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania.
Run Wild clocks in at 70 calories but, made with five Pacific Northwest hops (including Citra and Mosaic), it drinks like one might expect an IPA to taste. Upside Dawn is 50 calories and “light, crispy, clean, and refreshing.” The beers the brewery produces fit nicely into the new brewing trend of low-calorie offerings.
With two flagships set under the Athletic Brewing Co. brand, as well as a rotating season — a stout and, now, a Mexican lager — and plenty more in the works for distribution and up to 10 beers at the company taproom, the only N/A taproom in the nation, there’s been a quick adoption by drinkers.
“We have found the educational hurdle is way lower than we ever expected,” Shufelt said. “We theorized that it was something the world wanted and it’s a conversation that’s been happening for a long time with no products in the space.
“It’s something that resonates.”
Initially, Shufelt said few in the craft beer space would talk to them, looking at the company as though they were crazy. But they quickly shed the reputation of non-alcoholic brews. Athletic Brewing has now been approached by “top-flight athletes” who haven’t been able to drink alcohol for years because of their training regimens, and Shufeld is excited about those “authentic athlete partnerships” in the works.
Shufelt doesn’t drink full-alcoholic beverages like the rest of his Athletic Brewing Co. team, but he now can crack a flavorful beverage on par with whatever they’re drinking — even if that’s not also an Athletic brew.
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