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Brewery Highlight: Athletic Brewing Co.  

By: Jerard Fagerberg 

Non-alcoholic beermaker Athletic is now a top-10 craft brewery in the United States, with two of the top-selling IPAs in retail. You don’t get that big selling beer to Dry January participants alone. Co-founder and CEO Bill Shufelt breaks down his brewery’s utilitarian, occasionless appeal.  

In 2017, Bill Shufelt was well past fed up with the lack of non-alcoholic options on the market. Shufelt, then a stock trader, had been sober for 8 years by that time, and was longing for the same full-flavored, big-bodied beer he’d experienced while at college in Vermont. He shared his vision for craft non-alc with John Walker, whom he met on a brewing forum, and together the two set out to redefine what 0% ABV meant to modern beer drinkers. 

Eight years later, their company Athletic Brewing has done exactly that. Standout beers like Run Wild IPA, Upside Dawn Golden, and Athletic Lite have demolished longstanding stigmas, and now “non-alc” is the buzziest sector of the beer industry.  

Heady Times (HT): Dry January is obviously a high point in the year for Athletic. How do you keep that excitement going throughout the rest of the year?  

Bill Shufelt (BS): January is a time of year where people are receptive to change and new habits and trialing new things in their daily routine. It lowers the bar for people who are not actually taking a long pledge of sobriety. At some point, people fall in love with it, and it makes them realize our true goal. Athletic’s biggest sales weeks of the year are not in the month of January. They are during traditional beer peaks like summer and holidays. January’s just a really easy time of introduction to lead up to those.  

HT: We traditionally think of beer being sold into an occasion, but you’ve referred to Athletic’s beers as “occasionless.” What does that mean?  

BS: We get emails like that all the time from customers who say they had no intention of ever drinking non-alcoholic beer, but they tried our beer somewhere, and all of a sudden they’re drinking more beer than they’ve ever drank before, just less alcohol. Intuitively, humans are not drinking alcohol greater than 99% of the time they’re awake. Why is the beverage alcohol world razor-focused only on that 1% sliver when there was this whole other slew of occasions?  

HT: You met co-founder and CPO John Walker on an internet forum for brewers in 2017. The ad you placed promised a job in “the most innovative sector of beer.” Turns out, you were right, non-alc is the most innovative sector of beer. Did you really see that coming?  

BS: It’s for sure innovative, but if you look back 10 years ago, non-alcoholic beer was probably the most boring area of the entire grocery store, besides maybe canned beans or something. Now, it is potentially the most exciting moment in beer history. We’re reimagining what modern drinking can be, and there’s just so much excitement there.  

HT: Athletic debuted with an IPA, Run Wild. Was that an intentional signal that you were coming to redefine what non-alc was to the modern craft beer drinker?  

BS: We try to meet our consumers where they’re at. About 80% of our drinkers do drink alcohol on other occasions, so we’re just giving beer lovers more times they can drink beer. We have really turned the heads of people who are discerning beer drinkers. Now, picky craft beer consumers can drink non-alcoholic beer and be proud about it for the first time.  

HT: Most beer brands are launching non-alc beers now, in addition to hop waters and other alcohol-free options already on the market. How does Athletic feel about their competition?  

BS: We are totally focused on nonalcoholic and driving people to the shelf. We spend very little time thinking about competition. It’s a subcategory within beer that is a little over 1% of all beer, and we think it’s going to double-digit percentages in the next five to 10 years. We’re thinking about this as a very positive sum.  

HT: The fact that you do direct to-consumer e-commerce is an advantage over traditional beers, but how have your distributor partners helped you grow Athletic?


BS: We have a very omni-channel approach, and the three-tier system is a very important part of our approach. Beer distributors are incredible. They’ve been forging these retail relationships in their regions for decades, and having an endorsement from a distributor who has those relationships with retailers helps drive broader distribution. Distributors are the logistics and distribution experts, where we’re the product marketing experts.  

HT: Athletic produced 170,000 barrels in 2022, and now you’re in the middle of another expansion. What should we expect from this latest stage of growth?  

BS: We’ve lived our whole lives at Athletic up against the brink of our capacity with smoke coming out of our ears. So, we put in a pretty big expansion this fall to be ready by next summer. We have eight of the top 11 non-alcoholic craft beer brands on the market, and we’d love retailers to have at least five different Athletic styles on the shelf, so you’re giving someone a best-in-class offering of their favorite variety.  

HT: A lot of people are bullish on nonalc and category growth, but there are lots of skeptics, too. What do you say to people who think non-alc is just a fad?  

BS: Most alcohol trends in the past have been one-for-one substitutions of existing alcohol occasions. All of our data indicates that Athletic customers drink more beer over time than less. They find more and more occasions within their life and drink more over time, which bodes really well for the overall health of the category. It’s not a “trial and move on” category, it’s a new part of their routines. Athletic’s awareness is only around 22%, and our distribution level is around the same, so there’s plenty of opportunity. 

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