The Silicon Review
The non-alcoholic beer market, long relegated to the penalty box of drinking occasions, has been the fastest growing category in beer 3 years in a row in a rather under-the-radar fashion. The market size of non-alcoholic beer globally was estimated at $9.6 billion in 2019, but only $180M in the US. It is expected to reach $35.6 billion by 2030 at a CAGR of 8.1% worldwide. The beverage industry is undergoing a huge transformation as demand for mindful drinking products grow. They have become more popular with the increasing awareness regarding the significant health risks associated with alcohol consumption, especially in younger generations in Millenials and GenZ. As a result, non-alcoholic beer is becoming a rage as consumer habits change.
The company that started it all in the US in the non-alcoholic beer segment is Athletic Brewing Company, based out of Stratford, Connecticut. The company’s journey began when its founder Bill Shufelt tired of suffering through hangovers and unwanted side effects of alcohol. He enjoyed everything about beer occasions – friends, family, great food and drink. He was then working for one of the world’s largest hedge funds that required him to work twelve hours a day. While he had it in him to put in these hard hours in his 20s, he started to cut down on his partying as he entered his 30s and was about to get married. Evaluating the demands of a healthy life, Bill decided to cut alcohol out of his life in 2013.
He still enjoyed heading to bars and restaurants with friends, attending sporting events, weddings, barbeques, and other social events. But at such settings, Bill Shufelt found himself at a loss for a refreshing beverage that was easy to order and carried no social stigma. His only perpetual options would be flavorless, watery, metallic-in-taste beverages.
Having attended his college in Vermont, great beer was always a part of his life. One night, while walking after dinner, Bill and his wife had a lightbulb moment. In the burgeoning and thriving craft beer market, almost 50% of the US population who don’t drink were left behind. The void in the market was clear, and so, he decided to leave his stable job in the financial industry and dedicated all of his time to breathe life into this dream of creating a one-of-a-kind non-alcoholic brand, which would deliver delicious, craft non-alcoholic beers for the modern beer drinker.
Bill started his market research that eventually evolved into Athletic Brewing Company in 2017. But the path to the company’s establishment was far from easy as Bill soon found out that brewers across the U.S. were not too amused with the idea of working on non-alcoholic beer. He had pitched his idea to over 200 brewers and failed before he found John Walker, the Co-founder and Head Brewer of Athletic Brewing Company.
When Bill approached John, the latter worked at Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he’d won two Great American Beer Festival medals and one World Beer Cup medal. John was surprised with idea of brewing non-alcoholic beers, but he also felt that Bill’s idea made a lot of sense. There was an ongoing craft beer revolution, and he felt non-alcoholic craft beer was something people were missing out on. He came on board, and the two founders spent a lot of time home-brewing hundreds of test batches in their empty facility until they finally came up with a unique method that apparently requires more than ten modifications to the traditional brewing process. As a result, the two created a proprietary method to make Athletic’s beers. After about 50 tries, they created what they felt was a real craft beer.
This eventually became the company’s popular Upside Dawn Golden Ale. There was no turning back after that.
With investors onboard, Athletic Brewing Company built its Connecticut taproom. At the same time, Bill started hitting obstacle races and half marathons to reach out to more people. The company soon outgrew the Connecticut taproom in just ten months. Athletic had to establish an 80k square feet, 150,000+ barrel brewery in San Diego to meet the demand for their offerings on the West Coast. Athletic is also constructing a 150k square feet building in CT for the future.
Today, the company has about 150 employees on its payroll and has a thriving culture. “John and I have been diligent and attentive to culture since day one. It all starts with our team, then our customers, our communities, and the environment as a whole. We spent months working on our employee handbook before we launched, and we’ve had a strong employee ownership plan since day one,” said Bill Shufelt, the founder of Athletic Brewing Company. “From the start, our company has donated 3% of all sales to community and environmental causes, mostly with our Two for the Trails program.”
The company’s Two for the Trails grant program donates 2% of all sales dollars to support active and healthy lifestyles in the outdoors through trail and park maintenance projects. The program is built to help cover funding gaps on projects that will provide a transformative impact on a community. “We anticipate donating over $1.5M to charity this year through our Two for the Trails and JEDI Impact programs,” mentioned the founder.
Three Years and Beyond
Athletic Brewing Company has grown well in the past three years. It was the fastest-growing brewery in the country in 2020 (including all alcoholic and non-alcoholic brewers). Athletic today holds a 45% share in the fastest-growing category in beer – the non-alcoholic craft beer – which has grown over 300% two years in a row.
2021 has been quite a landmark year for Athletic, too, as the company has become the Non-Alcoholic Beer Provider of the IRONMAN Global Series. Led by demand, the company also expanded internationally when it launched in Canada this year, followed by Australia. Athletic has now entered the U.K. market with its Upside Dawn Golden Ale and Run Wild IPA.