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Athletic Brewing Company is on a mission to reach the ‘flex-sober’ as millennials and Gen Z seek out alternatives to getting drunk

Athletic Brewing Company founders John Walker, left, and Bill Shufelt at the company’s brand-new Connecticut brewery.

Athletic Brewing Company

  • Athletic Brewing Company’s non-alcoholic beers now make up over 51% of the craft NA beer market.
  • The company is hoping to attract “flex-sober” drinkers who want to drink without the consequences.
  • Athletic CEO Bill Shufelt said he thinks NA beer will make up 20% of the beer market by 2030.

Maybe you’ve seen Athletic Brewing Company’s beers on can lists at your favorite local bar. Or maybe you’ve noticed college athletes hawking the beers on Instagram, or seen them stocked at Whole Foods. 

Either way, it seems Athletic’s beers are everywhere. 

The 5-year-old brewery owns 51% of the US non-alcoholic craft-beer market and surpassed 100,000 barrels of production in 2021. While Athletic declines to disclose its latest sales and revenue figures, it told Bloomberg that sales soared to about $15 million in 2020, up 500% from 2019. 

Athletic’s success is no accident, but instead the perfect alchemy of high-quality taste and growing distribution, plus the intersection of craft-beer appreciation and a burgeoning curiosity among millennials and Gen Z about alcohol alternatives. 

“It’s something that nobody talked about or wanted or considered five years ago,” Bill Shufelt, Athletic’s cofounder and CEO, told Insider. “And now we can’t make enough of it.”

‘We’re not trying to bring back Prohibition’

Athletic Brewing CoA can of Run Wild, Athletic’s popular IPA.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Athletic’s growth comes amid a boom in the non-alcoholic beer market.

The category grew more than 28% by volume in the US last year, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, a global provider of alcoholic-beverage market data. Adam Rogers, IWSR’s North American research director, told Insider by email that the trend is driven by a shift away from binge-drinking. 

“People are approaching alcohol consumption more consciously as they have put more emphasis on moderation by drinking less, but better,” Rogers wrote. “No-alcohol beer fits into the consumer lifestyle of wanting to drink a beer without the effects of alcohol, leaving open more consumption occasions for the segment.” 

Rogers pointed out that while a portion of the consumers driving NA beer sales completely abstain from drinking, others drink NA beer alongside beer that contains alcohol. He described the latter consumers as those who approach alcohol consumption “mindfully,” many of them younger drinkers. 

“Today’s consumer lets the occasion dictate the alcohol type, which includes no and/or low-alcohol products,” he wrote.

It’s exactly this segment of drinkers Shufelt wants to target with his beers. While he estimates 50% of US adults “barely” drink, he’s not just aiming for half the population — he’s aiming for the whole thing.

Shufelt said that 80% of those who buy his beers do drink alcohol at other times. He described those people as “flex sober” — people who drink regularly, but choose sobriety on occasion.

“We’re not really trying to take away any alcohol occasions. We’re adding five days of the week, we’re adding 50% the population into the category,” he said.  “We’re not trying to bring back Prohibition, but we are trying to give people better options.” 

Disrupting the beer market

Person holds can of Athletic Brewing Company light beer at outdoor tableAthletic’s 25-calorie light beer.

Athletic Brewing Company

Of course, the eternal question around NA beer is taste. 

Making beer that is low in alcohol has historically been at odds with making it taste good. Brewers typically have two options for making low- or no-alcohol beer: boiling off the alcohol after the beer is brewed, or halting the fermentation process early. Neither typically produces delicious results. 

Athletic says it uses an “innovative, proprietary method” of making beer without alcohol, though it’s tight-lipped about what the process is. Shufelt did say the company uses an organic malt in almost all its beers that he described as “extremely uneconomical, but very high-quality.”

The rest he attributes to using the best ingredients and keeping the brewing process entirely in-house at Athletic’s facilities, including its new 150,000-square-foot facility in Milford, Connecticut, which Shufelt said should help the company quickly ramp up production and distribution.

“Our co-founder, John [Walker] — when we teamed up in 2017, we were home-brewing in an empty warehouse for a year — he said, ‘We’re not launching a product ever unless it stacks up to like the best craft beer and is totally indistinguishable from alcoholic beer,'” Shufelt said. “And to his credit, he really accomplished that.” 

The company notes that it won more than 40 awards from 2018 to 2021, including honors from the Great American Beer Festival, the World Beer Awards, and the US Open Beer Championship in 2021.

Athletic has also attracted high-profile investors, some of them well-known athletes, including NFL stars J.J. Watt and Justin Tuck and cyclist Lance Armstrong. Shufelt says there are “a number of other celebrity investors” he couldn’t yet reveal. 

The products can be found at more than 15,000 retailers nationwide.

Rogers from IWSR noted that what sets Athletic apart from the NA beers of yore is its range of styles, including hazy IPAs, stouts, and seasonal options like Oktoberfest beers, something “incumbent” NA beer brands didn’t offer when Athletic came on the scene.

Rogers compared the rise of craft NA beer to how the craft-beer boom of the 2010s disrupted traditional beer brands and said consumers should expect to start seeing “more retail shelf space being dedicated to the movement.”

For his part, Shufelt believes that NA beer will account for over 20% of the beer market by 2030, a significant leap from 2017, when it made up just 0.3%.

“I think it’s going to surprise everyone with how big this ends up being,” Shufelt said. “People are going be super-psyched that they can drink great beer at any point in their week, in their day, in their life.”

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