Editor’s Note: In this edition of the GearJunkie Podcast, we sit down with the Co-Founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing, Bill Shufelt, to learn about the brand’s early days and what led him to take an early interest in the then-dormant category.
Before Athletic Brewing Company, Bill Shufelt worked long hours at a hedge fund. He spent his days in the office, and often found himself entertaining clients and attending work-related social functions after hours. It was a work hard, play hard lifestyle that perpetuated unhealthy routines.
While entertaining clients and attending work functions, Bill noticed that it was hard for him avoid alcohol. He wanted an alternative non-alcoholic option — a drink that he could enjoy socially without the negative side effects of alcohol. At the time, it just didn’t exist.
Up to that point, the adult beverage industry had made it really hard to love non-alcoholic drinks. Over the previous decades, there’d been little to no product innovation or marketing support. According to Shufelt, “Non-alcoholic beer was the most boring, dusty part of the grocery store or bar.”
Aside from the obvious market vacuum, Bill knew it from his own lived experience. “Alcohol, at the end of the day, is a ‘functional ingredient,’” the Athletic Brewing Co-Founder and CEO told the GearJunkie Podcast. “I wanted to be in all of those social settings, at all of those times, without having to deal with the side effects of that functional ingredient, whether that’s health or lost productivity, an ongoing distraction — tough to move around, tough to sleep, tough to work the next day, dietary implications, you name it.”
An avid athlete and hard-charging professional, Bill wanted to live that full, cosmopolitan, performance-driven life, without the downsides of alcohol.
Building the Athletic Brewing Brand
Early on, Athletic Brewing Co. identified a stigma surrounding NA beer. For this reason, Bill and his team designed the Athletic brand to be bright, colorful, and reassuring. They wanted a can consumers could hold proud, subliminally communicating a sense of positivity.
Similarly, in those early years Shufelt was a big proponent of in-person tastings and demos, often competing in the very races he was promoting at. Bill knew that drinking NA beer made sense for a lot of people. Historically, NA beer customers skewed older, with a bent on fitness and perhaps a tad more responsibility than their younger peers.
But since its inception, Athletic Brewing has largely built out its own category, now appealing to a more generalized, all-age active lifestyle demographic.
The Impact of NA Beer on Health and Wellness
“It’s low calorie,” Shufelt said of Athletic Brewing’s beverages. “So it lends itself to busy, healthy people. We just had to let that get out into the world.”
The average adult has about four drinks a week, so it tends to be a very specific time-and-place activity, but in Bill’s words, Athletic Brewing essentially allows people to feel good about grabbing a beer any night of the week.
“When I’m having a really stressful day at work,” he continued, “if I can crack that IPA for the last hour while I work in my home office — or have a beer every night of the week with dinner — it’s game changing.”
Where in his former life, having a beer would eliminate the likelihood of a workout or continuing work, Athletic Brewing has allowed Shufelt to enjoy his appreciation for beer without it slowing down other aspects of his mental and physical life.
Growing Competition in the NA Market
Moving forward, Bill feels optimistic about the NA category. Since Athletic’s inception, bigger players in the beverage space have entered. But instead of trying to kill the category’s growth, they’re looking to compete.
“This category is very positive sum,” Shufelt explained of the NA beer market. “The tide is going to be coming in for a long time. Health and wellness is one of those things where you can’t really put the toothpaste back in the tube. So I’m really glad to have more entrants into the category.”
Nowadays, there’s over 150 NA beer brands. When Athletic Brewing started, there were six. “Now, you have non-alcoholic Corona sponsoring the Olympics,” he enthused. “I think that progress is so good for the overall category, awareness, and tearing down stigmas.”
The Future of Athletic Brewing
With all of the growth, Athletic Brewing has been shortlisted as a prime target for corporate acquisition. But despite the interest from potential buyers, Shufelt insists that they aren’t building to sell.
“When there’s exciting data points, people pick up the phone to try and get involved in your business,” he explained. ”But we’re really excited about being the leader of this category and building for the very long term — I was never interested in selling.”
The rise of Athletic Brewing has been consistent and pronounced, but as Shufelt caveats, no small business survives without challenge. To maintain a growth mindset, Bill has adopted a form of mental preparation where he pre-accepts future turbulence.
“Any challenge is tackle-able with that mindset,” he said. “At the same time, all of the opportunists who come for the gold rush, the quick hit, they’re not gonna be here in 3-6 months. It’s not easy, and I like that it’s not easy.”