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Athletic Brewing Company is (almost) too good to be true

John Walker and Bill Shufelt, co-founders of Athletic Brewing Company, stand in front of a wall of Golden Dawn cans

How far do you think someone would travel for a delicious, non-alcoholic drink? On my recent visit to Athletic Brewing Company's taproom, I learned that it was a lot farther than I expected.

Andrew, the guy sitting next to me at the bar, biked from Minneapolis all the way to coastal Connecticut to taste the limited edition beers only available at Athletic's taproom. He's on a year-long cycling tour, riding forty to fifty miles a day. Every bit of weight makes a difference (and he doesn't have a refrigerator),  yet he still left with a mixed six pack of brews. 

Athletic Brewing Company's beers are just that good. 

Though my journey by train and ride share from New York was much easier, I also went out to Stratford, Connecticut to taste those fantastic brews, and to learn how co-founders Bill Shufelt and John Walker revolutionized non-alcoholic beer in just a few years. 

Not that long ago, "craft non-alcoholic beer" was an oxymoron. The only widely available non-alcoholic beer in the United States was O'Doul's. Comparable to mass-produced, cheap American lagers, which beer enthusiasts dismiss as nearly flavorless even when alcoholic, O'Doul's was more often a punchline than anyone's order. 

In Europe, on the other hand, beer drinkers have long had multiple non-alcoholic options. Though those brews still left something to be desired, you can trace the seed of Athletic Brewing Company to Bill's experiences abroad. "It was less  the quality of the beer as it was the societal embrace of the occasion," he says. "In the US, there's such stigma and dividing lines around words like 'sober' and things like that. In Europe, for me, it was the empowerment that people had to just grab a non-alc beer without judgment, any time." 

He knew that to replicate that experience at home would require a non-alcoholic beer too good to be a punchline. It would require a beer he would enjoy drinking himself. 

"It just came organically from my lifestyle. I wasn't one of those entrepreneurs who had like 100 ideas or always knew that they wanted to be an entrepreneur. It was really just a mix of total dearth of options out there, and the lifestyle I wanted to live as a normal, high-performing adult." Between work dinners, social occasions, and family gatherings, Bill found himself in situations where he was expected to drink five or six times a week. "I wanted to drink maybe one day a week, and then really quickly didn't want to drink at all, just because I felt better," he says. 

Talking to co-founder John Walker, I quickly learn that Bill is either incredibly modest when he calls himself "a normal, high-performing adult," or his standards are a lot higher than most. In the five months leading up to Athletic's commercial launch, he met with 120 potential investors in the five months, while pounding the pavement in a different way on the weekends. A serious runner, Bill ran thirty or forty races in that time, and attended a few dozen more, all while building a fan base for their beer. 

John recalls, "He would get up at 2:00 in the morning and drive to Upstate New York, run the race, and then hand out beers." 

Having started the company to make something he wanted himself, Bill saw himself as the target customer. "My hypothesis was if I ran these races like I normally would, I didn't have to form a focus group." Instead, he could just meet them at the finish line with a cold beer.  "People were happy, sweaty and thirsty, and then here's this other person who had just run the race with them, and was like, 'Here, try my beer, I made this.'" The personal touch, along with the unusually delicious beer, worked. "I'm a huge believer in making a group of people super fans, and then they will help do your work for you." 

Even now, John is a bit in awe of his co-founder's ability to get people to have a sample, given the reputation of non-alcoholic beer at the time. They hand bottled their first successful product in plain brown bottles, and Bill would take it to Whole Foods and other potential buyers in the area. "[Bill was] just unapologetically bold and brave. It was wild. But it was his passion... and it was good," John admits. "It tasted great. I was excited about it. We were all excited about it." 

Though they talk about each other like lifelong friends, they only met in 2017 when John answered Bill's brewer wanted ad. John was intrigued by the ad's promise that the job was in the most innovative space in craft beer. He responded, and Bill called him right away. "We get on the phone and Bill's like, 'Just, do me a favor. Don't hang up. Hear me out.'" John was immediately skeptical, as anyone would be. "I was like, 'Okay, what are you selling?'" 

What Bill was selling was his vision for non-alcoholic beer "like no one had done it before." A non-alcoholic beer that tasted great, that would kill the stigma once and for all. 

By the end of the phone call, John was sold. "It was really enticing and appealing- and also very challenging. Where, in the brewing community, I had dozens or hundreds of people to learn from, and textbooks galore, there was zero [for making non-alcoholic beer]. There were no friends, there were no notebooks, and the added challenge of 'We're not gonna do this the way it has been done' was both kinda frightening and really exciting." 

John wasn't taking the leap of faith alone. Bill had spent his life savings on brewing equipment, which hadn't even arrived yet when John started. As they awaited the manufacturing equipment, John home brewed batch after batch on a little outdoor stove in his parents' garage, while Bill went to meeting after meeting to raise money for a product that didn't yet exist. He believes that "those angel investors who believed in us were believing in me and John, they're believing the commitments we'd already made. I think they could tell we were speaking to the potential market and the impact our company could have, but I think more than anything, they just saw passion in us." 

Building a better beer

John remembers it as something closer to being thrown out of an airplane with a box of materials, scrambling to figure out how to make a parachute before hitting the ground. The shadow of that anxiety still creeps into his voice when he talks about those early days. 

"It was terrifying," John says. "We had bought things with real money- things that could go away- and we were telling investors 'This is real, this is gonna happen.' There were some really huge bets that were made and I was terrified." Relentlessly upbeat, Bill assured John that it would work out. "I'm like 'Will it? Will it? I don't know, this doesn't taste very good...' But it was also a great motivator," he admits with a chuckle.

Right off the bat, they entirely disregarded the processes non-alcoholic beer makers were already using, particularly de-alcoholization. To avoid distillation or any other kind of heat treatment, which alters the taste and texture of the beer, meant that John had to keep the ABV (alcohol by volume) under the legally non-alcoholic percentage of 0.5% throughout the entire process. The result was that what the beer tastes like when it's brewed is what the beer tastes like, period. 

When asked how he and Bill approached developing a new process, John says they started at the end. They knew what they wanted it to taste like, the mouthfeel, the body, the bitterness. His long experience in brewing gave him a rough idea of the ingredients to use. "Creating the recipe was the easy part- easy-ish," he corrects himself. "The microbiological side was much more challenging. Those little creatures have minds of their own and they do unique things. Terrible things and wonderful things, depending on the conditions we put them in." 

From start to finish, each test brew took two weeks to complete. John would split every batch into three or four containers- usually modified Gatorade coolers like the ones that get dumped over a coach's head after a winning game- and subject each to different treatments with yeasts and other ingredients. Depending on how the brews turned out, they would move forward with one or two recipes, change one step, and start over again.

Modest in his own way, John downplays how critical the combination of his expertise and creativity was to making Bill's dream come true. "More than anything, we do nothing. We let the natural ingredients do their thing. We figured out how to work with traditional ingredients in a way where we didn't have to reverse engineer on the back side."  

After a few months, Bill's optimism proved right. They'd done what no one else had even tried: made quality, craft beer that just happened to be non-alcoholic.

He'd been right about something else, too: there were a whole lot of people who wanted what he and John were brewing. In the first six months, Athletic Brewing Company sold 2,000 barrels of beer (around 66,000 cans), and 7,000 in 2019, the first full year of operations. The following year, that number jumped to 40,000, and John says they are on track to hit 200,000 in 2022.

Along with the astronomical increase in sales, Athletic Brewing Company has also widely expanded the types of beers they make. The full time lineup still includes that first home-brewed golden ale, Upside Dawn, as well as two IPAs, a hearty stout, and a Mexican-style amber. 

Athletic will also brew more than fifty varieties of its Pilot Series beers this year, which includes seasonal options, partnerships with various charities, and limited edition one-offs. Some of these are only available to Athletic Club subscribers on their website, and a select few are exclusively offered at the Connecticut taproom.

Building a better company (and a better world, too)

Bill and John wanted to do more than just make outstanding products. They wanted to build a company you could feel good about giving your money. Now a certified B Corporation, Athletic Brewing Company works to improve the environment and their community, and the founders hold themselves to unusually high standards of transparency and inclusivity with their employees. 

When the company was still very small, the employees cleaned up a a stretch of the Appalachian Trail near their headquarters as a team-building exercise. This quickly evolved into Two for the Trails, with Athletic donating 2% of sales revenue to protecting and rehabilitating hiking trails around the world. The company also funds grants for people and organizations making improvements to their local communities, as well as a brewing scholarship for students from underrepresented backgrounds, in an effort to bring much needed diversity to the industry. 

Inside the company, John and Bill have created organizational structures to actively encourage employee input and engagement. For instance, anyone at the company can pitch and develop a Pilot Series beer, no matter their role at the company, by partnering with a brewer who can make their vision a delicious, drinkable reality. For instance, Tropical Sour and Soul Sour, two of their best seasonal beers, were created by their very first hire in the packing and shipping department! 

Everyone I talked to at the tasting room was genuinely enthusiastic about working for the company. I was particularly moved by the story taproom manager Liana told me about her employers- completely unsolicited- while pouring me some of those super rare beers. 

Liana started at the taproom when it first opened, while also working as a server at a nearby country club, a job she was ready to leave. When she started hunting for something else, Liana told Bill that she hoped she could continue to work for Athletic, but let him know most restaurants or bars would want her to work weekends- the only time the taproom was open. Recognizing how valuable she was to the fledgling company, Bill made her a promise: as soon as sales took off, he'd prioritize increasing her pay and make managing the taproom the only job she would need. 

Within a year, he kept that promise. 

Liana now manages the taproom full time, not just pouring beers, but managing pick-up orders (a huge task during 2020 COVID lockdowns), as well as organizing special events. Given free reign to come up with and execute her own ideas, the taproom now hosts sold out events like an annual summer lobster bake, an autumn Oktoberfest, and two winter holiday fairs: one to shop for gifts made by local artisans, and a "treat fair" with delicious offerings from local bakers, candy-makers, and other small batch foods. When the taproom moves to the new, larger brewery in nearby Milford, Connecticut later this year or early next year, Liana will have even more room to host the company's seasonal celebrations. 

Bill and John have made Athletic Brewing Company not only a wildly successful company, but a force for good for their employees, their community, and the world. A CEO who personally prioritizes improving a single employee's salary? A start up growing exponentially in record time, while directing significant revenue toward environmental and community improvement programs? The guy who started out packing online orders creating some of the company's best selling products? It all sounds too good to be true. 

But at the Athletic Brewing Company taproom, drinking a non-alcoholic beer worth biking over a thousand miles to taste, you just might start to believe that anything is possible.