Photo courtesy Athletic Brewing Co.
Athletic beers look and taste like regular ales, but without the buzz.
Though he once described a favorite Wisconsin farmhouse ale as “nutritious,” J.J. Watt probably did not become three-time NFL defensive player of the year by drinking craft beer. But he has apparently enjoyed a few over the course of the past three seasons. Specifically, the beers of Athletic Brewing Co.
“He drinks them Saturday nights, before his games Sunday,” says Bill Shufelt, CEO and co-founder of Athletic, which has established a lucrative niche since launching three years ago: non-alcoholic craft beer.
Unlike the generationally mocked near beers that have haunted grocery shelves for more than half a century, Athletic’s brews haven’t gone through a flavor-killing de-alcoholization process. Shufelt and co-founder/head brewer John Walker spent a year developing a proprietary 12-step fermentation that develops a beer style’s distinctive aromatics while yielding under half a percent alcohol by volume — below the adult beverage threshold.
It was revealed last month that Watt was part of a roster of celebrity investors behind Athletic, along with fellow football star Justin Tuck, cyclist Lance Armstrong, chef David Chang, and Blake Mycoskie, founder of TOMS shoes. The high-profile backers aren’t new to the brand, however. They go back to its early days, when it started out as a small brewery in Connecticut.
But unlike several beer brands that have successfully launched by marketing to their celebrity investors’ social media followings, Athletic has mostly kept its affiliations quiet. The reason being: it wasn’t ready for that kind of attention.
“We hadn’t gone public with their names earlier,” explains Shufelt, “because we didn’t have enough beer to sell.”
The reason Athletic can now produce enough beer to ship to 30 states is that it moved most of its operations to San Diego. Last June, it took over the Trade Street, Miramar brewery originally assembled by Ballast Point Brewing to produce sour beers.
For Athletic, it represents exponential increase over the beer being produced in its Connecticut brewery.
“It’s about ten times the size,” says Shufelt, who has relocated to San Diego to run what has already become one of the city’s largest beer brands. He says the brewhouse can now produce 150,000 barrels a year, and new fermenters arriving this summer will raise that higher.
Athletic was a big part of an estimated $184-million non-alcoholic beer market in 2020, a year-to-year increase of 38 percent primarily fueled by a burgeoning craft beer niche. Athletic cites reports that the non-alcoholic craft beer market tripled in value last year, and its beers account for more than half of it.
A #dryjanuary social media hash tag has given Athletic a sales bump each January since it launched, and this year was no different. Yet, despite that, and the inevitable attention its celebrity news will bring to its IPAs and lighter ales, Athletic made a second January announcement that reveals it’s not all that different from San Diego’s alcohol-producing breweries. It’s distributing a new line of seltzers.