marathon runner
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

How Craft Beer Is Chasing the Runner Crowd

John Strumsky has run 645 races in his 78 years, but one finish line in particular, at the end of a 10K in downtown Baltimore in the Eighties, stands out.

“My best friend, my wife and I all ran. We were supposed to meet her at a certain place at the finish line,” remembered the retired former Marine and founder of the United States Streak Runners Association (USRSA), in a recent phone interview. “An hour after the race is over, she finds me and my best friend hanging at the Michelob truck.” Runners were typically greeted by apples, bananas, and Perrier at finish lines back then, so beer was a delightful change of pace -- and, for Strumsky, an unexpected distraction.

“We got wrapped up in the beer truck,” he confessed. From upstairs, Dawn Strumsky aired a long-held, good-natured, grievance. “You didn’t even see me finish!”

These days, John Strumsky is still running, and beer has gone from finish-line novelty to post-race must-have. And not just any beer -- beer brewed for runners. Call it “active-lifestyle,” “craft plus,” or “athleisure” beer, or call it an unintended consequence of craft beer’s “Ultrafication," as in Michelob Ultra, the low-cal descendant of Strumsky’s finish-line brews, which most credit as both fore- and frontrunner of this trend.

Whatever you call it, this pseudo-segment is still taking shape within the US beer market, and there’s little data handy to gauge its potential. But as craft’s growth continues to cool, brewers large and small are indisputably running towards the weekend-warrior crowd. The latest entrant is 26.2 Brew, a golden ale brewed with sea salt and coriander by Marathon Brewing Company. The new athleisure arm of Boston Beer Company (the maker of Sam Adams) introduced the “by runners, for runners” beer this spring as the official beer of the 2019 Boston Marathon.

“Marketing has gotten a lot more sophisticated,” Strumsky remarked with amusement upon being told of newly available beers targeted to the cardio crowd and brewed with electrolytic ingredients like sodium.

But is “marathon beer” just another gimmick, or can craft plus athleisure brews for runners accelerate into a full-blown category even as the craft segment slows up?

"Beer has always represented ‘work hard, play hard [mentality],’” says Caitlin Landesberg, founder of San Francisco’s Sufferfest Beer Company. “It's something that’s always used in life as the reward and mini trophy," she argues, so it only makes sense that it’s become a defacto post-race celebration. An avid trail-runner herself, Landesberg launched Sufferfest in 2016 after the gluten-free beers she homebrewed to enjoy after races became a hit with her fellow endurance athletes. (A “sufferfest” is a term of endearment for a particularly grueling race or training session.)

The brewery’s portfolio includes beers with running/fitness names like FKT (Fastest Known Time) and Shakeout (a term for a pre-race jog), and all are all gluten-removed. Sufferfest (slogan: #WillSweatForBeer) counts a half-dozen ultrarunners and trail runners amongst the athletes it sponsors.

On its face, maybe this isn’t that weird. Beer has been a beloved adjunct to American sporting life for a century. Brewers have spent countless hours of airtime and billions of advertising dollars pitching their wares as an outdoorsman’s refreshment (a cooler full of beers on a fishing trip, for example) or a sports fan’s indulgence (“Bud Light, the official beer of the NFL”). And the oh-so-Bavarian behavior of using nonalcoholic brew as fitness recovery drink has recently become en vogue amongst a broader audience, to the point that there’s at least one American craft brewery that trafficks in that very product.

But courting actual athletes -- not fun-loving beer milers, outdoor hobbyists, or spectators, but disciplined maniacs like triathletes and marathoners -- as the target demo of honest-to-goodness alcoholic beers is a relatively new angle. Though the relationship may seem an obvious affront to common sense (a beer gut does not a personal-best make), the science is less obvious.

One 2010 study found that beyond anecdotes, there really wasn’t much scientific evidence to confirm drinking was actually bad for athletes. (Although, heavy drinking directly after workouts almost definitely is.) In 2015, a different set of researchers found that physical activity and alcohol use actually appear to go hand-in-hand. Hell, a half-dozen years ago, another prescient study basically foretold the recipe and value-proposition of today’s athleisure beers:  “A low alcohol beer with added sodium offers a potential compromise between a beverage with high social acceptance and one which avoids the exacerbated fluid losses observed when consuming full strength beer.”

Still, science doesn’t have all the answers. In a 2015 peer-reviewed report from the University of Houston, researchers articulated their limitations in grasping exactly what makes alcohol-drinking athletes tick, wondering, “Who are these people that drink and exercise?”

Landesberg calls those people “sweaty consumers.” They’re the ones she tried to convince distributors actually existed four years ago, when she was schlepping Sufferfest samples around the Bay Area in a leopard-print cooler her mom had bought her. It was “so many ‘nos’” back then, but Landesberg’s confidence the drinking habits of the people she calls her “tribe” paid off in February 2019. At the beginning of that month, Sufferfest announced it was being acquired by Sierra Nevada, one of craft beer’s biggest and most venerable producers.

runner holding beer

Long before the mainstream American brewing industry would turn towards runners, American running turned towards the mainstream. Following the American Frank Short’s Olympic marathon victory in 1972, and the subsequent recreational jogging boom, the sport morphed from hardcore competition to popular recreation. Alongside the boom, came a large culture shift.

Back when 400 runners was considered a good turnout at a marathon, Strumsky said “the running community used to be hardcore health nuts, if you will.” But by the Eighties, running “was broadening and broadening,” he continued. As cities and sports clubs introduced shorter distance “fun-run”-style races to cater to the influx of casual enthusiasts and exercise-seekers, the finish line offerings began to change. There were still apples, oranges, bananas, and sparkling water to be had -- but more and more, there was beer, too.

The fact that it was a Michelob truck that greeted Strumksy at that finish line in the Eighties seems particularly prophetic in hindsight. Though the Anheuser-Busch brand’s introduction of Michelob Ultra in 2002 was initially targeted towards generally “health-conscious consumers” (as CNN reported on the eve of its release), by the end of the aughts, it had morphed into a bona-fide fitbier, complete with slick ads showcasing everyday athletes clinking longnecks of Michelob Ultra after tough, rewarding workouts.

“It was the perfect beer at the perfect time to tap into a unique attribute of the American psyche -- one that wants to be healthy, but may not be willing to take drastic steps to achieve those goals,” wrote Bryan D. Roth in his 2018 recap of Michelob Ultra’s remarkable run for Good Beer Hunting. Athleisure beer is here. But is it really high-performance… or just for show?

Shelley Smith doesn’t seem like the type who does things for show -- at least not when it comes to running and beer. The triathlete and marathon runner is also an advanced cicerone, and manages beer research and development for Boston Beer Company. It was there that Smith fell in love with the original Boston 26.2 Brew, a regional, once-a-year specialty beer that Sam Adams has released to coincide with the Boston Marathon since 2012. “I had always really loved this beer and I just felt that there was an opportunity to make it something even bigger,” she recalled. “I wanted to have a beer that really celebrated the work that you put in as athletes.”

To that end, Smith and the BBC development team began trading rounds of samples and feedback with world-class long-distance runners Desiree Linden & Meb Keflezighi in an effort to fine-tune the beer for wider release. The resulting 26.2 Brew is a 120-calorie ale with nine grams of carbs, sodium (from the Himalayan sea salt) for electrolytes, and a citrusy coriander nose. It was available at Monday’s marathon in Boston, and will be available at half a dozen others on the US circuit this season, and distributed nationwide.

Christine Bowen, vice president of programming and partnerships at the advocacy nonprofit Running USA, connected Marathon Beer Company with organizers of several of those races. She cites “a rise in post-race festivals at the road races, where people are now crossing the finish line and looking to stick around and celebrate” as a key driver of beer’s newfound traction with the running set. The notion of the post-race party has been around for ages, but Bowen says it’s really come on strong in the last three years -- the same timeframe in which athleisure beer has exploded.

So why isn’t Mich Ultra absolutely dominating the road-running scene then? Well, it sort of is -- it’s part of the reason the brand has grown over 80% since 2014. Ultra casts a big shadow, to the extent that several sources were reluctant to name that beer on the record.

Yet there’s still room for new running beers. One explanation could be that “endurance athletes love the connection to the human spirit related to the event,” says Dr. Justin Ross, a Denver sports psychologist and semi-pro runner. The sense of personal achievement that comes with athletic accomplishment -- be it finishing your city’s 5K Turkey Trot, or qualifying for the elite Boston Marathon -- “creates a powerful identity structure” that makes you keen to “adopt materials and product experience that collaborate upon that identity.”

Landesberg came at it from a different angle. "At that finish-line moment, I think it's less about what people are drinking, and more about their values,” she said. “I've talked to athletes who say like, ‘Mich Ultra hits all of the components, I just don't want my photograph taken drinking one.’”

In other words, sipping a Sufferfest Taper at the Lake Tahoe Relay or a 26.2 Brew at the post-race party in Beantown may feel more special than a (comparatively ho-hum) macro would. “It’s another notch on the belt,” Ross offered.

Of course, no matter how legitimate and well-established athleisure beer becomes, moderation is key. If recreational runners -- the “99.9% who are not elite” -- frame their miles as a way to “earn” their beers, “that can be a pathway to disordered eating,” said Ross, who, on Monday, ran Boston for the second time. “We don’t need to be depriving ourselves of food and drink and then ‘rewarding’ ourselves” with it upon the completion of exercise. And regardless of how strenuous a race was or how much you think you “deserve” it, you really ought not have more than a drink or two, given the well-known dangers of overconsumption after fitness.

In other words, no matter how well-engineered a beer is for the modern runner’s enjoyment, it’s still beer. Smith and the Marathon Brewing team were reminded this firsthand when they jokingly pitched their counterparts at the Boston Athletic Association on handing out 26.2 Brew at a specially marked hydration station along the racecourse.

“We tried!” said Smith, who ran the marathon for the fourth time. “But there were some hurdles we just couldn’t jump over.”

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Dave Infante is a freelance journalist in Charleston, SC. Follow him @dinfontay.