“We just did batches, and batches, and batches of homebrew, trying to do this thing that no one had ever written a book on,” recalled John Walker, Shufelt’s co-founder and Athletic’s head brewer. The idea was to brew a naturally non-alcoholic beer. While there may not have been a roadmap, they weren’t flying totally blind, either. Walker is a seasoned brewer, and scored a pair of Great American Beer Festival medals, one gold, working as head brewer for Santa Fe’s Second Street brewery before leaving for Athletic.
But like any good magician, Walker wouldn’t give much away. “We are in fact doing it an entire fermentation and winding up with under 0.5%” was about all he’d say. Shoulder to shoulder with Shufelt in a 9,000 square foot warehouse in Stratford, Connecticut, Walker honed Athletic’s brewing regimen over a feverish, nine-month R&D sprint in 2017 (both men declined to discuss the process in more detail, citing a pending patent application).
If legit, and it seems to be, the process would make Athletic’s beers different from existing n/a offerings. Those tend to be either heated to boil off the booze (alcohol boils at just 173 degrees Fahrenheit, as opposed to water’s 212 degrees); filtered to remove it (aka “reverse osmosis”); or vacuum distilled, a process Athletic’s craft rivals at St. Louis’ WellBeing Brewing employ. Depending on the practice (and the practitioner), Walker thinks flavor may suffer. “I'm not gonna poo-poo anybody's style, but we just didn't want that,”’ he said. “When you do that, you are adulterating… everything that makes a beer what it is.
Athletic’s beers don’t just taste the part, they look the part. The simple, colorful outdoors motif aligns seamlessly with the dominant craft aesthetic, and resists playing up an explicit wellness/abstinence angle. This likely helps the brand remain approachable to drinkers reluctant to identify with a non-alcoholic category—especially men.
“Throughout the ages, alcohol has been coded as a masculine vice that women are too good for,” explained sociologist Helana Darwin, a Stony Brook Ph.D. candidate who has extensively researched and written about craft beer. “By default, non-alcoholic drinks have been coded as the feminine alternative,” and heavily stigmatized (Shufelt calls traditional N/A offerings “penalty box beers” because of the scrutiny they invite upon the drinker). Athletic’s branding ducks these cultural connotations quietly, empowering drinkers to decide whether to “out” themselves—a potentially powerful draw.
But branding alone can’t build a successful beer company these days. The liquid has to stack up. As a longtime homebrewer and craft brewing enthusiast Dan Nolan notes, Athletic’s approach to quality and flavor was paramount. “Athletic does a great job of retaining the flavor and experience of craft beer but without the booze,” he relayed in a recent email exchange.
Nolan and his fiance were cutting back on at-home beer drinking in advance of their wedding. Nothing they were drinking filled the malt/hops void. “We worked through all of the traditional offerings at the local grocery store and even the ones that were supposed to be good just... weren't.” Then they came across Athletic at Lamonaca’s Beer Karma, and quickly became fans. In the past few months, they’ve been able to entirely abandon weeknight alcohol intake in favor of Athletic’s non-alcoholic offerings. “We’ve definitely knocked back a few 12-packs’ worth,” said Nolan.