The Athletic Brewing Company is on a mission to achieve ‘flex-sober’ as Millennials and Gen Z seek alternatives to drunkenness

  • Athletic Brewing Society non alcoholic beers now account for more than 51% of crafts NA beer market.
  • The company hopes to attract “flex-sober” drinkers who want to drink without facing the consequences.

Maybe you saw Athletic Brewery‘s beers on the can lists of your favorite local bar. Or maybe you noticed college athletes hawk the beers on Instagramor saw them stored at Whole Foods.

Either way, it seems Athletic beers are everywhere.

The 5 year old brewery holds 51% of the U.S. non-alcoholic craft beer market and surpassed 100,000 barrels of production in 2021. While Athletic refuses to disclose its latest sales and revenue numbers, it told Bloomberg that sales soared to around $15 million in 2020, up 500% from 2019.

Athletic’s success is no accident, but rather the perfect alchemy of high-quality taste and growing distribution, as well as the intersection of craft beer appreciation and a curiosity emerging among Millennials and Gen Z about alternatives to alcohol.

“This is something that no one talked about, wanted or considered five years ago,” Bill Shufelt, co-founder and CEO of Athletic, told Insider. “And now we can’t do enough.”

“We are not trying to bring back prohibition”

A can of Run Wild, Athletic’s popular IPA.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Athletics’ growth comes amid a boom in the non-alcoholic beer market.

The category grew more than 28% in volume in the United States last year, according to IWSR Drinks Market Analysis, a global provider of alcoholic beverages market data. Adam Rogers, IWSR’s North American research director, told Insider via email that the trend is driven by quitting heavy drinking.

“People are approaching alcohol consumption more consciously as they have placed more emphasis on moderation by drinking less, but better,” Rogers wrote. “Alcohol-free beer fits into the lifestyle of consumers who want to drink beer without the effects of alcohol, leaving more consumption opportunities for the segment.”

Rogers pointed out that while a portion of consumers who sell NA beer abstain completely, others drink NA beer alongside beer containing alcohol. He described these latter consumers as those who approach drinking “mindfully”, many of whom are young drinkers.

“Today’s consumer lets the occasion dictate the type of alcohol, which includes products with no and/or low alcohol content,” he writes.

It is exactly this segment of drinkers that Shufelt wants to target with its beers. While he estimates that 50% of American adults drink “barely,” he’s not just targeting half the population — he’s targeting the whole.

Shufelt said 80% of those who buy his beers drink alcohol at other times. He described these people as “flexible sober” — people who drink regularly but choose sobriety occasionally.

“We’re not really trying to remove alcohol occasions. We add five days of the week, we add 50% of the population in the category,” he said. “We’re not trying to bring back prohibition, but we’re trying to give people better options.”

Disrupt the beer market

The Athletic Brewing Company is on a mission to achieve the
Athletic’s 25 calorie light beer.Athletic Brewery

Of course, the perennial question around NA beer is taste.

Making low-alcohol beer has always been at odds with its great taste. Brewers usually have two options for making beer with little or no alcohol: boil the alcohol after brewing the beer or stop the fermentation process early. Neither usually produces delicious results.

Athletic says it uses an “innovative and proprietary method” to make non-alcoholic beer, although it is mum on the process. Shufelt said the company uses organic malt in almost all of its beers which he described as “extremely uneconomical, but of very high quality”.

He attributes the rest to using the best ingredients and keeping the brewing process completely in-house at Athletic’s facilities, including its new 150,000 square foot facility in Milford, Connecticut, which Shufelt says should help. the company to rapidly ramp up production and distribution.

“Our co-founder, John [Walker] – when we teamed up in 2017, we were brewing at home in an empty warehouse for a year – he said: “We never release a product unless it stacks up to love the best craft beer and is completely indistinguishable from alcoholic beer,” Shufelt said. “And to his credit, he really accomplished that.

The company notes that it won more than 40 awards from 2018 to 2021, including honors from the Great American Beer Festival, World Beer Awards and US Open Beer Championship in 2021.

Athletic has also attracted high-profile investors, including some well-known athletes including NFL stars JJ Watt and Justin Tuck and cyclist Lance Armstrong. Shufelt says there are “a number of other celebrity investors” he has yet to reveal.

The products can be found at over 15,000 retailers nationwide.

Rogers of the IWSR noted that what sets Athletic apart from NA beers of yore is its range of styles, including hazy IPAs, stouts and seasonal options like Oktoberfest beers, something that beer brands NA “starters” weren’t offering when Athletic arrived on the scene.

Rogers compared the rise of NA craft beer to how the craft beer boom of the 2010s disrupted traditional beer brands and said consumers should expect to see “more detail radius space being dedicated to motion.”

For his part, Shufelt estimates that NA beer will account for more than 20% of the beer market by 2030, a significant jump from 2017, when it accounted for just 0.3%.

“I think it’s going to surprise everyone how big it ends up being,” Shufelt said. “People are going to be super excited to be able to drink great beer any time of their week, of their day, of their life.”

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