How Athletic Beer Won Over America

Nonalcoholic beers used to be a lowly punch line—until Athletic Brewing Company came along and transformed the whole industry. Here’s the story of how, in just a few short years, its cofounders built a modern $60 million brand.

How Athletic Beer Won Over America

Photographs: Getty Images; Collage: Gabe Conte

Athletic entered my life on one of those stupid perfect early summer afternoons when very few things in the world sound better than sitting outside and having a beer. I was, as it so happens, on a friend’s stoop in Brooklyn. Another friend arrived with a couple six-packs of the nonalcoholic beer brand’s Hazy IPA. This friend, he loves to drink, but he figured I’d want to try it. Suspicious, I cracked one open.

Nonalcoholic beer—I know. I hadn’t touched a drink for over five years at that point, and even I turned my nose up at the stuff. For starters, I preferred wine or liquor before. Also: It was nonalcoholic beer.

But, lo! The Athletic tasted good. Undeniably good. Bitter and complex and full. Deliriously, pleasurably cold. The exact right amount of foamy. It tasted real. I drank about three more cans. (I realize the above scenario sounds like it was scripted by a wholesome, well-adjusted Don Draper.)

Athletic beer has since become ubiquitous: intermingling with regular beer cans at parties, sold at Whole Foods stores and corner delis, slapped on the beer menus at restaurants. A coworker arrived at a barbecue last month to find that “60% of the cooler was Athletic beer.” Unlike, say, seltzer, it was meant for savoring. It was meant for socializing. You could order a round with the drinkers, linger a while longer than you might have otherwise, and feel more at ease with not partaking.

Or you could still partake! There’s reportedly a popular beer and shot combo in Florida called “The Wild Buffalo”—a shot of bourbon, chased with an Athletic Run Wild IPA. At the Pencil Factory, a bar in Brooklyn, they have an unofficial joke special called “The Hypocrite.”

“Not too long ago, a customer was in the bar and ordered a tequila shot with an Athletic beer,” owner Brian Taylor told me with a chuckle. “And our manager said spontaneously, ‘We should call that The Hypocrite cocktail!’”

How, exactly, did Athletic Brewing Company turn one of the most unappealing, underwhelming, and frankly all-time depressing beverages into a booming $60 million a year business? How did it pocket a $50 million investment from Keurig Dr Pepper, land partnerships with Netflix and JetBlue, and sweep top prizes at beer contests around the globe? How did it build a loyal customer base, 80% of which drinks alcohol but still chooses to pay almost $15 for a six-pack for the nonalcoholic stuff?

Beyond that, how did it become an inescapable modern brand, one that has—can by can—changed the way we drink?

Drive two hours north of New York City, along the jammed-up commuter corridor. Tucked away in the small coastal city of Milford, Connecticut, you’ll find the world’s largest nonalcoholic brewery.

The first thing that hits you is the smell. Warm, fermenting beer permeates the cavernous 150,000-square-foot space—some of the 200,000 barrels of that will be produced annually here. Athletic moved into this place last summer, from its original, smaller location in a neighboring town. Stacks of empty cans line the walls from floor to sky-high ceiling. Each one is destined to be filled with beer, blasted in a tunnel pasteurizer, boxed up into 6 or 12 packs, then loaded onto pallets to make a journey to one of the 50,000 stores or 10,000 restaurants or bars where Athletic is sold. (Athletic also has a second brewery location in San Diego.)

The company’s founders, 40-year-old Bill Shufelt and 43-year-old John Walker, meet me in a glass-walled conference room in the adjoining offices. Shufelt has the clean-shaven, all-American look of a guy who used to play college football at Middlebury, which he did, and a soft-spoken earnestness about him. Walker is wirier and more taciturn, with a light goatee. On each of their wrists is a matching blue Whoop band.

We get to talking, and I’m soon distracted when I see an Athletic employee wander over to a communal fridge and crack open a beer. It’s a bit after 2 p.m.—certainly 5 o’clock somewhere, but not here on the Eastern Seaboard. This happens over and over: the totally casual, midday office beer. Even when you know it doesn’t contain alcohol, it can feel disorientating.

“It stops being weird,” Walker assures me.

John Walker and Bill Shufelt. 

Photograph courtesy of Athletic Company; Collage: Gabe Conte

Before founding Athletic in 2017, Shufelt had been employed at a hedge fund, a gig that comes with a built-in work-hard, play-hard ethos. He was also big into endurance races, and decided to take a break from alcohol to feel and perform better.

It worked—only trouble was, all the attendant social responsibilities of his job and his life. “I’d never really thought of nonalcoholic beer except to make fun of nonalcoholic beer,” Shufelt says. “Until I was actually looking to drink good nonalcoholic beer.”

Ever the finance guy, Shufelt took a closer look at the numbers.

“It turns out over 30% of people [in America] don’t drink at all, and almost 60 percent of people barely drink. That’s a ton of money left on the table, so the economic opportunity was obvious to me,” Shufelt says. “Everyone always thought the occasion base for nonalcoholic beer was one percent of one percent of the time. It’s pretty much totally the opposite—most people are not drinking most of the time.

At the suggestion of his wife, he quit his job to found his own nonalcoholic brewery. Getting a brewer to partner with him—now, that was the tough part. Shufelt endured dozens of rejections before he met Walker. The craft brewer had been making a living for the past 15 years in New Mexico, but was looking to move his family back to his home state.

Walker came across an ad encouraging brewers to apply for a job in “the most innovative sector in craft beer.” He was intrigued. “It was beer and brewing, and it happened to be in Connecticut. I was like, ‘Wow, what are the odds?’” Walker remembers. Shufelt had, of course, conveniently left out the part where it was nonalcoholic.

“In that first summer on the market, we got into situations where we couldn’t make enough beer,” Shufelt remembers. “We went from, ironically, everyone saying, ‘No one is going to drink this. We don’t want to sell it,’ to people complaining about the shortage and asking, ‘Why can’t you make more of this? Why did you build such a small brewery?’ It’s like, ‘Well, we built such a small brewery because all we heard was no.’”

Collage: Gabe Conte

Beer has, for many, many thousands of years, brought humans together. They drank it in the ancient world from Egypt to China, carved odes to it on Sumerian tablets, chugged it all through the Middle Ages. Nonalcoholic beer, in the United States at least, was a product of dour necessity that emerged during Prohibition. The premise was kind of doomed from the start, associated with the heavy hand of Puritanical governmental restriction. By the 1990s, Anheuser-Busch launched O’Doul’s, which became shorthand for nonalcoholic beer. At the time when Athletic launched, O’Doul’s was still taking up 45% of the market.

What makes Athletic taste so mind-bogglingly similar to beer beer is the brewing process. Most nonalcoholic beer is regular beer, usually a macro lager, that has the ethanol boiled off at the end. An afterthought, a subtraction—and that’s exactly what it tastes like. “Once you start doing that, you change the chemistry. You change the mouthfeel and you change the experience,” Walker says.

Walker, meanwhile, wondered: What if you just added things together to result in a nonalcoholic craft beer, instead of an alcoholic beer that needed to be altered. He developed a proprietary and secret process to do just that. “We’re able to design recipes exactly as they should be and respect the ingredients,” he says.

It took a couple of years of tinkering with 10-gallon batches in Walker’s garage until he and Shufelt got something they were satisfied with. “We’ve weaved together the steps [of brewing beer] in a unique format and mosaic to come up with a product that is fully fermented and under 0.5 percent ABV,” he explains.

Today, Athletic is the number two nonalcoholic beer in the country, but is on track to surpass Heineken 0.0. And while beer sales in general are plummeting, the nonalcohol category is growing. At the time when Athletic launched, nonalcoholic beer made up 0.3% of beer sales; now it’s closer to 2%. According to Nielsen, the American nonalcoholic beer market was worth $328.6 million in 2022, 19.5% more than it was in 2021.

If O’Doul’s channels a sad uncle in a wood-paneled basement, Athletic was savvy enough to paint itself as aspirational from the start. The cans are pleasing to the eye, labeled with graphics that evoke mountain vistas and open ocean. Most brews have between 25 to 90 calories, a fraction of the amount in alcoholic craft beer for the same robust taste. To drink Athletic is akin to going on a shopping spree at REI: There’s a general aura of brisk vitality about the whole endeavor, as if you’re outdoors in the company of a great rock climber or a triathlete, even if you’re just a guy wearing gorpcore.

Even the name of the company telegraphs as much. “We wanted a word that was undeniably positive,” Shufelt explained. “It’s easy to say in a loud or bar restaurant so someone could hear it and understand it. Previously, when you tried to order a nonalcoholic beer, it’d be like the music went off wherever you were.”

While Athletic was focused on developing a specific fermentation process for its product, something else was fortuitously brewing in the culture.

“Seven-five percent of nonalcoholic beer drinkers were over age 45 when we started,” Shufelt says. “That has flipped. Seventy-five percent are under age 45 now.”

Yes, millennials—those of us who once tasted the forbidden nectar of original recipe Four Loko—are now among the leading consumers of nonalcoholic beer. Per Gallup, Alcohol consumption is down across America, and even Gen Z is drinking far less than its elders. Look close enough, and Athletic reflects back our rapidly changing cultural attitudes toward how we imbibe. Quality aside, some of the company’s success can be attributed to a classic “right place, right time” situation.

America’s $450 billion wellness obsession certainly didn’t hurt. The wildly popular neuroscientist Andrew Huberman’s podcast about the effects of alcohol? The second-most listened to podcast of last year. (The conclusion: It’s bad for you.) Similar celebrity longevity experts like David Sinclair push the idea that even one glass of wine is harmful to your health. Silicon Valley leaders, in an endless—and occasionally creepy—quest to biohack, have sworn off the stuff en masse.

Plus, millennials are just getting older. Marching toward their 30s and 40s, they might have gotten sober. Or pregnant. Or their wife is pregnant. Or they’re training for a big bike race, or they want to lose some belly fat, or it’s just a Tuesday night and they don’t want to be hungover at work tomorrow. And you know what? That sure can make a $15 six-pack of nonalcoholic beer worth it.

Collage: Gabe Conte

Two years after I first tried Athletic, I found myself at a party on one of those stupid perfect early summer evenings. The host, my friend Nozlee Samadzadeh, an engineer at The New York Times, had filled a kiddie pool with drinks. Beer and wine, yes, but also those blue and yellow Athletic cans, all bobbing around together in ice.

Samadzadeh first encountered Athletic while recovering from a concussion in 2021, when she was advised to avoid alcohol. “When I could hang again, I wanted to hang,” she said when I asked her about it later. She tried some other nonalcoholic beer but wasn’t sold until she landed on Athletic. Even when she could drink again, she still kept it around.

“I want to have NA options for people to have without having to ask for it or seem exceptional. And it does look nice,” she said. “There have been times when I’ve said to someone, ‘Oh, you know that’s NA, right?’ and they’ll be like, ‘I have no idea.’ Which is cool and feels like progress.”

What all the wellness and biohacking bros seem to miss is something else that’s crucial to our health. Maybe even the most crucial of all: community. Take the Blue Zones, the regions on earth that have been identified as where people live the longest. Along with eating whole food diets and staying active, what sets these places apart is a tight-knit sense of community.

And that might be the single most appealing thing that Athletic has provided people. We’re already in an existing nationwide loneliness epidemic. If you’re not drinking alcohol, for whatever reason—from sobriety to marathon training—it can add to the sense of isolation.

Even if chugging beer isn’t physically healthy, there’s something about cracking open a cold one around other people that is. Athletic proved that it doesn’t have to be alcoholic to provide the same much-needed ritual pleasure.

And if you want to hang, you can still hang. Later that year, while renting a vacation house, Samadzadeh remembered something else. “People were stealing my Athletic,” she said, “to play beer pong.”

Gabriella Paiella is a GQ senior staff writer. 

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