News The Rise of Athletic Brewing – Where it Started and Where Will it Go

Who would have thought? One of the most talked about beers in America doesn’t have alcohol. Athletic Brewing has become the king of the fastest growing segment in the alcohol beverage industry. And it all started here on ProBrewer.

Founded in 2017 by hedge-fund trader Bill Shufelt and craft brewer John Walker, Athletic Brewing has infused the U.S. beer market with NA beer that people actually want to drink. Along with other “new-gen” NA brewers, Athletic uses innovative techniques to make non-alcoholic beer that tastes good.

The Wall Street Journal recently published a detailed account (behind a paywall) of Athletic’s journey to success, from its unconventional founding by a financial professional who teamed up with a craft brewer to become the leading player in NA beverages. How do two people so far apart in the working world come together? On ProBrewer of course. Shufelt had spent months looking for someone within the beer industry to help him on the production side. He then posted an ad in the Help Wanted section on

John Walker, a brewer living in New Mexico responded to the ad. Another match made in heavenly beer.

ProBrewer is proud of our role in supporting changing the face of brewing both with match-making Athletic founders to revolutionize and expand the category, plus partnering with Athletic in raising over $500,000 for The MJF technical brewing scholarships foundation. Photo by Erik Eidem, Eidem Visual Media

They started out by homebrewing 5-gallon test batches. It was a long process. It took about a 100 batches and nine months before they landed on a technique that delivered the flavor profile they were looking for.

Using street tactics such as small group tastings for on-premise wait staff and a professional approach to building a strong distribution network backed by sales calls to the corporate buyers at leading chain stores, a brand was built.

The timing was right. A confluence of changing consumer drinking habits prompted beer customers across the age spectrum to seek both low and no-alcoholic beverages more than ever before.

Tapping into this broader trend of moderation, Athletics’ business model focuses on offering NA beer as a complement to alcoholic beverages, rather than a replacement, attracting a diverse customer base from all age groups.

Athletic was up 75% in the foodstores channel according to Beer Marketers Insights and is now the top selling beer in that channel. That’s not a typo – the 14th biggest selling beer in grocery stores is a non-alcoholic beer that outsells brands such as Lagunitas. Athletic is also the number-one selling beer at Whole Food Markets.

The U.S. beer market is undergoing the biggest transformation in at least 70s years. Sales are flat, craft is down, shipments are down, draft sales are down. Americans are drinking less, and younger Americans are drinking the least. And for the first time, ordering a nonalcoholic beer at a bar is sociably normal and accepted – especially among young drinkers.

“Most beverage-alcohol trends are one-for-one substitutions within the same occasion,” said Shufelt in the Wall Street Journal article. “But most nonalcoholic beer occasions are totally new occasions. New days of the week. New hours of the day. More rounds that people wouldn’t have drunk.”

Like, you mean you can have a beer before going on a run?

Those of us in the beer industry will naturally ask the question we always ask when a new style or type of beer rockets off in growth; is it a fad or will it sustain? Ice beers, alcopops, hard seltzers, cold brewed. The list is long. Most categories that show explosive growth over a short period of time fizzle out and fade away. But some have prevailed. Craft beer and low-calorie beer to name two.

My hunch is that NA beer has a lot more run room and is here to stay.

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