Drinks Innovators of the Year: Bill Shufelt

The bold, true-to-craft flavors of Athletic beers have helped overhaul the NA category's reputation, erasing decades-old stigmas one six-pack after another.

Portrait of Bill Shufelt
Photo: Athletic Brewing Co.

Most weekends, Bill Shufelt hits the beach in Encinitas, California, looking to mix business with leisure. Shufelt packs his cooler with Athletic Brewing Co.'s nonalcoholic IPAs and lagers and gives cans to beachgoers. "I love sharing our beer," says Shufelt, Athletic's CEO and cofounder. "This is the one idea that truly drives me." Shufelt worked on Wall Street for more than a decade, releasing steam by running and skiing. He liked craft beer, but alcohol's negative effects proved incompatible with his active pursuits and high-powered job. Shufelt quit drinking, but he found nonalcoholic beers to be nothing special, to say the least. "I was customer one and built the company because it was such an unmet need," he says.

See all of Food & Wine's 2022 Drinks Innovators of the Year

Creating quality nonalcoholic beer requires rethinking the brewing process. (In the United States, nonalcoholic beer contains no more than .5% alcohol by volume.) Breweries typically remove alcohol via heating or filtration, or they halt fermentation by cooling beer to near freezing. Those methods can compromise taste, aroma, and body. To crack the flavorful code, Shufelt partnered with medal-winning brewer John Walker, who spent nine months tweaking temperatures, adjusting water chemistry, and sourcing organic malts to develop a proprietary method that produces only minute amounts of alcohol, eliminating the need for harsh alchohol-reduction strategies. "One of the most complicated things we do is nothing," says Walker, cofounder and the chief procurement officer.

Bill Shufelt

Moderation is a trend that's not going away anytime soon.

— Bill Shufelt

Athletic launched in 2018 with its Run Wild IPA and Upside Dawn Golden Ale, finding a ready audience with runners, cyclists, and anyone craving a buzz-free cold one. Since then, the bold, true-to-craft flavors of Athletic beers have helped overhaul the NA category's reputation, erasing decades-old stigmas one six-pack after another. In 2020, Athletic's sales increased nearly 500%, and this past year, Walker says, the brewery released about 45 different alcohol-free beers, including sour ales, hazy IPAs, and Mexican lagers.

"Capacity has always been our biggest limiting factor," Shufelt says. Athletic addressed that recently by completing an expansion at its San Diego facility (purchased in 2020) and is building a larger Connecticut brewery set to open this year. The company is also looking beyond the craft beer crowd with the 25-calorie Athletic Light pilsner, a broad-appeal bet on a less-boozy future. "Moderation is a trend that's not going away anytime soon," Shufelt says.

What to Try

Run Wild IPA ($13/6-pack)
Athletic's flagship beer leans on five fragrant Pacific Northwest hops, including tropical Citra and Mosaic, for a pleasing bitterness that's never pummeling.

Upside Dawn Golden Ale ($13/6-pack)
The gluten-reduced golden ale contains organic Vienna malt for a honeyed character that plays well with the earthy, lemony hops. Each 12-ounce serving contains just 50 calories.

Where to Find Athletic

Website: athleticbrewing.com
Instagram: @athleticbrewing
Twitter: @AthleticBrewing
Podcast: Without Compromise

Meet the 2022 Drinks Innovators of the Year

Fawn Weaver and Victoria Eady Butler | Bill Shufelt | Morgan McLachlan | Jason Haas | Graciela Ángeles Carreño | Jackie Summers

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