About five years ago Bill Shufelt gave up alcohol. “Nothing super crazy ever happened to me, it was just the right time to stop drinking and it didn’t fit in my personal or professional life,” he says.
But the craft beer fan, who had fallen in love with beer while living in Vermont, quickly realized what many who take the non-alcoholic plunge do: high-quality non-alcoholic drinks are often impossible to find. The kind of beverage Shufelt was craving, one that he could look forward to, one that could be enjoyed at dinner with his wife or during a night out with friends, just didn’t exist.
Not in America, anyhow.
Shufelt realized he had stumbled on a need, and the stock trader who was born in Darien and lives in Greenwich became obsessed with the idea of brewing quality non-alcoholic beer. Beer that tasted like the brews he enjoyed at breweries in Vermont. Beer that smelled of hops and malt and all the flavors so many love.
“We set out on the science, which was definitely a multiyear process. There’s a reason nobody’s making great-tasting alcohol-free beer. It has been a very tough road,” Shufelt says. To help travel that road he enlisted John Walker, who had previously worked as a brewer at Second Street Brewery in New Mexico. After many, many test batches, the duo launched Athletic Brewing Co. in Stratford in May. It is the only brewery in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River specializing in an alcohol-free brew. There are only two other non-alcoholic breweries in the U.S. that Shufelt knows about: Bravus Brewing Co. in California and WellBeing Brewing Co. in Missouri.
The 8,000-square-foot brewery, which boasts a 2,000-square-foot taproom, offers several different styles, and is being distributed throughout Fairfield, Litchfield and New Haven counties by Star Distributors. The brews will also be sold online at places such as amazon.com (because they are not an alcoholic beverage, they can be shipped).
The brewery is marketing the product to exercisers and the health conscious as a lower-calorie alternative to alcoholic beer and sugary drinks such as soda. A can of the brewery’s Run Wild IPA is 70 calories and its Upside Dawn Golden Ale is 50, far below a regular craft beer’s calorie range which often hovers between 180 to 200 calories. Even low-calorie beer like Michelob Ultra is 95 calories. To take advantage of these low calories and the beers’ natural refreshing qualities, the brewery has a presence at athletic events such as races and triathlons.
Those who struggle with alcohol addiction seem a natural market for the brewery’s products, but this community is split about whether drinking beer of any kind, even non-alcoholic beer, is appropriate. Out of respect for this, Shufelt says they are not targeting those in recovery directly.
Technically Athletic Brewing’s beer does have alcohol, but it’s less than 0.5 percent, a negligible amount equivalent to what you’d find in orange juice. To get to this low level of alcohol, large producers of non-alcoholic beer burn off the alcohol, Shufelt says. That process, along with these companies using low-quality ingredients to begin with, results in a product that is not known for its taste.
“The existing non-alcoholic beverages are so low in quality that whenever you do order it at a restaurant, everyone looks at you and wonders, what did you do? We really wanted to make something that people would be proud to hold and enjoy,” Shufelt says.
In terms of exactly how they create their more flavorful non-alcoholic brews, Shufelt and Walker are tight-lipped. They will say it is not by burning off the alcohol, and it involves small tweaks to every step of the process. “[We’re] using all great ingredients and we’re literally just brewing high-quality, extremely low-alcohol beer. It is and isn’t that simple,” Walker says.
Shufelt believes there will be plenty to toast for the future of non-alcoholic beverages, both in Connecticut and beyond.
“Europe has a fully mature non-alcoholic beer market, where it’s 5 to 15 percent of the beer market depending on what country you’re looking at. It’s grown 60 percent over the last five years in Germany. It was up like 20 percent in the UK last year,” he says. He adds that millennials are drinking less on average than previous generations. “It’s definitely a much more mindful generation.”
During my visit I tried the brewery’s IPA and golden ale (unfortunately, a stout wasn’t quite ready). I can’t say I’d choose them in place of traditional beer, but I would have easily been fooled into believing there was alcohol in them, and I was genuinely excited to take a six-pack home with me. After all, what other beer is appropriate to drink with breakfast?