Once considered only a sliver of the global alcohol beverage market, in 2022, the global non-alcohol beer market size value was more than $22 billion, according to Selbyville, Del.-based Global Market Insights (GMI). Further, in its November “Non-Alcoholic Beer Market” report, GMI notes that with consumer shifts toward “healthier” alternatives, the market is anticipated to depict a 5.5% CAGR through 2023-2032.
“The non-alcoholic beer category is an exciting white space that has been rejuvenated and kick-started back to life by Athletic Brewing and other emerging brands,” says Bill Shufelt, co-founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing Co., Milford, Conn.
Apart from many spaces backed by specific trends or flavors, the non-alcohol sector has “ultra-durable mindfulness trends blowing behind it,” he explains. “Athletic Brewing exists at the intersection of all those areas.
“We are making full-flavored non-alcoholic beer that allows drinkers to stay social without sacrificing any of their other personal goals,” Shulfelt continues.
Yet, as a pioneer in the non-alcohol (NA) space, Athletic Brewing is not just riding the “better-for-you” wave — it’s a leader in innovation.
“We are America’s leading non-alcoholic craft brewery, and we drove about 40% of overall NA category growth last year,” Shufelt says. “We own and operate two custom breweries on both coasts, which enables us to control 100% of the production process and continuously experiment and innovate.
“Last year, we brewed over 70 different recipes and we continue to push the boundaries of what is possible in NA beer,” he continues. “All of that innovation has helped reframe the way consumers think about non-alcoholic beer.”
Expanding its reach
Where today’s consumers have access to a wide variety of non-alcohol drinks, in 2018 — when Athletic launched its brews — it was difficult to find non-alcohol beer on the menu, Shufelt notes.
“Now, our brews are now sold in nearly 50,000 retail locations, including 10,000 on-premise establishments,” he says. “Consumers have much greater access to a wide array of options, giving them greater flexibility to moderate consumption no matter where they’re drinking.”
Moreover, Athletic Brewing is distributed in all 50 states. Consumers can use the store locator on the company’s website and mobile app to find Athletic brews.
Further, Shufelt points to the company’s expanding presence outside the United States.
“We have the most comprehensive distribution in Canada, the UK and France,” he says. “We will be looking to expand our reach and develop additional international relationships in the years ahead in response to growing demand.”
Last fall, Keurig Dr Pepper (KDP), Burlington, Mass., and Plano, Texas, announced it was making a $50 million investment in Athletic Brewing Co., providing the company a minority stake in the operations.
Shefult notes that the KDP investment aims to help Athletic scale its business.
“Our partnership with KDP is all about further expanding Athletic Brewing’s presence in the non-alcoholic beer market,” he says. “With their investment, we gain not only a capital partner, but also a trusted advisor who can really show us what the road ahead looks like within scaled beverage manufacturing.
“They embrace our mission of brewing great-tasting NA beers and are excited to help us bring more brews to more places,” Shufelt continues. “We look forward to having an advisor in our corner who operates at a large scale and knows the road ahead.”
Standing out from the crowd
Beyond expanding its physical presence, Athletic Brewing is focused on bringing a variety of optimal drinks to the non-alcohol market through its unique brewing process.
“We developed a proprietary brewing method that involves several changes to the traditional brewing process,” Shufelt explains. “This allows us to fully ferment our brews to less than 0.5% ABV, which is the legal limit for non-alcoholic beer in the U.S., and deliver a great-tasting alternative to full-strength offerings.
“In addition to our proprietary brewing method, we’ve also invested significantly in food safety and quality control processes,” he continues. “All of our canned brews are tunnel pasteurized, allowing us to deliver shelf-stable products to consumers that are both great-tasting and food safe."
Of all Athletic’s offerings, Shufelt notes that the majority of volume comes from five brands ― Run Wild IPA, Upside Dawn Golden, Free Wave Hazy IPA, Athletic Lite and Atletica Cerveza. “Our portfolio is very balanced, but Run Wild and Upside Dawn lead the way,” he says.
In addition to Athletic’s core brews, the company also actively produces limited-time offerings to further engage consumers.
“Our incredibly talented brewing team produced over 70 different recipes last year. The majority of those brands were sold directly to consumers via our own eCommerce platform,” Shufelt says. “We think of our website as a virtual taproom, and being able to deliver a wide selection of styles not only helps us reach new customers but it also serves as a way for us to offer our most loyal supporters something new and exciting every month.”
This February, the company relaunched its limited-edition Soul Sour in celebration of Black History Month.
First launched in 2021, Soul Sour was inspired by Athletic teammates wanting to “celebrate the beauty, achievement, and legacy of Black culture,” Shufelt says.
“One-hundred percent of profits from the 2023 release of Soul Sour will be donated to organizations working to break down barriers in the brewing industry, including Lifting Lucy, the Sacred Heart University Brewers Scholarship Fund, and other impact programs,” Shufelt notes. “This year’s brew features original label artwork from Sabrena Khadija, a Sierra Leonean-American illustrator based in Washington, D.C., who drew inspiration from iconic pieces of Black art from the ‘90s.
“Athletic is constantly trying to widen the aperture of audiences being invited into craft beer,” Shulfelt continues. “Projects like Soul Sour are a huge opportunity for us to showcase everything that is great about the craft world and share it with more communities.”
Beyond non-alcohol beer, Athletic Brewing offers Daypack, a sparkling water infused with hops.
“DayPack is a different product intended for different occasions,” Shufelt explains. “DayPack is a premium naturally calorie-free sparkling water infused with hops and natural flavors. It’s meant to be an all-day sipper and a premium alternative to soda or other sugary beverages. Athletic brews are typically consumed during adult-beverage occasions, but DayPack can fit multiple occasions.
“We know from surveying consumers that they are drinking DayPack throughout the day, using it as a mixer, and consuming it when they want a break from beer,” he continues. “We’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible with DayPack, and have only just started to tell the DayPack story.”
Although released in early 2021, Shulfelt notes that DayPack mostly has been available direct-to-consumer on Athletic Brewing’s website.
“We tested it in three markets last year ― including Oregon, Washington and Maine ― and we’ll be expanding availability with a variety pack this spring,” he explains. “We are constantly innovating and working to develop products that authentically fit our lifestyles.
“Nothing about Athletic has been born in focus groups and we have to be genuinely excited about an opportunity in order to pursue it,” Shufelt continues. “There will surely be more innovations, however, we don’t speak to our emerging pipeline of ideas. That said, we do have some really amazing collaborations on the horizon that we’re excited to share with the world.”
Where Athletic Brewing Co. sits at the center of the non-alcohol sector, it can go without saying that with the “sober curious” movement gaining traction, the company is well positioned to engage with this trend.
Recently, Athletic partnered with Boston-based WHOOP, a wearable technology company, to explore the effects alcohol has on sleep, recovery and fitness.
“Our partnership with WHOOP was very successful,” Shufelt says. “Over 5,000 WHOOP members joined our ‘Give Dry a Try’ team, and we had an incredibly engaged group that voluntarily self-reported their habits through the WHOOP mobile app. Although the data was analyzed for trends and possible correlations, it wasn’t a controlled study.”
Shulfelt shares some key takeaways of the study, as follows:
- Nearly 95% of members reported fewer days with alcohol in January compared to their baseline period.
- On average, members decreased alcohol days by 25% in January.
- 29% of members reported alcohol on less than 10% of days in January
- 16% of members reported zero days of alcohol in January.
- Give Dry a Try team members saw greater improvement in their HRVs (+5.0%) and Recovery Scores (+6.8%) compared to the baseline WHOOP population.
Aside from its partnership with WHOOP, Shufelt notes that Athletic Brewing is set to further engage consumers in 2023, and beyond.
“We have a lot of great stuff planned for 2023,” he says. “In addition to new ‘Fit For All Times’ ads that will be launching in May, we’ve got several partnerships in the works, including year two of our ‘Personal Record’ brew with IRONMAN.
“We’ve also teamed up with another fast-growing non-alcoholic beverage company on a first-of-its-kind brew that will launch in March and an acclaimed chef on a radler that will drop in the spring,” he continues. “Meanwhile, our social media team continues to put out tons of engaging content, especially on TikTok where we’re releasing new videos almost daily.”
Eyes toward the future
When it comes to what’s in store for non-alcohol beer, and Athletic’s role in the future, Shulfelt notes that the category is just getting started.
“The occasions where alcohol fits are extremely limited,” he explains. “We know that 60% of American adults consume less than one drink per week, and there’s a tremendous opportunity for non-alcoholic beer to capture those occasions that call for a great-tasting beverage.
“With that as a backdrop, we see an enormous opportunity to add both occasions and populations to the adult beverage world,” he continues. “While NA beer has grown from about 0.3% to 2% of the overall beer market in the past four years, we believe that could climb into the double digits over the next decade.”
As Athletic Brewing is a leader in product quality and taste ― winning over 38 awards last year alone ― its focus is on pushing the category forward for many years to come through both product innovation and marketing, Shulfelt says.
“Our plan is to keep doing what we’re doing, just on a bigger scale,” he says. “We set out to have an enormous positive impact on the world five years ago, and we feel that we are just getting started.”