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In 2017, Bill Shufelt, a hedge fund guy from Connecticut, was tired of the back-to-back hangovers he experienced from work dinners and realized there was a gap in the market for a non-alcoholic beer that was both tasty and aspirational enough to enjoy in front of clients. Despite facing rejections from venture capitalists, Athletic Brewing eventually became the number one selling beer at Whole Foods, with celebrity ambassadors like J.J Watt, Naomi Osaka, and Karlie Kloss endorsing the brand. The company’s co-founder and head brewer, John Walker, who previously worked at Second Street Brewery in New Mexico, is credited with creating a near-beer with a flavor profile described as “bitter and complex.”

Athletic Brewing’s success comes at a time when the wellness trend is on the rise, with an anticipated growth in the non-alcoholic wine and beer market to surpass $30 billion by 2025. In 2022, Keurig Dr Pepper invested $50 million in Athletic Brewing, taking a minority stake in the company. Major beer brands like Budweiser and Coors are now also pushing their own non-alcoholic beers, with Anheuser-Busch aiming for 20% of their global beer sales to be alcohol-free by 2025. This surge in interest in non-alcoholic beer indicates a shift in consumer preferences towards healthier options in the beverage industry.

Athletic’s founders discuss the origins of the idea behind the non-alcoholic beer, with Shufelt recalling the difficulty of securing investments, including being turned down by 120 venture capitalists initially. They also share some early mishaps in the business, such as dealing with a malfunctioning chiller that caused beer spillages and financial losses. Despite these challenges, they were able to refine the taste of their beer by focusing on key elements like malt, hops, water, and carbonation to create a product that resonates with consumers.

The company’s marketing strategy includes leveraging e-commerce to connect directly with customers, allowing for faster iteration loops in beer flavors. Additionally, the brand has worked on removing the social stigma associated with non-alcoholic beers by getting endorsements from elite athletes like J.J. Watt, who enjoys the beer while watching football games and playing sports. By making non-alcoholic beer more socially acceptable, Athletic Brewing has expanded its market reach to places where traditional beer may not typically be sold, such as state parks, climbing gyms, and offices.

Despite facing initial rejections and challenges, Athletic Brewing has emerged as a leader in the non-alcoholic beer market, with a strong presence in retail outlets like Whole Foods and a significant investment from Keurig Dr Pepper. The founders have continued to innovate and expand their product offerings, demonstrating the potential for growth in the non-alcoholic beverage sector. Shufelt credits his wife for inspiring him to pursue his entrepreneurial passion and make a positive impact by normalizing moderation and de-stigmatizing non-alcoholic options. The success of Athletic Brewing serves as a testament to the power of perseverance and innovation in creating a successful business in a competitive industry.

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