What do donkeys, beer, and athletes have in common? Burro racing. And Caitlin Landesberg.
Legend has it that inebriated miners in Colorado began racing alongside their pack animals in the 19th century. The sport continues today, and Landesberg, 37, decided to give it a try when her father started fostering donkeys at the family farm in Windsor, California, last year. She and one of her father's donkeys, Lucy (short for Lucifer), have been training for months in anticipation of their first race in October.
"She's called Lucifer for a reason," Landesberg says. "She's an excellent runner, but we don't always get along. It's really been challenging, but it builds my empathy and has been a great outlet."
Taking up burro racing isn't the only time Landesberg has jogged off the beaten path--her San Francisco-based company is also rather unusual: Sufferfest Beer Company makes low-gluten, low-sodium beer for athletes. Even with ingredients like bee pollen and apple cider vinegar, marketing beer to a health-conscious demographic seems an odd proposition. And yet, just three years after its 2016 launch, Sufferfest was acquired by beer behemoth Sierra Nevada.
A lifelong athlete who grew up in the Bay Area, Landesberg found herself looking for an inexpensive hobby while she began her career in product marketing after college. She began long-distance trail running with a club that met on Saturdays, and quickly fell in love with running culture--so much so that in 2011, she took a position as director of marketing for Strava, creator of the popular social media app for runners and cyclists.
Landesberg saw that from a branding perspective, most beer has nothing to do with athleticism. But that hasn't stopped race organizers from letting brewers sponsor events--and pass out their product at the finish line. And in fact, some studies have shown that beer isn't a bad way to recover from a workout. As a runner and as a marketer, Landesberg saw that there was a place for a beer brand designed for athletes--minus the hoppy flavors and high alcohol content.
"I started thinking, why am I just drinking this for the sake of drinking this?" Landesberg says. "I needed something that I can relate to, feel better about in my gut, and that is relevant to what I've just done."
She signed up for courses in UC Davis's brewing program, and teamed up with a brewmaster to create a few bloat-free recipes. She shared the brews with her local running community, and to her delight, people loved it.
By 2015, Landesberg was ready to make her home-brewing a full-time, self-funded venture. She left her job at Strava to launch Sufferfest, and by March 2016, the company was selling a pilsner and an IPA at local markets.
From there, Sufferfest's product list expanded steadily and distribution grew from three states to more than 40 in less than nine months. The company became a Certified B Corporation in 2017, joining a growing roster of companies that have legally committed to making a positive social and environmental impact. Sierra Nevada, which has never made an acquisition before, plans to place Sufferfest in grocery chains nationwide in 2020, including Target and Whole Foods. Landesberg remains CEO of Sufferfest, where she is working on growing the brand and launching new products--when she's not training for her next burro race, that is.