Bill Shufelt, 39, started his craft beer business in 2017 in a moribund segment of an otherwise booming industry: non-alcoholic brews. Shufelt bet that there were many nondrinkers like him who wanted lagers and IPAs that tasted better than water, and were fit for fancy dinners as well as the finish line. Since then, his Athletic Brewing Company, based in Stratford, Connecticut, has raised about $75 million from investors. Sales were nearly $37 million last year, and non-alcoholic brews, while still a small portion of the $109 billion global craft beer market, are its fastest-growing category. Before helping create that momentum, however, Shufelt encountered plenty of folks who found his idea for a product hard to swallow. --As told to Doug Cantor
I love craft beer, but I stopped drinking in 2013. I had a job as a trader at a hedge fund, and I was out at work dinners four or five nights a week. I was focused on performance in everything, from work to physical fitness, and the alcohol wasn't adding anything to my life. It left me hung over, and affected my sleep and nutrition.
One night after I'd stopped drinking, my wife and I were walking to dinner, and I was ranting about how terrible the non-alcoholic drinks would be and what an unmet need this was. Finally, she said, "That is an amazing idea! Listen to yourself." It took her pointing it out for me to realize that I even had an idea.
I'd never intended to be an entrepreneur, but I realized what a huge opportunity I had. Not only a business opportunity, but also one to positively influence the lives of tens of millions of people by giving them the option of a great beer that was better for you and could be part of your daily routine. There are nearly 15 million documented adult cases of alcohol-use disorder in the U.S. I saw it as a chance to make moderation cool.
I did two years of business planning before I left my job. A lot of my colleagues were stunned when I quit. And people in the brewing industry very nicely advised me not to invest too much money or time in the idea. Non-alcoholic beer had very low sales. But I did surveys and met with retailers, so I knew people wanted this.
I went to conferences and posted on message boards to find a co-founder who was talented on the brewing side. Of the hundreds of people I talked to, only John Walker, a head brewer in Santa Fe, said, "I get it." We got started homebrewing in Gatorade jugs, changing one thing at a time and testing every variable. Just two guys in an empty warehouse and trial and error.
Our original idea was to do contract brewing at bigger facilities, but we were rejected by pretty much every brewer in the country. They ended up doing us a huge favor. Because we had to pivot to building a brewery, now we can control every element of our quality ourselves.
Initially there was huge pushback from potential investors--the price tag to build was about $3 million, and the risk was huge. No other brewing facilities in the country were dedicated to non-alcoholic beer. Ultimately, we were able to assemble a team of angel investors. It was very much an "If you build it, they will come" leap of faith. Once the beer started to taste good, we began construction.
We opened in May 2018, and there were no easy sales early on. I would go all over New England and do blind taste tests and show up at events. That first summer, I did about 65 athletic events--wake up at 3 a.m., drive somewhere, hand out beer at finish lines, and talk to customers. I also ran in more than half of the races. There's a level of authenticity if you're sweaty and muddy and sharing a beer with people who have just finished the same race.
Through persistent networking, I landed a meeting with regional buyers from Whole Foods. That was the turning point. I walked in with unlabeled brown bottles that John and I had filled in his parents' garage. But they saw beyond the packaging and gave us a seven-store trial. From day one, they couldn't keep it on the shelves, and they expanded it to all of New England. Now we're in most major retailers, in every state, as well as Canada, Australia, and Europe.
Over time, we started to get orders from retailers and distributors that were much bigger than we expected. We were growing 30, 40, 50 percent every single month, so we bought a bunch of used tanks and doubled our capacity. Then I started flying around the country looking for a second brewery to buy. It's funny--just a few years prior, there was no semblance of a market. There was just this dusty old corner of the grocery store that hadn't changed in 30 years. But the demand was self-evident. Often things are hiding in plain sight.