On a Tuesday night in May 2019, a few friends and I were squeezed into a vinyl-lined booth at a sports bar in Salem for a feast of 50-cent wings. We’d done this for years, but it was our first time out in five months, since I’d quit drinking. I listened jealously as my friends ordered craft brews from the impressive-for-a-sports-bar list. When it was my turn, I asked the server a question I was sure I knew the answer to: “What nonalcoholic beers do you have?”
“O’Doul’s,” she said. Super.
I ordered one, but asked her to pour it into a glass at the bar and throw away the bottle.
Honestly, the O’Doul’s wasn’t terrible. Still, as I left the bar that night, I thought that with all the craft beer brewers out there, someone had to be making a nonalcoholic beer that was better than not terrible.
A few days later, I Googled “nonalcoholic craft beer.” I got scores of links to “the best nonalcoholic craft beers” and the “sober curious” movement. I read everything. Greedily. I read the way I used to drink.
It turns out some of the stigma around nonalcoholic beers has dissolved, owing largely to a burgeoning craft industry. Sales were up 39 percent in 2019, and another 38 percent in 2020, reaching $188 million, according to market researcher IRI.
The most celebrated of the craft nonalcoholic beermakers is Athletic Brewing Co., based in Stratford, Connecticut. The idea to brew a no-alcohol beer came to Athletic’s founder, Bill Shufelt, in 2013, when he was working at a hedge fund and approaching two milestones: turning 30 and getting married. Being an analytical guy, he started monitoring his inputs — food, drink, exercise — and his outputs — sleep, performance, productivity — and found that “alcohol was just pretty inconsistent with everything else going on in my mindful, modern, evolving life,” he says.
Shufelt, now 38, is part of a wave of millennials reducing their alcohol intake — nearly two-thirds of them are, according to Nielsen. They’re dropping alcohol mostly for health reasons, as did Shufelt, who wanted to feel better. But he still loved the taste of beer. After he stopped drinking, he began researching nonalcoholic beer, even ordering six-packs from Europe, where the market has been growing for years. He came away dissatisfied. “Not only was there not anything good out there, there just hadn’t been any work done on it,” Shufelt says.
In December 2014, he started reading brewing textbooks and developed a business plan. “Before I knew it, I did two years of work and was ready to quit my job,” he says. In January 2017, he posted an ad for a brewer on ProBrewer.com, a business trade site, though he didn’t mention his interest in nonalcoholic beer. Not one of the more than 250 brewers who replied wanted to work on it, until in the spring a Connecticut native named John Walker answered the ad. Walker had been working as a brewer at Second Street Brewery in Santa Fe, but he was looking to move back East. So when, in their first phone call, “Bill dropped the NA-bomb on me,” Walker says, he didn’t hang up.
Shufelt told Walker that he didn’t want to do the kind of nonalcoholic beer that had been done before. “It doesn’t work for me as a consumer and nobody is building a community or culture around it,” he said, “and it deserves it.”
Walker was still game — Shufelt was, after all, in Connecticut. The very next weekend, Shufelt flew out to Santa Fe. “More than anything, what I had been looking for was a partnership and that human you can trust, and I got that from Bill,” Walker says. When he told his wife the meeting went well, she replied, “Great, when are we moving?”
Shufelt and Walker started Athletic Brewing in the garage of Walker’s parents’ house in Connecticut, using home brewing gear to try to create a nonalcoholic beer with the “flavor and feeling and aroma that craft beer has,” Walker says. “It was definitely challenging. Like building a house without nails.”
It took months, and more than 100 batches. Shufelt recalls Walker’s resolve: “He said, ‘I don’t care if we work on this for two years and never sell a product. We are not selling a product that’s not great craft beer.’ " Eventually, they came up with a nonalcoholic IPA they named Run Wild.
There are a few ways to make nonalcoholic beers; the most common method is to boil off the alcohol after it’s brewed. That’s not Athletic’s path, says Shufelt, though he won’t talk in any detail about the process.
They start with the four essential ingredients of beer — water, hops, barley, and yeast — ”and make 10 or 12 all-natural changes along the process,” Shufelt says. “It’s not a single magic bullet answer; it’s more of a mosaic.” (When I tell Walker that Shufelt won’t give me specifics, he laughs and asks, “Did you get the ‘mosaic of tweaks in the process’ line?”)
After they finally brewed a beer that met Walker’s exacting standards, Shufelt took every bottle of Run Wild they made to athletic events around New England, handing out free samples. “I’d wake up at 3 a.m. on a Saturday and be ready at a finish line by 6 a.m.,” Shufelt says, “and just give out thousands of beers in a weekend.” Shufelt wanted Athletic marketed not as a “penalty box” beer, but rather as something aspirational and inclusive. “Everyone is athletic in some way,” Shufelt says, “from the elite Iron Man to the best at video games to killer at Excel.”
Shufelt says he went to 65 athletic events that first summer. Sometimes people made fun of him “to my face,” he recalls. Still, he persisted — ”If you give it a try, you’ll get it,” he’d tell skeptics.
Four years later, it seems safe to say people get it — Shufelt and Walker’s Athletic Brewing Co. holds 46 percent of the US market for craft nonalcoholic beers. Their closest competitor, with 27 percent, is Heineken’s Lagunitas brand. But the field is becoming more and more crowded. O’Doul’s maker Anheuser-Busch now also offers Budweiser Zero, and Heineken sells 0.0, a nonalcoholic version of its flagship beer. Craft brewers getting in on the action include Zero Gravity in Vermont and Woodland Farms Brewery in Maine. Even Boston Beer Co., whose founder Jim Koch once vowed he would never make a nonalcoholic beer, has joined in, releasing Samuel Adams Just the Haze in January.
Still, Athletic continues to surge, opening a second location in San Diego. “We went from a world of no’s and doubts and skepticism,” Shufelt says, “but the moment we opened our doors, customers were waiting for it and the community that we theorized is there.” And, true to Shufelt’s prediction when he was handing out beers at the finish lines of races, he says, “The leading edge has been mostly people looking for healthier, more mindful options to drinking occasions.”
The community Shufelt speaks of can be found actively engaging with one another in one of several Facebook groups, including “Non-Alcoholic Beer,” and “Non-Alcoholic Beer Appreciation Society,” both of which have more than 6,000 members. The groups include a mix of recovering alcoholics and alcohol drinkers who also like nonalcoholic beer, and beer recommendations are as common as posts of encouragement and support. A member of both groups, Ezra Bleau of Holyoke, found himself frustrated that he couldn’t get the most talked-about beers. So last August he started na-brews.com, a Web-based distribution business, from a spare bedroom in his apartment.
Bleau buys four- and six-packs of popular nonalcoholic brews and lets customers assemble their own variety packs — a way to try different brews before committing. The business has outgrown his apartment and his girlfriend’s basement, and he now leases a 1,700-square-foot warehouse in Holyoke. In December, he quit his teaching job of nine years to run the company full time with his girlfriend. Sales hit $50,000 for the month of April, when they hired their first employee, and they plan to open a physical store in Holyoke in June.
In 2020, Bleau’s top-selling brews had consistently been from Athletic, but when he listed Boston Beer Co.’s Just the Haze, he sold out of 30 cases in just six hours. It remains at the top of the site’s bestseller list.
Just the Haze was in development for two years, says Christina Hahn, manager of brewing research and development at Boston Beer Co. “It’s not an easy thing to make,” she says, much more difficult than traditional beer. The process was further complicated by starting with a New England-style IPA, known for its hazy color and fruit-forward hop flavor. “Making nonalcoholic beer is really tough, and making a hazy IPA is really tough, and then we put both of those things together,” she says.
Where Shufelt wasn’t impressed by the nonalcoholic beers he ordered from Europe, Hahn was inspired by them. She travels to Germany a couple of times a year to see farmers who grow the hops for Sam Adams. “Visiting Germany, you just get exposed to all this really good nonalcoholic beer,” she says. “It piqued our interest many years ago.”
Hahn knew Americans were becoming interested in no- and low-alcohol beverages as a result of wellness trends, among other things. She believed nonalcoholic beer was going to take off in the United States, but knowing that Koch had said his company would never brew one, she and her colleagues worked on a recipe in secret for a year. The first time Koch tasted it, Hahn did not let on that it was nonalcoholic. He “really liked the flavor direction,” she says, adding, “We didn’t say a word.”
Encouraged, Hahn says her team “brewed and brewed until we found something we were happy with and we were able to sit down with Jim and show it off.”
She was nervous about revealing the secret, but Koch was impressed — he found the beer delicious, a “complex IPA-style beer that just happens to be nonalcoholic,” he says. As for his pronouncement that his company would never brew a nonalcoholic beer, he says Just the Haze made him “drink my words.” He told Hahn he even enjoys it with breakfast.
Hahn, who has a master’s degree in food and science technology, isn’t giving away any brewing secrets either. “You can not produce very much alcohol to begin with, or produce a fully alcoholic beer and remove the alcohol,” she says. Her team tried both methods and combined elements of each to produce what she calls “a true beer drinking experience.” And, to me, that’s a striking aspect of Just the Haze: It has the full body and mouth feel of a New England IPA — a far cry from the thin and watery feel of O’Doul’s.
Just the Haze is for anyone and everyone, says Hahn. “I have people in my life who don’t drink for a variety of reasons, and I wanted to make a beer for them,” she says. But she also sees people using nonalcoholic brews as “pacer beers.” “They’ll start with a regular IPA and then they’ll switch over and then they’ll switch back,” she says. This will allow drinkers to extend an occasion and “to have the beer without the buzz.”
Shufelt estimates that between 25 percent and 40 percent of Athletic’s customers don’t drink alcohol at all. “Because it really is a healthy choice that people are making. This will empower them to be in social situations and be confident and feel normal,” he says.
Patrick Rowan, who left a 20-year career as a software engineer in 2016 to start Woodland Farms in Kittery, Maine (it’s named after his family’s former dairy farm), says he was motivated to create a nonalcoholic beer, in part, by the encouragement of relatives who don’t drink.
Three years ago, when Woodland Farms was still getting established, Rowan brought a prototype of a nonalcoholic IPA to the Maine Brewers’ Guild freshman orientation, where, he says, “They pack you into an auditorium and make you pour some beer and all of the pro brewers come around to judge you.” The general feedback was that his brew tasted great, but it smelled like “hot buttered garbage,” Rowan recalls.
He went back to the drawing board, and over two years, prototyped a variety of methods to remove alcohol during fermentation, or not create it at all, he says. “We were doing reverse osmosis and then vacuum distillation ... trying to find the right combination.” When Woodland Farms finally launched Pointer, a nonalcoholic New England-style IPA, this past March, it sold out its 150-case production run in four days, with buyers from as far away as San Diego and Oregon.
Rowan was drawn to the problem-solving aspect of brewing nonalcoholic beer, but the personal motivation was paramount. He cites several family members who have struggled with addiction and says that “to be able to provide a product that they can feel comfortable with in a social situation is nice and helpful.”
Matt Wilson of Burlington, Vermont’s Zero Gravity agrees. Wilson formed Rescue Club Brewing Co. with another Burlington-based craft producer, Kris Nelson, cofounder of Citizen Cider. They say they’ve been amazed by the different types of drinkers who have told them how excited they are to have a quality nonalcoholic beer. “Everybody drinks too much,” Nelson says. “And it takes a toll.” Rescue Club’s target market includes “health-conscious people,” Nelson says, “but also just self-aware people. People who are looking to not have alcohol be the main focal point of their social encounters.”
At Athletic’s brewery in Stratford on a Saturday in April, the taproom is empty save for some tables set up around the door where a steady stream of customers, entering one at a time, pick up their online orders. Its product roster has expanded from that initial IPA to include golden, lager, sour, stout, wheat, and seasonal varieties — more than 30 in all last year.
Over a couple of freshly brewed nonalcoholic beers, Walker says the biggest shift he’s seen in the four years since he answered Shufelt’s want ad has been cultural.
People want to be “better in general,” he says, and are looking for ways to be more mindful of the environment and themselves. “People just needed something that was good to tell them that they could be better,” he says.
Walker didn’t know it, but he was talking about me. When I quit drinking, I left behind not just a bad habit but a mind-set — a belief that alcohol made my life more enjoyable. I couldn’t imagine socializing without booze. When I first quit, it was really hard, and it still is, but with craft nonalcoholic beer and the community that has formed around it, sober life has become a lot easier.
On a recent Friday night, several of those same friends who met me for wings in the spring of 2019 got together again for the first time since the start of COVID-19. This time we were around a campfire, socially distanced. My friends brought craft beer and whiskey to share, and I brought a mixed six-pack that included brews from Athletic, Rescue Club, and Sam Adams. In the span of a few hours, while we caught up on the last year and traded stories about our kids, I polished off all six beers. When it was time to go, I drove a couple of the other guys home because, even after six drinks, I can still be the designated driver.
Jonathan D. Fitzgerald is a writer in Swampscott. Follow him on Twitter @jon_fitzgerald. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.