Three Years and Counting
A Q&A with our founders, Bill Shufelt and John Walker.
Bill Shufelt had cut alcohol out of his diet and loved the way it made him feel, but there was a real lack of refreshing non-alcoholic beverage options for social settings, sporting events, at restaurants, and post-workout. There really is something superb about sipping on a cold beer. A seed was planted. Bill had an idea that grew into a vision and a mission ⎯ to craft a nonalcoholic beer that people actually enjoyed and to help others live a healthy lifestyle.
After reaching out to nearly 200 brewers across the nation, only one was willing to take a chance on this outlandish opportunity. That person was John Walker, a highly accomplished and awarded craft brewer. John moved himself and his family from Santa Fe, New Mexico to Stratford, Connecticut, to take on this unique challenge that could potentially change the craft beer industry forever.
Bill and John put in countless hours experimenting with a home brew setup and perfecting their recipe. Within a few months and about 100 different iterations, Athletic Brewing Company was born ⎯ a product of dedication, heart, perseverance, and a deep desire to make this world a better place. A craft beer revolution.
That was three years ago.
In celebration of our third birthday we asked our founders three big questions, and we’d like to share their answers with you, our Athletic Brewing family. Crack open an ice cold Athletic brew, kick back, and get ready for some serious inspiration!
(Check out the Without Compromise podcast episodes with John and Bill!)
1. Tasty non-alcoholic beer was something that was desperately needed within the craft beer industry. It’s had a hugely positive impact on many people who want to live a healthier lifestyle. What are 3 other positive impacts that came from starting Athletic Brewing?
The Two For The Trails Program is a winner! Preserving our inherited and made natural wonders for generations to come, engaging with our team and communities to promote sustainability and cooperation and encouraging other businesses and individuals to think about what their revenue can do for the world and their communities is absolutely incredible. I believe we (ALL of us) will see the rewards from this for generations.
Developing a voice in the NA and beverage space to encourage others, offer lessons on production and quality and food safety and using our voice to help pave the way for other success stories through regulatory affairs.
Not only did the beer offer those people a tasty craft option, the discussions we started having in the NA space at large have had a tremendous effect on the cultural perception of non alcoholic beer and drinks and sobriety - Whereas I would have been heckled for consuming a non alcoholic beer in my twenties or attending an alcohol free bar, I truly believe that by the time my children reach their twenties (and maybe sooner) ordering a non alcoholic beverage at a bar or visiting an alcohol free establishment for social encounters or choosing sobriety will be the norm...developing a healthier and safer environment, physically, emotionally and culturally.
Two for the Trails - having charitable giving hard-coded in our company ethos since day 1 has allowed us to impact dozens of trail systems - and we're shooting for over $1M of donations this year alone! Some awesome experiences of the past few years have ranged from installing hand rails on trails for the visually impaired in CT to team trail building excursions on the Appalachian Trail! On the AT, we did a team overnight and built steps with rocks that weighed between 500-1500 pounds! In 2019, The Maine Huts and Trails system wasn't going to open for the upcoming season, and our $20k donation helped kickoff the fundraising push that saved the entire network!
Sobriety & Inclusion - by giving people access to moderate options without compromises, we've received thousands of emails from people who used to suffer from alcohol's effects and now can participate in all sorts of societal traditions - in a positive, non-shameful way. Ranging from college kids to retired friends in our community, the impact has been everything we could have hoped at this stage. Some of our community members write near-daily emails.
Jobs - our team has created over 150 jobs so far! At the center of our impact, we always start from our team to our customers to our community to the environment. If we take care of the core, everything else takes care of itself. We believe in team equity ownership, living wages, and full benefits for all. Every new teammate brings perspectives and skills we didn't have before - and makes me realize how ill equipped I was to wear all those hats in the early days.
2. What are the 3 biggest lessons you’ve learned in the past 3 years?
Yes WE can! There are so many obstacles on any given day and in every development but with a great team, we can overcome almost any obstacle and/or be proud of the way it was navigated. It's about the journey!
Food safety is one of my favorite things! Coming from traditional brewing, things like food safety were of little concern as there was ethanol as a preservative, but in developing non-alcoholic beer you don't have that crutch. While it is intimidating and quite challenging, food safety can be very fun and exciting and gives the team something to really be proud of - not only are our processes great at producing brews that taste great for their shelf life, but they are safe for all of our consumers. We take a lot of pride in our quality program and enjoy sharing our critical learnings with the burgeoning NA space so we can build this together with the highest quality.
More than anything, I think people just enjoy the ingredients that go into beer and not necessarily the alcohol - they just hadn't had the opportunity to try them independent of ethanol. If you can devise a way to utilize those same ingredients (Water, Malt and Hops) and really showcase their natural qualities, the presence of alcohol is really arbitrary. I know that I didn't know that and I think people are starting to think about beer differently.
Positivity compounds. You can either walk in with a rain cloud over your head and negatively impact 10 people's day, or you can smile, lift someone up, help solve a problem, and take on the world. Little actions and a smile always go a long way. I'm a HUGE believer in Gabby Reece's motto "Go First." Say hi first, smile first, ask if you can help first. Say hi to everyone on your morning run. It makes a huge difference. I highly recommend listening to her on the Tim Ferriss podcast. She and her husband, Laird Hamilton, are both super impressive people and role models.
Without a healthy foundation, nothing else matters. Four great hours of work or thought a day is better than 12 haggard and rattled hours. I always build my days with the same building blocks - good sleep, hydration, meditation, and exercise. Everything else flows from there - the peaks and valleys all smooth out, and everything doesn't seem like such a fire drill.
Nothing worthwhile is ever easy. I love the book "The Obstacle is the Way" by Ryan Holiday. It's a book Bill Bellichik swears by. Something is going to break every day. No single element of starting a business comes without an unexpected hurdle. If creating a world changing business was easy, everyone would do it. When those challenges emerge everyday, when the problems seem insurmountable, when the news all goes bad - it's ok to give yourself a moment and feel sorry for yourself and grab a great snack or your favorite Athletic. But then, I gather myself and start tackling tasks. Knocking down one item at a time, one step in front of the other, raising your hand for a bit of help from teammates - the walls all fall down and leave some pretty big moats behind.....Slowly, then all at once.
3. Looking forward, what are you most excited about in the next 3 years with Athletic Brewing Company?
I'm excited about the growth of the team, the company and the category. I'm excited to see the impact our Two For The Trails and IMPACT programs will have in our communities as we build and grow awareness and involve more people from all walks of life, from different Nations and cultures. I'm excited to see what incredible new NA brews our amazing teams conjure up - the sky is the limit it seems and they never cease to amaze - we are just getting going! I'm excited for this entire Athletic team - we have something special here and as Bill says, positivity is just as infectious as negativity and we have a whole lot of positive! There is a lot we don't know and I'm excited to learn in great company while doing good things.
Donating millions of dollars to Two for the Trails causes and helping to put them to work in person. I've always promised our investors we were going to change the lives of millions of people for the better and donate an absolutely uncomfortable amount of money. We're well on our way. With every new customer, more and more money flows into our charitable programs. I am so excited for what that ripples out to in impact, but also the example it creates for other companies in our business community and how all their donations will compound also.
As much Run Wild as I can get my hands on. That one's easy. There's literally never a bad time for a Run Wild. Afternoon work beer, after a race, a day at the beach, during a round of golf, happy hour with friends, or over a great meal - it goes everywhere. I'm drinking one right now!
And the first beer John names after himself! I won't hold my breath, but I'm really excited to see the first time John puts his name on one of our pilot beers :)
Thank you so much for the first 3 years of memories - I feel like we're just getting going!