Bill Shufelt, co-founder of Athletic Brewing Co. and Keith Villa, co-founder of Ceria Brewing Co. share insight on why it’s here to stay.

Written By: Jonathan Shikes
Photos Courtesy:
Athletic Brewing Co. & Ceria Brewing Co.

When someone cracks open a beer at a barbecue, at happy hour or after a long day at work, the assumption is that they’re doing it for the effects of the alcohol. But that’s not always the case, says Bill Shufelt, the co-founder of Connecticut’s Athletic Brewing.

“Alcohol comes with side effects like a lack of productivity, the inability to drive, and a hangover. In fact, alcohol might be an inconvenience in 80 percent of situations,” he points out. “The experience that people are actually looking for is hanging out with family and friends — of having a [drink] in their hands. It’s not necessarily the alcohol they want. It’s the experience.”

So if you separate out the alcohol as “the functional ingredient” of beer and factor in that experience, along with flavor, he adds, “it opens up the possibilities.”

Bill Shufelt, Co-Founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing Company

Athletic, which was founded in 2018, is the largest dedicated non-alcoholic beer brewer in the United States, and its beers — from IPAs to lighter styles, to a German gose — are at the forefront of a wave of non-alcoholic options that are shaking up the beer industry.

It’s a change that has only just begun. While many retailers have made some room on their shelves for non-alcoholic beers like Athletic’s Upside Dawn, Heinekin’s 0.0, and offerings from large craft beer makers Brooklyn Brewery and BrewDog, Keith Villa, the founder of Arvada-based Ceria Brewing, believes that many simply don’t realize how quickly the category is gaining traction.

The growth of NA beers is as high as 30 percent per year, depending on where you look… -Keith Villa

“The growth of NA beers is as high as 30 percent per year, depending on where you look,” he says, referring to studies like those from market research firms IRI and IWSR, which show that the U.S. market for NA beer grew by 28% and 34.8%, depending on how you count it, in 2020. Even so, it is still only around 1% of total beer sales in this country, while in Germany, NA beers make up closer to 8% of the market and in Spain they are up around 13%.

Keith Villa, Ceria Brewing Company Co-Founder and Brewmaster with Catherine Villa, Market Development Manager

Villa, who lives in the Denver area, certainly has a track record when it comes to getting in on the ground floor of beer trends. A Coors employee for 32 years before leaving in 2018 to start Ceria, he is commonly credited for having created Blue Moon Belgian White and then having pushed for its success both inside and outside the company. Blue Moon is now among the top twenty best-selling beers in the United States, and the only non-lager in the bunch.

Villa’s original goal with Ceria was to manufacture THC- and CBD-infused beers, but since these products can’t legally be sold with alcohol in them as well, he brewed non-alcoholic beer as the base for these products. Along the way, however, he realized that the market for that NA beer itself was growing quickly.

Ceria Brewing Company Non-Alcohol Grainwave Belgian White & Indiewave IPA

Since then, Ceria has created a patent-pending process for removing alcohol completely. While non-alcoholic beers are allowed to be up to 0.5 percent ABV, alcohol-free beers, like Ceria’s Grainwave Belgian-style White Ale and Indiewave West Coast Style IPA, have less alcohol than “a ripe banana,” he says. Today, Ceria’s non-THC non-alcoholic beers are the company’s primary revenue stream — and distributed in more than twenty states. (You won’t find the word “beer” on their labels, though, as federal regulators don’t permit that on NA beverages.)

One of those states is California, where Villa says the term “Cali-sober” is being used to describe people who have given up alcohol in favor of cannabis. But there are plenty of other people out there who want to be sober for any number of reasons, whether it’s for health benefits, or because they are pregnant or recovering from addiction, or because of their religion.

“Young people, in particular, are sober-curious,” he says, “because they want to know what it is like to spend a weekend with a clear mind and to have fun with a clear mind.”

I generally think words like ‘sober’ or even ‘drinking’ or ‘non-drinking’ are an outdated concept. – Bill Shufelt

Athletic’s Shufelt, meanwhile, doesn’t even think the word “sober” is relevant anymore. “I generally think words like ‘sober’ or even ‘drinking’ or ‘non-drinking’ are an outdated concept. There are times during the week when someone might want alcohol and some times of the week when they may not. With non-alcoholic beer, you can have an awesome beer with any meal or any time of the day. Most adults are ‘sober’ for most of their waking hours.”

Shufelt himself gave up alcohol in 2013. A hedge fund manager at the time, he was training for an ultramarathon and planning to get married, and decided that the booze was holding him back. Several years later he teamed up with New Mexico brewer John Walker to start Athletic.

And these aren’t your father’s — or maybe your uncle’s — non-alcoholic beverages, which tasted like sweet barley water and immediately put a stigma on the drinker.

That’s because both Athletic and Ceria use new processes to make their products.

Athletic Brewing Co. Run Wild NA IPA, All Out NA Stout, Upside Dawn NA Golden

“Our products are fully fermented beverages. We homebrewed hundreds of batches in a warehouse, dialing it in, and eventually dialed in the process,” Shufelt explains, adding that Athletic’s Connecticut taproom released fifty different beers in 2021. The brewery’s beers regularly land on lists of the best-tasting non-alcoholic beers in the nation.

Villa believes that non-alcoholic beers of the past were tied to “corporate responsibility” rather than to making something that tastes good, which is part of why NA beers had a stigma to them.

“The big change is that in the last five years or so, NA beers actually started to taste good. That is what has been pushing the needle,” he says. “Ours smell like beer and taste like beer and have a thick, creamy head like beer.” And with its new patent-pending process, Ceria can make any style of beer — and plans to introduce one or two in the next year or so.

When he was with Coors, Villa says he probably drank the equivalent of a six-pack a day just through the process of brewing, tasting and testing beers at work. Today, he still likes to relax with an alcoholic beer, like a double IPA, some evenings or on the weekend, but he drinks Ceria beers during the workweek – even at breakfast or while he is driving, he says.

Both brewers give credit to companies like Heineken and Guinness, as well as larger craft breweries with non-alcoholic offerings, like Scotland’s BrewDog, Brooklyn Brewery and others that are “helping bring in the tide and raise awareness about NA beers.

“Heineken 0.0 tastes close to Heineken’s regular beer. It doesn’t have that artificial taste that NA beers have traditionally had – and they have spent a lot of money to market it,” Villa points out. “So, that has been really instrumental in getting people to look at this with a whole new lens.”

In addition to Brooklyn Brewery, which produces its Special Effects line of non-alcoholic beers, other small and medium-sized beverage makers are getting involved as well. These companies include: Denver-based Grüvi, which just released a non-alcoholic draft beer called Golden Lager; Einbecker NA, a non-alcoholic pilsner-style beer from a German brewery that traces its roots to the 1600s; and Hoplark, which makes fresh-steeped organic teas that are hopped like a craft beers. All of these beverages are distributed by Elite Brands.

Brooklyn Brewery’s Special Effects Non-Alcohol Variety Pack

In addition to Brooklyn Brewery, which produces its Special Effects line of non-alcoholic beers, other small and medium-sized beverage makers are getting involved as well. These companies include: Denver-based Grüvi, which just released a non-alcoholic draft beer called Golden Lager; Einbecker NA, a non-alcoholic pilsner-style beer from a German brewery that traces its roots to the 1600s; and Hoplark, which makes fresh-steeped organic teas that are hopped like a craft beers. All of these beverages are distributed by Elite Brands.

Earlier this year, Athletic Brewing was able to raise $50 million through investors and is now in the process of building out a 150,000-square-foot production facility in Connecticut that will be able to produce up to 200,000 barrels per year when it is finished. The company also has an 80,000-square-foot building in San Diego that was once used by Ballast Point Brewing, and its original, smaller production facility in Stratford, Connecticut.

“People want a good beer on so many occasions, but for most people, five days out of the week are non-drinking days, so it makes no sense that NA beers are only 1 percent of the market – they should be 10 to 20 percent,” he continues. Awareness of NA beers is still very low, however, and the education barriers are high. “I might be fairly delusionally optimistic, but at some point that dam will break and we will all be surprised.”