At the time Jeff Wueste quit drinking booze more than three decades ago, beer lovers didn’t have a ton to choose from.
Beer was basically beer until the rise of microbreweries in the 1990s, and by that time, Wueste had switched to the nonalcoholic version. He decided O’Doul’s worked for him, and that’s what he drank.
So when a shipment of beer from Athletic Brewing Company, which is now being sold in Texas, showed up on my doorstep, I figured Wueste — an endurance paddler — could serve as my guinea pig. I gave him some of the beer to test, and asked him to share his thoughts.
But before we get to that, some background.
Four or five years ago, a craft beer lover who worked in the financial industry decided he could live without the side effects the alcohol gave him — dehydration, sleeplessness and hangovers. Bill Shufelt wanted to shift to a healthier lifestyle. "Alcohol was starting to become incompatible with that," Shufelt, who’s based in Connecticut, says. "I was sick of waking up on weekends with hangovers."
He decided to quit drinking for a month before his first ultramarathon. Then it stuck.
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"I almost unintentionally stopped drinking," he said. "It felt amazing. But I made this positive choice and felt like I was being penalized because I love to do social things. I always wanted to have a beer after a long race to celebrate with my friends."
While the craft beer scene had exploded with an array of offerings from hoppy IPAs to fruit-spiked wheats and sours, the nonalcoholic market had stagnated for years. Why weren’t there more interesting options for people who don’t drink alcohol? He mentioned it to his wife in passing, and she encouraged him. He began researching.
"I was so sick of the options," he said.
Shufelt saw a void and teamed with Santa Fe craft brewer John Walker. Their mission? To take an artisanal approach to whipping up booze-free brews and put more variety in the nonalcoholic beer world. Athletic Brewing Company was born.
"I love beer, love the ingredients — I’m just not in it for alcohol," he said. "Everything pointed toward this. With how great the craft beer world is, it’s amazing no one was making craft nonalcoholic beer. It was a huge economic opportunity, and it would be so fulfilling."
Shufelt, who’d never brewed beer before, quit his job and teamed up with Walker to create what they tout as the first American brewery to make solely nonalcoholic beer. They began homebrewing in an empty warehouse in Connecticut, putting their first trial batches in Gatorade jugs.
Today you can drop by the brewery in Stratford, Conn., to pick up containers of Free Way Double Hop IPA, All Out Stout, Graham Cracker Brown Ale, Summer Splash IPA, Closer by the Mile NEIPA, Coconut Brown and more. People in Texas can go online to order Run Wild IPA, Upside Dawn Golden Ale and a rotating third option.
The company shipped me a pair of six-packs, and I invited Wueste over for a taste test.
Wueste liked both. So did his girlfriend, Sheila Reiter, an endurance cyclist and paddler who usually prefers wine or margaritas over beer.
"This one’s a little lighter," Wueste said of the Upside Dawn, packaged in a bright yellow can. "It tastes grapefruity. I like it."
Those are exciting words, compared to his description of his usual O’Doul’s, which goes like this: "A very standard, basic beer. There’s really no flavor to O’Doul’s."
The Run Wild was hoppier and slightly bitter, without the hint of citrus.
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Wueste says that Athletic’s beer provides a way for him to socialize with his friends and get a little taste of the changes that have taken place in the beer world since he cut alcohol out of his diet. He plans to buy some.
"Mainly I like to sit with my peeps, and when everybody else is going to have a drink, it makes me feel like I’m having a drink with them," he says.
Athletic Brewing Company now makes 25 types of nonalcoholic beer, some of them seasonal, and just bought a second facility in San Diego to expand production. The beers have 50 to 70 calories per can and are made with organic grains. "We’ve made almost everything under the sun, from goses to stouts to Mexican lagers," Shufelt said.
The beer launched in Texas in June, and it is available at local grocery stores and liquor stores. With its active outdoorsy lifestyle, Austin is the perfect market, Shufelt says.
"A lot of our customers are nondrinkers or athletes in training, but a lot are people who drink," he said. "We’re their weeknight beer or their day beer or golf course beer. We’re not asking people to give up alcohol, but it probably only makes sense in 10 percent of drinking occasions."
The company donates 2 percent of overall sales to its Two for the Trails program, which supports an Athletic Brewing Company-chosen cause on a rotating basis.
"I know it’s a big hurdle for someone to get over the mental block of nonalcoholic beer, but once you realize you can drink a beer, have a social experience and meal pairing and feel totally fine afterward, it’s great," Shufelt said.