Think non-alcoholic beer is bland and uninspired? Entrepreneurs Bill Shufelt and John Walker agree, which is why they set out to change the near-beer game with their passion project, Athletic Brewing. Established in Connecticut just three years ago, the business has surged to the head of the segment behind “N/A” ales and lagers that are big on flavor, low on calories, and suited to health-conscious beer fans such as those in vast supply in sunny San Diego. So, when searching for a second, much larger brewery to help meet rapidly growing demand, the duo set their sights on America’s Finest City, taking over a facility that previously housed homegrown Ballast Point Brewing’s sour ale and barrel-aging operations.
“San Diego has such a great brewing history and an incredible beer culture — arguably the best in the country. The roots run so deep,” says Shufelt. “And with such a health-conscious community and healthy outdoor environment, it’s a perfect fit for what we want to do.”
The Athletic team has spent the past three months making their new digs their own, installing a state-of-the-art canning line and more than a dozen tanks, and bringing on veteran brewer Tyler Tucker (formerly of Bitter Brothers, Coronado, and Societe Brewing). With those assets in place, the company is set up to increase its production tenfold over the next several years, while also immediately expanding distribution of its Run Wild IPA, Upside Dawn Golden Ale, and Cerveza Athletica Mexican-style Light Copper Lager into new territories, including sweet home SoCal.
Though new to San Diego, the Athletic team has already been quite active within it, assisting local hospitality workers through a $100,000 donation to the National Restaurant Association’s Employee Relief Fund, setting up sponsorships for local Spartan and Ragnar races, and building relationships with local breweries, including Ballast Point and Karl Strauss. Expect the first-ever N/A collaboration beers from those and other San Diego breweries down the road.
And, keep an eye peeled for Athletic Brewing at your next finish line. Much of the company’s runaway success has come from offering runners their first taste of its N/A beers at well over a hundred races annually. That practice will continue at fitness events throughout the county, as well as exercise sessions and live-music events in the parking lot of Athletic’s Miramar headquarters once social-distancing regulations allow for them.
“Before we started our company, there hadn’t been any innovations in the non-alcoholic beer category in three decades, so we knew we had to get out there to change peoples’ perceptions,” says Shufelt, who spends most weekends enjoying the public-education aspect of his job. Athletic Brewing has gone on to become the official N/A beer of USC as well as the AVP Beach Volleyball, but they’re just getting started and are eager to turn more people on to the virtues of their product. “If any local race directors are reading this, we’d love to be at your finish line with free beer.” athleticbrewing.com