In 2020 the wave of celebrity-backed booze showed no sign of cresting, from Peyton Manning’s Tennessee whiskey to Bruno Mars’s tropical rum. And let’s not forget Ryan Reynolds’s $610 million sale of Aviation Gin to Diaego Plc.
This year the product attracting big names is alcohol-free.
Connecticut-based Athletic Brewing Co. produces only nonalcoholic (NA) beer and has announced a commanding list of its high-profile backers. It includes pro football stars J.J. Watt and Justin Tuck, Momofuku founder David Chang, and bicycling legend Lance Armstrong, as well as Tom’s Shoes LLC founder Blake Mycoskie.
“It’s cool to have famous athletes and chefs, who might have once made fun of NA beer, get behind it and support it,” says co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Bill Shufelt about the transformation of a category most people consider “a small, penalty-box market.”
The celebrity backers have been invested in Athletic for as long as three years; their involvement in the brand hadn’t previously been announced.
The NA beer category has seen major growth during the pandemic, despite news early on that alcohol consumption jumped. Athletic’s sales grew about 500% in 2020 compared with the previous year, from $2.5 million to about $15 million in revenue.
Last year the overall nonalcoholic beer market grew almost 39%, to around $187 million, according to the market research company IRI. The craft beer segment of the category grew more than 300%, of which Athletic has a 61% market share, said Shufelt in a Jan. 12 interview with Bloomberg Radio.
Shufelt also estimated that because of the popularity of Dry January this year, Athletic’s website traffic is up about 95% compared with December.
Athletic Brewing has a rotating list of over 30 brews, along with three year-round offerings—including the 70-calorie Run Wild IPA and the gluten-free Upside Dawn Golden Ale, which clocks in at 50 calories.
Shufelt sees 2021 as an expansion year. The beers are newly available in Canada, and by the end of the first quarter the brand will also be sold in the U.K., the European Union, and Australia. Based on fourth-quarter sales, he says that doing three times the company’s $15 million revenue “is a reasonable expectation.”
The former trader left Point72 Asset Management in 2017 after six years to start Athletic Brewing. He became interested in nonalcoholic brews in 2013, when he stopped drinking. “At Point72, it’s a performance-based lifestyle. I had to cut out drinking because my day job required me to be on, and I was running ultramarathons on weekends.” Not drinking was, he adds, “an unbelievable life hack.”
Shufelt met his high-profile investors through various avenues. Mycoskie was an early adopter who appreciated the company’s mission-driven point of view. (Athletic donates 2% of its sales to rotating eco-friendly causes, including the maintenance of state parks.)
Watt also saw the value of its brand values. Besides being “an incredible-tasting nonalcoholic beer, they have also shown an immense commitment to philanthropic efforts and protecting the environment,” said the Houston Texans defensive end over email.
The CEO met Tuck, who’s now a vice president at Goldman Sachs Group Inc., through a friend. Likewise, a mutual acquaintance connected Shufelt to Chang, who has a well-documented appreciation for non-fancy beer.
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