Brewer's Spotlight: John Walker, Athletic Brewing Co.
Welcome to Yakima Valley Hop's Brewer's Spotlight!
A series from Yakima Valley Hops, featuring a new brewery monthly.
Our latest Brewer's Spotlight is with Head Brewer/Co-Founder of Athletic Brewing Co., John Walker
By Ian Kitts. Ian is the Marketing Analyst at Yakima Valley Hops. He has a passion for NA beer and the NA beer market.
I stopped drinking alcohol six years ago. Beer had been a big part of my life; vacations based around trips to breweries, tireless forays into homebrewing and a community of friends who shared a passion for delicious beer. So, when it came time for me to stop, I felt a sense of loss that you could classify as grief. I was losing more than just beer; I was losing my connection to a culture that I loved, had invested my time and energy into and had become big part of my identity.
That all changed three years ago at my local Trader Joes. It was summer and I had been dealing with the usual phantom-hop flavors that had become familiar since I quit drinking. I missed hoppy beers big time. The initial burst of hops. The ice-cold mouthfeel of bitter bubbly liquid quenching my thirst. It was difficult, especially after a backpacking trip or a day on the river with friends. The lack of a celebratory brew to finish off an action-packed day left me feeling empty. I had a beer-sized hole in my heart.
So there I was, walking down the aisle at Trader Joes when I saw this product on the bottom shelf. It was a dry-hopped Non-Alcoholic (NA) beer. At this point in my journey, my only experience with NA beer was O'Douls. I thought of NA beer as a pungent, sometimes syrupy placeholder for the real thing. Something to hold and sip on when I found myself at the bar with friends after a day in the mountains. I would never buy it to take home with me. I’d rather be hydrating with water… but this… this was interesting. So I grabbed a six-pack and a year later I was hosting an NA beer tasting at my favorite fresh hop festival. Let’s just say I was smitten.
The NA beer market has grown enormously since then. In both 2019 and 2020 sales increased close to 40% in the US, finishing last year with $188 million (source: Nielsen). At the forefront of this movement is Athletic Brewing Co. located in Stratford, Connecticut. A recent r/NABeer (reddit) poll ‘Favorite NA Brewery’ found that 63% of participants chose Athletic Brewing Co. as their top NA brewery. Athletic is clearly doing a lot of things right and it all starts with making great beer.
Athletic was co-founded by Bill Shufelt, a former hedge fund manager, and John Walker a highly accomplished and awarded craft brewer formerly of Second Street Brewery. This month I was lucky enough to sit down with John over Zoom and hear about Athletic’s journey from testing hundreds of recipes on their mobile homebrewing setup to now producing over 40,000 barrels of beer a year, with projections to hit nearly 100,000 barrels in 2021.
Below is a transcript of our conversation:
So, how did you guys get started?
Bill was in his hedge fund life and it was crazy. He was a killer performer at work and loved to do a great job. It was super demanding, and he always had to be on point in that lifestyle. You’re kind of expected to imbibe in after-work events and dinners. He could see that it was taking a toll on his and other people’s performance and having a negative impact on his life. So all of that, combined with his vision and just that general intrigue around being healthy and mindful, plus participating in crazy endurance sports, he decided to stop drinking. Despite feeling amazing and loving life without alcohol, there was something missing - that delicious and refreshing beer out at a bar with friends or at days end, a dynamic food and drink pairing and having a selection that didn't invite judgement. So, he did a ton of research in terms of the market and what people would want before he and his wife decided to pull the plug on work. In 2017 he quit his job and dedicated his life to Athletic. So, we met in 2017. I was brewing in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When I met him, he told me the story and what he was doing and it really jived with where I was at in my life and what I wanted for my career. I love challenges and innovating. I’ve been in food and beverage my entire life and I was looking toward a healthy lifestyle and healthier daily engagements, rather than a life based around the production and consumption of alcohol. It has an effect… and as a young father I just understood the need for it in the marketplace. Plus, nobody had innovated in the segment ever it seemed. It was intriguing, challenging and fun, so I was excited. Bill said, “We’re never going to do it the way they’ve always done it.” So, then we had to figure it out. In 2017 my family and I moved up to Connecticut and Bill and I signed a lease on a 10,000 sq ft building and just started homebrewing.
As brewers, you guys went through hundreds of recipes and batches to refine your style. Can you tell us about some of those first batches? What were the challenges in making a great tasting NA beer?
(Laughing) It was challenging. I can’t toot my own horn about my palette, but I have some expectations and I do believe that I know when something tastes good and when I feel comfortable telling other people it tastes good. It was hard. The textbooks fell short and there was no non-alcoholic brewing community to call upon. In normal craft beer, you just call your neighbor brewer and you’re like, “Hey, what was this like for you?” And they’re like, “Oh yeah bro, this is what happened…”, so you go utilize that technique and boom, problem solved! We had none of that. It was really just trial and error. We’d do five-gallon batch after five-gallon batch. It was on a keggle that I had made in Santa Fe and drove across the country with. Brewing off a turkey burner into carboys and just trying out different yeasts, playing with temperatures and PH. Just over and over. We called it the carboy cart. It was just a cart that we would roll around, like our little fermentation station. We’d just take notes and notes and notes over little batches and eventually we landed on a path that I was comfortable with from a flavor standpoint. Once we found that path, we sort of chased it down, but it took a long time.
Clearly you have some great people at Athletic. Tell me about your team.
We’re all about making great beer that can provide a great experience for our consumers. It’s everything to do with positivity, being active and healthy, just embracing life and looking forward to tomorrow. Quality product and positive impact comes first at Athletic and our team of incredibly talented and passionate professionals deliver that every day from production to quality to sales. And through our products we also make a huge difference in our environment with our Two for the Trails Program which has been there since day one. We donate 2% of all sales to trail and park cleanups plus other causes like scholarships through our Impact Program. So that’s been there since the beginning. We have an amazing team as well that has grown exponentially in the past year and a half. Today we have about 130 teammates. For the first year and a half Bill was doing absolutely everything. He was canning, cleaning, taking the trash out, going to all of the sporting events, he was our entire sales and marketing force, setting up distribution networks and meeting people. But we started growing and things started evolving. We’ve been super fortunate to find a team of super passionate, similarly minded people, who are along for the mission. You know, high quality of life, high quality of product and making a huge positive impact. Just a ton of people innovating quickly and swiftly. We’re an aggregate of passionate people, down to do it all, make it work, try our hardest, learn from our mistakes and move forward.
How is brewing NA beer different from brewing regular beer?
It’s different in a number of ways. We still think about all the same high-quality ingredients. We’ve got organic grains, we’ve got the best hops from the northwest, UK, Germany and around the world. So, ingredients first and foremost, and then how you treat the ingredients within the brewery. All the critical parameters regarding dissolved oxygen, etc. All of that is in line with normal brewing. All of our equipment is in line with what you would find at a normal brewery. Where we are really differentiated is around the landscape of food safety and regulatory compliance and just ensuring that our product is shelf stable. We don’t have ethanol as a preservative. We also answer to the FDA, USDA and the TTB. So, there’s a lot of nuance like recording and making sure we’re compliant with labels and that all of verbiage is accurate so that we’re representing ourselves and the NA beer category properly and responsibly. Also, making sure we’re not over or refermenting in-package, so that there aren’t food spoilers or toxic organism growing in the package, because they can in a low-oxygen ethanol free environment. A lot of care, a lot of investment plus a huge talented team are what’s required to really make it sing.
What can you tell us about your brewing process, particularly around keeping your beer below .5%?
Our process is proprietary, and it took a considerable investment of time, attention and money to develop our process. It’s proprietary, but we don’t use any of the alcohol removal technologies out there. They definitely work and can be utilized in a very effective fashion, but there aren’t a lot of people in that business and the systems can be complicated to run. Plus, you have to make alcoholic beer in the first place and ultimately, we don’t want to be removing anything. So, part of the experience is focusing on everything that was there and should be there is there, so that’s what we focus on.
What are tips you have for homebrewers who want to brew NA beer?
Clean. Then clean again.
Just be very careful, know your equipment well. Know your tolerances very well. That’s another huge concern as a lot of other people are coming into the market now. You can buy some cheap machinery and lab equipment that will give you a ball-park range of your alcohol levels, but if you look at the fine print, the tolerances can be +/- 1%. If you’re off by that much you can’t use that beer. You’ll be 100% liable if your beer is over tolerance. We’ve learned this and invested heavily in our lab. So, for the homebrewer, if it’s critical to stay under that .5%, and commercially it’s critical, know how to calibrate your stuff and know what true zero is. Understand PH, because PH is one of the most critical food safety components there is. Some of the deadliest spores can grow above 4.6 PH and not below 4.6 PH. That’s huge. These are invisible organisms that can and have killed people, so buy a PH meter.
How do you see the NA beer market changing in the next five years?
In this past year NA Craft beer has grown 300%. NA is still under 1% of the craft beer market, but I can easily see that climbing as people catch on, technologies improve, people become more comfortable with it and the culture shifts. I easily see it going up to 5% if not 10% in the coming years. I don’t think it will necessarily detract from the alcohol craft segment. I think it will largely be additive and will mostly pull from sodas, sugary drinks and drinks that are less dynamic. So, I see it pulling from that giant category.
What are your top three hops and why?
Okay, a funny one I’ll throw out there, EKG. EKG is largely nostalgic. Rod Tweet, brewmaster at Second Street Brewing absolutely loved East Kent Golding and that’s where I learned to brew, with him and that team. I fell in love with them there. They have got this rich-earthy, kind of floral-spicy oily component that most US hop varietals do not. German hops don’t either. They’re just super dynamic, they’re soft, but rich. They’re just fun to work with and they play well with others.
Chinook hops are easily up there. They’ve got all of the characteristics I like and depending on how you’re using them. You can get old-school or new-school characteristic out of them. You can get fruity notes, piney notes, awesome crisp bitterness. They come in a variety of formats which is fun to play with, between fine oils that you use downstream and oils you use upstream in a kettle. They’ve been around a long time and they are versatile. Love Chinook.
Now, the third one, I would say… I don’t know, it’s a toss-up…
(Ian: We can make it top four…)
Nah, I’m gonna throw a random one out there. They are new and I love them because they’re totally crazy. Sabro. I hadn’t used them until working with NA beer. They are so crazy and dynamic, coconutty, woody, fruity, rich and dank. They’ve got such a spectrum of flavors. I love them for their complexity.
What is your favorite place to drink an Athletic Beer?
My favorite place to enjoy an Athletic beer would be on a ski slope, and I say this because it’s recent history. I got to go snowboarding for the first time in like seven years recently. I brought up one of our coffee porters and had it on the mountain. And it was just like, when I was younger, you’d have a beer on the mountain and that was the thing to do. Having this incredible NA beer up on the mountain and just like, kicking ass. It was awesome.
Besides visiting Athletic’s tasting room of course, what are the cool things to do when visiting Stratford, CT?
If you’re wanting to go see a really cool fellow brewery, Two Roads Brewing Company right down the street. They’ve got two facilities, both of which are totally unique and awesome. They’re great neighbors. Been friends with them a long time and their place is awesome and they’re beer is great. Past that, if you want to go to Short Beach, it’s this beach on Stratford, and you can walk across this island channel to this old ghost town. It used to be an amusement park and it’s just totally isolated and gone now. There used to be a bridge that went to it, but it doesn’t anymore so it’s kind of this bizarre wasteland, but it’s beautiful.
A big thanks to John, Bill and the whole team at Athletic for making tasty beer and for being a part of our Brewer’s Spotlight series. You can find them at athleticbrewing.com.
- Ian Kitts