Mirna Valerio would not describe herself as a beer person. The accomplished ultrarunner is more of a Cabernet Sauvignon drinker. But the beer cravings do kick in occasionally—namely, after a long day on the trail. Last month, for instance, Valerio competed in the Broken Arrow Skyrace, which involved running 26 kilometers nearly straight uphill in California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, trudging “through snow and scrambling up rocks,” she says. It was a challenge that merited something cool and refreshing at the end.
Happily, there was an ice-cold can waiting for her and each of the race’s approximately 3,000 runners: a pale ale made by Sufferfest, which quenched her thirst without impeding her training for her next race, a 50-kilometer dash through the Pacific Northwest’s Columbia River Gorge just a few days later.
Sufferfest was created in San Francisco in 2016 by Caitlin Landesberg, a trail runner herself, who wanted to make beer that would work with runners after grueling workouts—often called “sufferfests”—and not set them back. The FKT (or “Fastest Known Time”), a pale ale, for instance, is low in gluten—like all of Sufferfest’s beers—and brewed with black currant and salt to supply the electrolytes and sugars that runners typically crave at the end of a race. Repeat, a kolsch brewed with bee pollen, is supposed to help with muscle recovery.
Although for years beer and running have been closer exercise buddies than you might think—marathon bibs often come with tickets you can trade in for a beer after crossing the finish line, running clubs often end their treks at a bar, and local microbreweries hand out new IPAs at the end of a race—Sufferfest’s emergence seems truly natural. “It works because it’s not like some beer company saying, ‘Oh, runners like beer, we should make something for them,'” Valerio says. “It’s someone from inside the community making something for us.”
In doing so, Sufferfest has found remarkable success. The company has evolved from a tiny, self-distributed operation to a fast-growing, 13-person outfit that put out around 3,000 barrels of beer in 2018 (Sufferfest does not disclose revenue). This trajectory caught the eye of veteran craft-brewing company Sierra Nevada, which acquired Sufferfest for an undisclosed amount earlier this year. With access to Sierra Nevada’s distribution and production network—the company makes over 1 million barrels of beer per year and distributes widely across the country—Sufferfest is poised for a healthy future.
But the deal is salubrious for Sierra Nevada as well. After years of solid growth, craft-beer sales are slowing down. Sierra Nevada is not exempt: Its mainstay beers, including the Pale Ale, have seen declines in sales. Interest in the idea of “functional” beer like Sufferfest is rising, especially as the wellness industry expands. Sufferfest is able to plug into the world of running—which, by one estimate, counts nearly 56 million participants and more than 30,000 annual events in the U.S.—and by leading with innovative ingredients and recovery benefits rather than more inside-craft-beer statistics like ABV (alcohol by volume) and IBU (international bitterness unit). Other beer companies are now figuring out if they, too, can meet the athletic community at the finish line.
The road to a better-for-you beer
Sufferfest grew out of a need that Landesberg, a lifelong athlete, identified in her own life. After she moved to San Francisco in 2008 from Ohio, where she attended college, a friend invited her to come along for a long trail run in the Marin Headlands, and she was hooked. The passion even extended into her professional career; she became the head of marketing for Strava, a company that tracks statistics for sports like running and cycling and provides a platform for bringing athletes together. Outside the office, she was plugging into that community on the track and trails.
As she started to train harder and do more events, she increasingly valued what she calls the “camaraderie over a finish-line beer.” She didn’t know how important that was to her, she says, until she couldn’t have it anymore.
In 2010, she was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, an autoimmune disorder. Landesberg found that reducing gluten helped minimize her symptoms and boost the effectiveness of her medication. As a result, post-workout beers were no longer an option. “I found this huge gap in the social aspect of my sport,” she says, and frankly she simply envied her fellow athletes’ fresh, cold beers. So she decided to create her own. Landesberg got into home brewing and enrolled in a beer-making course at UC Davis, an hour-and-a-half drive away. “If you look at the recipe itself, the grains, malt, and water, it makes sense why athletes crave beer,” Landesberg says. “It’s like a PowerBar you’re drinking, but [you’re] also getting a buzz.”
At Davis, she experimented with brewing methods that eliminated gluten and added ingredients such as bee pollen (which is anti-inflammatory and high in protein) and sea salt (which restores electrolytes). She began bringing her creations to her run club, and her friends encouraged her to sell it. At the same time, through her role at Strava, she was meeting with race directors who made it clear that there was a market for better-for-you beer at finish lines. “All of a sudden I had this bootlegged network of sweaty people around the country saying: We need this,” she says. That was in 2015. By 2016 she had left her role at Strava and officially launched Sufferfest.
She started by selling her products, the Taper IPA and Flyby Pilsner, to local grocery stores, but demand quickly outpaced the production capacity at the local San Francisco cooperative workshop where she did the brewing. She soon contracted with a larger beermaker, Denver’s Sleeping Giant Brewing, a common practice for smaller beer companies. Now that Sufferfest is a part of Sierra Nevada, the beer will be produced at the parent company’s Chico brewery.
Sufferfest’s booming growth, Landesberg says, stemmed in part from a “functional beer” fervor that was beginning to catch hold. Dogfish Head, a longstanding craft brewery based in Delaware, was starting to lean into what it calls “active lifestyle beers” such as SeaQuench Ale, a sour beer brewed with lime and sea salt, released in 2016, that founder Sam Calagione says resembles Gatorade or a margarita. Sour beers have skyrocketed in popularity among craft brewers in the past couple years (though tart beers like lambics and goses have long been popular in Europe), and SeaQuench, according to Nielsen data, is now the fastest-growing beer in the sour category. (Dogfish Head’s first “active lifestyle” beer, the low-alcohol Namaste White, had hit markets in 2009 with a combination of lemongrass, orange, coriander, and peppercorns.) Other breweries are also getting in on the trend: The Boston-based Harpoon Brewery recently released a “recovery beer” called Rec League that’s brewed with sea salt and chia seeds, and Avery Brewing in Colorado debuted a Go Play IPA brewed with sodium and potassium.
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At around the same time, Bill Shufelt, a runner in his 30s who realized that his love of beer was incompatible with the lifestyle he was cultivating, quit his job in finance and in 2017 launched a company dedicated to creating nonalcoholic but still delicious and thoughtful beers under the name Athletic Brewing. In addition to opening a taproom in Connecticut last year, he has signed a deal to distribute Athletic along the East Coast, with plans to expand nationally. Shufelt also sells Athletic beers directly to consumers, which is much easier to do when there’s no alcohol involved.
Right now, Sufferfest is sold mainly in California and Colorado, and it’s on tap at Sierra Nevada’s three breweries—in Chico and Berkley, California, and Mills River, North Carolina—where cans are also available for purchase. Now that it can take advantage of Sierra Nevada’s production facilities and distribution network, Sufferfest will begin to expand to several states starting in September; exactly where is still being finalized, Landesberg says. “For Caitlin to grow Sufferfest on her own, she was going to have to build backroom, production, and distribution capabilities, none of which really get people to understand the beer more,” says Jeff White, Sierra Nevada’s CEO. “We can provide all that. Landesberg, who remains CEO and founder of Sufferfest, “can focus on the beer and how to get it into people’s hands the right way: We need to meet athletes where they are.” Sufferfest’s advantage, White says, is that “it was born real.” It made more sense for Sierra Nevada to acquire the company than to gather “a bunch of MBAs and marketing VPs in a conference room to dissect data about how to reach athletes.” He sees Sufferfest as being “for more than just athletes, just as Gatorade and Clif Bar were made for athletes but are for everyone.”
Craft brewing meets wellness
After a wild run—with six straight years of two-digit growth between 2010 and 2016—the craft beer industry is decelerating. This is to be expected after any boom period, but there’s another force involved: the wellness business.
“Wellness” has emerged in the past few years as both a buzzword and a $4.2 trillion industry. It encompasses everything from green juices to yoga, the Whole30 meal plan to natural skin-care products, SoulCycle to Goop crystals. Also: running. Since 2012, the number of running events has risen steadily in the U.S. Any kind of exercise can be considered part of wellness culture, a philosophy perhaps best summed up by the popular athleisure-wear company Outdoor Voices‘s simple and accepting motto: “Doing Things.”
But if “doing things” and “wellness” are around-the-clock states, there’s not much need for that beer or glass of wine (or two) at the end of the day to unwind and de-stress. Younger generations, as Amanda Mull recently reported in The Atlantic, are less interested in drinking alcohol. Hard kombucha and seltzer, meanwhile, are on the rise.
The craft beer industry might be uniquely suited to respond to this shift, having been built on collaboration and healthy competition. Researchers have studied the “rising tide effect” in the craft-beer industry and determined that smaller breweries benefit from supporting and learning from each other. With so many players in the sector—between 2009 and 2018, the number of independent breweries in the U.S. rose from 1,600 to more than 7,000—beer makers constantly have to reimagine the types of brews they create, which has led to trends like hazy and “milkshake” IPAs (brewed with lactose) and sour beers. They’ve also had to experiment with different distribution and marketing models. Some microbreweries, like Other Half, in Brooklyn, New York, have built a cult following around their taprooms but don’t mass-distribute—you might find their beer on draft at a local brewpub, but venture to a grocery store outside the area and you’re out of luck. Some larger breweries, such as Stone Brewing, near San Diego, have built their own self-distribution mechanisms that they’ve opened up to other craft breweries, like Stone Brewing’s neighbor Modern Times. Craft breweries, essentially, have had to become mini innovation labs.
Now, as demand for “functional” beer swells and companies like Sufferfest, Dogfish Head, and Harpoon lead in product development, the fact that other breweries are following seems less like copying than joining a united front. Collaborations among breweries are so commonplace that Denver established an annual Collaboration Beer Fest in 2014 to highlight these joint projects, which Food and Wine called “an ode to the craft beer ethos of working together instead of squabbling over market share.” Perhaps, as the functional beer trend spreads, craft brewers will focus their knowledge-sharing on this new segment of the industry.
Plugging into the world of “doing things”
Valerio and her fellow Broken Arrow Skyrace competitors weren’t the only runners to down a Sufferfest at the finish line this year. Sufferfest is now the official beer of April’s annual Big Sur Marathon. Meanwhile, Landesberg is extending the beer’s reach in other ways: The company recently collaborated on a San Francisco–based Jogger’s Club with Outdoor Voices and hosted a 10k trail race with REI. (Athletic Brewing is making similar moves, partnering with the massive Spartan Race network to reach its 5 million participants at various finish lines worldwide.) Sufferfest also provides refreshments for the hundreds of participants of August’s Big Birdcamp, the annual networking and fitness event sponsored by Seattle-based women’s running-apparel company Oiselle (French for bird), a cult brand that organizes local running communities across the U.S., Canada, and Europe.
Instagram is another place where fans are interacting with the brand. Sufferfest sponsors a handful of endurance athletes, such as ultrarunner Courtney Dauwalter, who are paid to tag and promote the beer on social media. Sufferfest’s own Instagram account has more than 15,000 followers, and tagged photos of its various brews show how much the brand has extended into the larger fitness space: It can be found at running outfitters and bike shops, climbing gyms and CrossFit studios. It’s the drinkable version of doing things.
[Photos: courtesy of Sufferfest, Athletic Brewing; Samohin (aluminum can), master1305 ( running trio), m-imagephotography (woman jogger), vovashevchuk (hops), gregepperson (rock climbers)/iStock, Marion Michele (handstand), Matthew LeJune (woman stretching)/Unsplash]
This story is part of Fast Company’s special coverage of “The New Business of Food,” in which we explore how changes in culture, technology, and the environment are altering the food industry’s entire metabolism. Click here to read the whole series.