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I spent a month drinking Athletic Brewing's non-alcoholic beer. It made me want to rethink my relationship with drinking and switch to being 'flex-sober.'

Avery Hartmans   

I spent a month drinking Athletic Brewing's non-alcoholic beer. It made me want to rethink my relationship with drinking and switch to being 'flex-sober.'
  • I spent about four weeks drinking Athletic Brewing Company's non-alcoholic beers.
  • The brand's no-alcohol hazy IPA became an almost guilt-free alternative to regular beer for me.

Non-alcoholic beer has a bit of a bad reputation.

As of about five years ago, it made up just 0.3% of the beer market. It was targeted to consumers in recovery from alcoholism, or people who were pregnant, but it never pretended to be as good as the real thing.

But sometime during the past year, I started noticing beers from non-alcoholic beer brand Athletic Brewery Company showing up in my parents' fridge, on beer lists at bars, and at my local Whole Foods. My friends were drinking Athletic beers and college athletes were hawking them on Instagram. Restaurateur David Chang and Arizona Cardinals defensive end J.J. Watt invested in the company.

Eventually, I had to ask: was someone actually making good non-alcoholic beer?

I decided to find out for myself and purchased a six-pack of the brand's Free Wave hazy IPA. I expected to have some notes about the taste or how quickly I made it through a six-pack — what I didn't expect was to re-evaluate how often I drank and why, and become, as Athletic's CEO puts it, "flex sober."

It's nearly as good as a regular IPA

I cracked open my first-ever NA beer after a workout one day.

When this test began, I had asked Athletic's co-founder and head brewer, John Walker, what to expect from his beers. He explained via email that I should look out for hints of mandarin and clementine, as well as honeysuckle, tropical fruits, and pine resin

Free Wave was "the first graduate of our pilot brewing program and became one of our fastest-selling flagships shortly after launch," Walker wrote. "In its pilot days, entire batches would sell out online in a matter of minutes."

Right off the bat, I noticed that Free Wave had a foamy head, a nice golden color, and that telltale hoppy aroma. It definitely had the citrusy taste Walker noted and which I love in a beer, but I did notice a slightly more bitter and metallic aftertaste than I'm used to. Still, it tasted pretty close to a normal IPA, which impressed me: NA beer has earned a reputation over the years as being, well, kind of gross, which is typically the result of the way it's made.

But Athletic CEO Bill Shufelt told Insider in a recent interview that taste was priority No. 1 when he and Walker started out.

"Our co-founder, John — when we teamed up in 2017, we were home-brewing in an empty warehouse for a year — he said, 'We're not launching a product ever unless it stacks up to like the best craft beer and is totally indistinguishable from alcoholic beer,'" Shufelt said. "And to his credit, he really accomplished that."

Choosing 'flex sobriety'

As the weeks went by, I took note of when I reached for one of Athletic's beers. I noticed that they were becoming a treat when I did something good: Went for a long evening run? I deserved a very cold NA beer afterward. Scrubbed down my kitchen on a Saturday? A late-afternoon NA beer for me.

Athletic's beers also became a new option during the weekdays. I'm not a big fan of flavored seltzer or pop, but sometimes you just need a little something — NA beer filled that gap for me and I found myself reaching for it at happy hour, even when my partner was drinking regular beer.

But I also noticed all the occasions I didn't want to drink an NA beer. When friends came over for dinner on a Friday night, I opted for a regular, full-alcohol IPA. Same went for a night when I went out to my neighborhood beer bar: it did happen to have Athletic beer on the menu, but I felt like I would much rather sample the new sour beer on tap. Essentially, when it came time to socialize, I still liked to have one or two alcoholic drinks.

Shufelt said that this is exactly how 80% of Athletic's customers drink. He described those people as "flex sober" — people who drink, but choose to stay sober sometimes for a variety of reasons, including no hangover. The company's goal, he said, is to introduce new "occasions" for drinking, which was pretty much what I had been doing without even realizing it.

After about four weeks of this experiment, I started to realize that my brain often got the same signal — "Ahhh, let's relax" — from NA beer as it did from regular beer. It was never about the alcohol itself for me, but about the feeling of fun and relaxation that typically goes along with it, a feeling that Athletic has mostly been able to replicate, sans booze.

So while I don't plan to give up my beloved IPAs anytime soon, and I won't quit checking out new breweries, I do plan to keep incorporating NA beer into my life. After all, what Athletic and other NA brewers are offering isn't just no-alcohol beer — it's more choice.


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