The first time I ever ordered a beer by Athletic Brewing Co., I couldn’t have been less interested in abstaining from alcohol. A few years ago, I was at a hip Mediterranean restaurant with a friend, inhaling hummus and Negronis, and we came to a break in the action—our glasses were empty. The server came over and, feeling rushed, I grabbed the menu and quickly looked for something that sounded good. I can’t explain what compelled me in that moment, but I saw that they had a non-alcoholic IPA and decided I wanted to try it. The beer turned out to be the Free Wave hazy IPA by Athletic, and I found it delicious. This weird, Negroni-fueled moment was the beginning of an increasingly important relationship I would have with Athletic Brewing.
In the coming years, Athletic Brewing’s beers would be not something I’d reach for in moments of menu paralysis, but rather an intentional choice during times of conscious sobriety (or just drinking less). Indeed, I’ve definitely cut back on alcohol recently, but before that, the thought of choosing an N/A beer would have been the equivalent of Ron Swanson wanting a veggie burger for lunch. Luckily for me, the rise of high quality, fully dedicated N/A beverages—and there are so many good ones—converged with the decline of my alcohol-heavy lifestyle.
N/A beer: Why?
Athletic Brewing launched in 2017, after co-founder Bill Shufelt wanted to pursue a more active, healthy lifestyle and sought to enjoy worthwhile, beer-like drinks without the negative consequences. He started Athletic Brewing with co-founder and head brewer John Walker (who I assume has no relation to Johnnie Walker, one of the founding fathers of my love of drinking). Today, Athletic Brewing’s website claims the company is the “only non-alcoholic brewery in the world that owns and operates its own fully-dedicated facilities,” of which there are two: one on each coast (in California and Connecticut). It’s probably the most ubiquitous N/A beer I’ve seen in bars and restaurants, at least here in Chicago. Like “real beer,” its beers are made with ingredients like malt, barley, wheat, hops, and yeast—i.e., the usual suspects.
The brewery has a few main staples: Run Wild IPA, Free Wave hazy IPA, Upside Dawn (a golden ale-style brew), and Lite (a light beer, obviously). I’ve seen the Cerveza Atletica lager in a number of Mexican restaurants here in Chicago, while the All Out (an extra dark, stout-style beer) is usually available at my local liquor store. There are also a ton of rotating and seasonal options; just scrolling Athletic Brewing’s website makes me wish I had a subscription, so I could try its Athletic ESB (huge ESB fan here), the Tucker’s West Coast IPA, and the Round of Cheers Brut IPA. (Obviously, Athletic Brewing does a lot of IPAs, making me and your dad its target audience).
Is it actually good?
You’re probably wondering: But how does it really taste? Can this actually fit into my lifestyle if I’m a drinker, or newly sober? The answer is that the beers mostly taste great, and that they’ll definitely serve the same purpose as beer does flavor-wise and socially, if you have an open mind. In this writer’s opinion, the first step to enjoying N/A beer is accepting that it’s not beer and that it’s probably not going to taste exactly like your favorite legacy or craft beer.
Here are a couple of contextual examples of when and where I enjoyed Athletic’s non-alcoholic beers. At a recent dinner at one of my favorite Mexican spots in my neighborhood, I found myself looking down at a table full of nachos, guacamole, and a tasty, humongous burrito. I wasn’t indulging in the margaritas that everyone else was having, so I ordered a Cerveza Atletica—its crisp, slightly spicy, hoppy flavor tasted perfect with the food. On another night, a cold, snowy evening that had me bundled up at home binging TV, I longed for a heavy, chocolate-y stout, so I ran out to pick up some of the brand’s “stout,” All Out. It was honestly delicious, really fulfilling all the dark, complex notes that I love in a perfectly smooth stout, but without the high ABV. (I do not long for the days of getting annihilated from drinking two or three super heavy beers and waking up feeling like absolute shit—that’s a very specific kind of hangover, and now that I’m in my 30s, you can miss me with that.) I even found myself sipping it while watching TV and forgetting for stretches I wasn’t actually drinking beer, which really is the sweet spot for N/A drinks.
My personal favorite from the brand (and the one I always keep stocked in my fridge’s awesome beverage organizers) is the Free Wave, a complex hazy IPA with tremendous hop flavor. I predict that some of its IPAs could actually fool casual beer enjoyers into thinking it’s a real 6-to-7% beer, but that’s not really the point of N/A beer.
If you’re wondering about how its brews compare, calorically, to typical beer, the brand’s non-alcoholic IPAs tend to have between 50 and 70 calories, while the Lite has only 25; by comparison a 12-ounce Bell’s Two Hearted Ale (also an IPA) is 7% ABV and has 212 calories, while a can of Bud Light has 110 calories. Cutting calories might not be the reason you’re reaching for an N/A beer, but it’s definitely a side effect that’s OK by me.
What didn’t land for me
As a lover of light, crushable beers, especially Bud Light, I have to admit that I don’t love the Lite option—I just find it too thin and flavorless to work as something I’d want to drink for enjoyment. After being offered a last-minute ticket to a show last week (to see Cass McCombs, whose dreamy, guitar-steeped music always makes me want to drink multiple beers), I cracked a Lite before my friend came to pick me up, trying to channel my glory days of mainlining a few beers before heading to a show. The Athletic Lite beer didn’t really do it for me, but the two Upside Dawns I had at the show absolutely put me in the right zone (and yes, Athletic has become so popular that you’ll now spot it on the menus and beer lists of many bars and restaurants across the US). There’s just some kind of magic that happens when you drink beer while listening to reverb-drenched rock songs, and that’s an experience I’ll never give up, even if I never consume alcohol again (but I surely will).
TL;DR: Non-alcoholic beer has come a very, very long way, and Athletic Brewing Co. is the most dynamic brewery churning out absolutely delicious beers that are satisfying in any context, from rock concerts and Mexican dinners to binging TV alone at home. It gets tops marks from me for flavor, variety, and even caloric content. Athletic Brewing is here to offer something that’s confident being exactly what it is: Just some very tasty beer—alcoholic or not.
Shop all of Athletic Brewing’s N/A beers here.
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