Sufferfest Beer came about not as a heady business venture or an attempt to storm the market by introducing something that hasn’t been done before—namely, a beer that’s actually healthy to drink. It started as a happy accident. Founder Caitlin Landesberg never described herself as a beer lover, but as an athlete, playing tennis in college and participating in all types of running after school, beer was always the reward delivered at the end of a race.
Then, about eight years ago, she started to endure a series of health issues, including hair loss, migraines, and ulcers. During an overnight leg in an ultra relay race she was rushed to the hospital, where she was diagnosed with a thyroid deficiency likely linked to a food allergy. After systematically eliminating ingredients from her diet, she discovered that it was tied to gluten. Within 10 days of removing that composite of storage proteins from her diet, her health problems started to fade.
But that also forced her to sacrifice one of the most rewarding aspects of her outdoor exploits: that rewarding pint of beer at the end of a race. So, after complaining about all the sub-par options out there, she decided to make her own.
Healthy beer, an oxymoronic designation, has been in the market for a while. Think Michelob Ultra, Corona Light, Miller 65—but those brews seldom resonated with beer-lovers who craved actual taste. Sufferfest, named in honor of the suffering one joyfully endures while hiking or biking or climbing or skiing, aimed to offer an alternative, something that was both flavorful and good for you. The beer caters to people who live an active life, watch what they ingest, and want to celebrate the good life with a few pints.
The first beers she released—the Flyby Pilsner, and the Taper IPA—follow the traditional brewing process, but also eliminate almost all the gluten, leaving only an infinitesimal amount—less than five parts per million. And their two new releases, which were both unveiled this May, boast all sorts of healthy-forward ingredients and supplemental nutrition.
The Fastest Known Time Pale Ale is brewed with black currants (which has four times the amount of vitamin C as an orange) as well as 65 mg of iodized salt to help replenish the body after a hard work-out—while also tasting like a solid beer, with a nice tang from the fruit to compliment the mild hops. At 3.5% ABV, the new Repeat Kolsch has 2% less alcohol than the pale ale, with only 95 calories and five carbs per serving, fortified with bee pollen to deliver more vitamins and minerals. Both contain less than ten parts of gluten per million.
Since launching in 2016, Sufferfest has seen a meteoric rise, perhaps because Caitlin never thought of the company as a beer-maker.
“We see ourselves as an active brand,” Caitlin says. ”And the piece of gear we’re making is beer.”
We talked with Caitlin about how she got her start, what it’s like to be a female in a male-dominated industry, and how sponsored athletes work as part of a beer brand.
Paste: Having a post-workout beer is pretty much a staple in the outdoor space, but when was your a-ha moment?
Caitlin Landesberg: I didn’t have one. It was a selfish need. I never identified myself as a beer-drinker, but as a runner. But I loved a post-run beer. One of the reasons I signed up for a trail-running race is you get a commemorative pint glass and some good local brews. And I’ve got a lot of commemorative pint glasses.
In 2010, I was going through a lot of health and dieting issues. And after a lot of experimentation I cut out gluten. That’s when I was struck by how much I missed a good beer. I don’t like the sorghum or potato-based gluten-free beers. It doesn’t deserve the name “beer” the way I consider it. That’s when I started complaining. That’s what kicked off the need—a short-sighted way to fill that need. My boyfriend challenged me to make a better beer.
I wasn’t trying to brew beer other than just to have the best-tasting, best-for-me beer at the end of the finishing line.
Paste: What was the first beer you produced—for yourself?
CL: I worked on the pilsner for the longest time. Like three years. And as I got into the micro-biology, I started to understand why we as athletes crave it. It’s got all the things you need. It’s 80% water. It helps fight inflammation, aids digestion, helps strengthen your bones. So I started taking food science courses at UC Berkeley and started to think about ways to fortify the water quality.
I put a lot of my money for my wedding into making my beer. And I packaged the pilsner for our wedding.
Paste: And that was the first beer to hit the public under the Sufferfest label?
CL: Yes. I started working on an IPA at that time as well and both hit the market at the same time. I envisioned the IPA as something to drink while rolling out your fatigued muscles post-workout.
Paste: Given the craft beer space is crowded with men—typically bearded men wearing flannel—how has your experience been as a woman working in craft beers?
CL: I thought it was going to be more machoistic. But it’s not that. Every part of the craft beer space’s supply chain is owned and operated by women. The CEOs are really where the glass ceiling exists.
Paste: I love that you have sponsored athletes under the Sufferfest label. What’s their role with the brewery?
CL: They are all awesome people, first and foremost. We have a charter around volunteering, trail repair, and other causes that the athletes are engaged in. It’s first and foremost people who like our beer but don’t have to make compromises with what they eat and drink. It’s often us helping them with providing beer or time, and in return they endorse the brand.
Paste: Do you know of other breweries that have athletes on their roster?
CL: Not really. I think of Red Bull. We are different. And I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. None of us come from a beer background. We’re all tied together for our love for the outdoors. We’re competitive and we want to win, but when it comes to beer, we’re aligned. We want to change the model. We don’t have a brewery to participate in contests. We spend time at climbing gyms, ski mountain, and surprise-and-delight events at trailheads.
Paste: California’s craft beer scene is pretty damn crowded—to say the least. Was it daunting to step into the space?
CL: I didn’t think about it. I was naïve 100% of the time. And soon, the athletes and endurance racers were providing affirmation. And if I didn’t scratch that itch to try and make the beer I wanted—I just don’t live that way. My goal wasn’t to build a huge brand, but to have a few grocery stores stocking my beer so I could pick them up after a workout.
Within two months, Whole Foots picked us up in every location. And it snowballed from there. We still self-distribute, but we’ve got 700 doors [distribution points] and Sufferfest is the number-one grossing beer at Whole Foods. We grew 212% in the last year, even with the industry dropping 4%.
Now the shift in the industry has turned toward more discerning appetites, more towards brand affinity, more towards health and lifestyle. We basically stumbled into the fastest-growing space. We want to be the craft alternative.