The Case for Sober Travel

How—and why—you might extend your dry January while traveling and exploring

Beers toasting

Athletic Brewing / Tim Passarella

"I wonder how many of these you'd have to drink to get a buzz," the bearded guy next to me asked out loud.

It was an intriguing question.

"If they're each 0.5 percent alcohol content, it'd take about ten to reach the alcohol content of a Coors Light," he continued, calculating surprisingly logically. "You'd have to drink them super fast, of course."

The man was a public relations professional hired by Athletic Brewing Company to preach their gospel of non-alcoholic craft brews to a dozen other media members and me over a few days in Palm Springs. We were standing on a lawn, playing beer pong and flip cup with the non-alcoholic suds, essentially putting his ponderings to the test.

Athletic Brewing, founded in 2017 in Stratford, Connecticut, is a microcosm of the growing non-alcoholic industry. At the end of last October, Nielsen released numbers showing a year-over-year 33.2 percent increase in non-alcoholic beverage sales. That equates to about a $331 million expansion, according to the data. While alcohol sales grew during the pandemic, so have non-alcoholic beverage sales.

Likewise, Athletic Brewing has surged in size. Since its launch in 2017, co-founder and CEO Bill Shufelt said Athletic has grown to a top-25 brewery in the U.S. by size. According to Shufelt, his brewery now holds a 45 percent share of the craft non-alcoholic beer market and an eight percent share of the $254 billion non-alcoholic beer market in the U.S. It's grown into a bonafide bicoastal brewery with facilities in Stratford and now San Diego, equipped with award-winning brewers.

A good chunk of that growth stems from a similar problem many of us have. We like the taste of beer and drinking it, but we also live active and adventurous lifestyles. That means maybe not crushing two or three of those high-ABV IPAs on a Tuesday night; Shufelt said that was reflected in their initial market research and data.

"Before we started, all of our personal data points and survey work pointed towards modern adults wanting more mindful options for their high-performance lifestyles," Shufelt explained. "We usually saw upwards of 50 percent of respondents being excited to drink better beer fit for their modern lifestyle—where the non-alcoholic category only had a 0.3 percent share of beer."

Shufelt says that old market size was "a reflection of a lack of innovation" and that the industry did not listen to customer feedback or industry trends. "While I think Athletic's growth has surprised a lot of the beer industry for those reasons, it surely hasn't surprised us as we knew a majority—rather than a very small minority—of adults wanted better-for-you beer," Shufelt added.

Athletic Dry January

Athletic Brewing / Tim Passarella

He's not wrong. While I've personally had some unique experiences and trips that involved beer tastings (I'm looking at you, Bend, Oregon), as I've aged into my 30s, I've grown to increasingly appreciate sober travel and adventure.

No doubt, Athletic has grown a following of like-minded adventurers and travelers.

Dani Reyes-Acosta, an Athletic ambassador, mountain athlete, and advocate, said she first became sober curious in 2014, while traveling and adventuring in South America. "As a solo female focused on finding remote waves and mountains to visit, I needed all the presence of mind I could muster," Reyes-Acosta said. That presence of mind also has helped her reach peak performance and experiences through a state of flow. "It's easier to flow into focus with an alcohol-free state of mind. Flow lets me meet challenges with every single ounce of presence and competence I have in my body and mind, meaning I'm ready for whatever unexpected moments may come my way," Reyes-Acosta continued. "My physical, as much as mental and emotional well-being, hinges on mindset: whether I'm traveling, training, or executing, staying tuned into my surroundings means that I often seek to be as substance-free as possible."

Former professional skier and Olympian Kaylin Richardson has spent many years in a culture and industry known at times for substance abuse issues. "The ski industry has been rife with alcohol abuse posed as just knocking a couple back after every ski day, shift at work, cliff drop, and breakup," Richardson says, noting over the past five years, a "light has been shed" on the issue. A vast light has been shed on this issue in the last five years, which is hugely encouraging. Richardson says she has multiple friends in the ski industry who have gone sober recently.

"Not every beer needs to turn into a bender, nor every glass of wine into oblivion," Richardson continued. "There are more options now and, I believe, people like that. I have also seen the emergence of sober ski trips offered, which is super cool. More than anything, though, the largest telltale sign of a shift in the ski community is that now when new friends grab a drink after skiing and someone orders a club soda or a buddy shares non-alcoholic beer with strangers in the parking lot, it's not anything special, it is just normal. That is a great trend to see."

Back in Palm Springs, I've slammed about a dozen Athletic beers by 4 p.m. We started with post-hike suds, then moved our way to lunch and poolside brews and then the flip cup and beer pong. I decide I want to take a sunset run before our evening plans, and despite a gurgling stomach, I can do just that. The following day I'm up for another run before brunch, yoga, and my three-hour drive back home. No hangxiety. No hangover. And I think my planned dry January just might turn into a year of dry travel and adventuring.