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Mar 15, 2021
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After a sweaty workout, what do you grab to quench your thirst and replenish your body? How about a beer?

Many of us reach for Gatorade or water, but brewers want you to consider their libations, too. In fact, a growing number of beer makers are taking a cue from sports drinks and are adding electrolytes into their brews.

These beers are usually lower in alcohol, so whether or not you drink them after a workout, you won't feel sluggish. And many other fitness-centric beers are using unique ingredients you might not expect to quaff in an ale or lager.

For instance, Massachusetts-based Harpoon Brewery's Rec. League is a hazy pale ale that weighs in at 3.8% ABV and 120 calories, and is made with ingredients including chia seeds and a whole grain cereal called buckwheat kasha – both add minerals and B vitamins – and Mediterranean sea salt, which yields electrolytes.


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At Mispillion River Brewing, the Milford, Delaware brewery has a line of fruity and tart, but not hoppy beers called the War series, infused with electrolytes "that … reaches a demographic that is very different from the typical craft beer drinker," said brewery president and founder Eric Williams.


While women don't make up the majority of craft beer drinkers, Williams has noticed that demographic has taken a liking to the offering that includes the mixed berry-flavored War Llama and War Possum – think strawberry lemonade – and both have 5% alcohol by volume (equal to Budweiser).

"We are not saying it's a healthy beer, but we are saying it’s a beer you should drink after you run," Williams said.

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Beer taps into health-consciousness
Health-conscious beers aren't totally new. Low-calorie and light beers have grown in popularity since the '80s, when Bud Light arrived to battle Miller Lite. Michelob Ultra, a lower calorie beer, from Budweiser, is currently the No. 2 selling beer in the U.S. and the fastest-growing beer over the past year, according to retail sales data from NielsenIQ.

“Performance” ingredients such as electrolytes, vitamins or antioxidants have become popular but are not found in all the beers targeting "the more health-conscious consumers," says Dave Williams of Bump Williams Consulting of Shelton, Connecticut, which services the beverage alcohol industry.

The skyrocketing growth in hard seltzers – now being offered by Anheuser-Busch InBev, Boston Beer Co. (parent of Samuel Adams beers and Truly Hard Seltzers), Coors and New Belgium Brewing – is a sign that consumers are seeking health-conscious options, he says.

So are non-alcoholic beers: Athletic Brewing Co., a non-alcoholic craft brewery founded in 2017, saw its business increase fivefold in 2020, co-founder Bill Shufelt says.

Low alcohol, flavor fit consumer thirsts
An active lifestyle is important to Geoff Pedder, who in 2015 founded Zelus Beer Co. in Medfield, Massachusetts. A triathlete, runner and marathoner, Pedder "was always quite confident there was a market" for lower-alcohol, health-conscious beers. Most of the brewery's beers, including Weekender, a German-style lager, Race Pace New England IPA and Light Into Dark porter are made with calcium, potassium and sodium salts.

Zelus saw sales rise 25% in 2020 and is expanding its distribution.


"Our brand is a lot about building an active lifestyle community, a bit like Michelob Ultra does," Pedder says. "They try to build a community around it, too."

Are performance beers a good, post-workout option?
Brewers and other beverage makers are trying to make alcoholic beverages "more 'functional," Ginger Hultin, a nutritionist and owner of Champagne Nutrition, told USA TODAY.

In doing so, there is a wide range of products on the market right now; some are alcoholic, some aren't. Regardless, many are geared toward athletes for recovery and hydration.

"What I'm seeing on the market is additives and ingredients like chia seeds, bee pollen, lemongrass or other herbs/spices, black currant, lime, or other fruits or berries and added electrolytes like salt," Hultin said, noting those elements are common in sports drinks but new to the beer category.

While the thought of a cold beer after a Friday afternoon jog might be enticing, it might not be the optimal choice for rehydration.

"The most important thing for recovery from an endurance activity is definitely hydration with water (and electrolytes if needed depending on the activity) and food," Hultin said. "My advice is to focus on those basic aspects of fueling your sport and to enjoy a beer – regular or 'performance,' if you enjoy it."

Hultin added that enjoying in moderation is key.

Even though its beers contain electrolytes, Zelus Beer Co. doesn't tout the replenishing aspect, founder Pedder says: "Beer is a diuretic. The reality is, you have to get to very low alcohol level to remove the diuretic effect of the alcohol. We don’t get down to those levels."


Brewing beer lovers' loyalty
Craft breweries, too, are catering to fitness-minded drinkers. In 2017, Dogfish Head Craft Brewery of Delaware released SeaQuench Ale, made with sea salts and minerals including calcium, chloride, magnesium, potassium and sodium to help sate thirst and replace lost electrolytes.

Released about a year later, Slightly Mighty IPA, a low-alcohol ale (4% ABV) with only 95 calories and 3.6 grams of carbohydrates –rivaling Michelob Ultra – is the top-selling low-calorie IPA, with sales more than doubling in the last year, according to NielsenIQ. A typical IPA can have as many as 200 calories or more.

Brewery co-founder Sam Calagione said that Dogfish Head made its first "active life style beer," a 4.8% Belgian-style white ale called Namaste, more than a decade ago, initially to serve after brewery yoga sessions.

Harpoon released its Rec. League hazy pale ale in 2019 as an option for health-conscious drinkers, with sales up nearly 50% in the last year, according to NielsenIQ.

A recent consumer survey commissioned by the brewery validated its strategy. Better-for-you ingredients were more important than a year ago for nearly one-third (31%) of the 949 consumers surveyed. Healthier ingredients were more important to millennials, those aged 27-41 (52%), than to GenXers, aged 42-56 (26%).

Factors consumers considered important for healthier options: calorie count (28%), carbs and sugars (28%), nutritional ingredients (27%), and alcohol strength (27%).

"Performance beers are a growing trend that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon," said Steven Pauwels, brewmaster for Boulevard Brewing in Kansas City, Missouri, which released 4.1%, 99-calorie, electrolyte-infused Easy Sport Rally Ale after its brewing manager made a small batch for his running group. "There is a clear evolution among young consumers to live an active and healthy lifestyle, while also enjoying an affinity for craft beer."

Follow Morgan Hines and Mike Snider on Twitter: @MorganEmHines & @MikeSnider.
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