To the uninitiated it can be a bit of a shock, but at the end of a weekend road race or triathlon, right next to the bananas and Gatorade, you are increasingly likely these days to find the beer tent.
Geoffrey Pedder, 41, recently launched the Zelus Beer Company in Medfield, Mass., to capitalize on this growing trend.
“I saw how much beer was drunk at the end of races,” Pedder said, “and I felt like there’s a big community there. There’s a lot of people who enjoy an active lifestyle — running and a lot of other sports. Beer is a very social activity. So, I don’t think it’s such the oxymoron that people think it is. It’s just a matter of enjoyment.”
Pedder was convinced that because active people were drinking beer anyway, they’d be especially interested in drinking beer targeted especially at them. His range of choices have an ABV, or alcohol by volume, of less than 5%, rare among today’s craft beer.
Magazines like Runner’s World and Muscle & Fitness are increasingly promoting the benefits of alcoholic drinks — and featuring Zelus Beer — in articles like “7 Beers That Will Legitimately Help You Recover Faster” and “13 Healthy(ish) Beers to Drink After Your Workouts.”
If you think it sounds crazy to think of beer as a recovery drink, you’re not alone. But the trend is catching on.
“A high percentage of craft drinkers now say, ‘aligns with my fitness goals is one reason why I’m choosing a beer,'” said Bart Watson, chief economist at the Brewer’s Association in Denver.
“That doesn’t mean that they’re thinking of it as a health drink, first and foremost, but it’s something that they want to build into that lifestyle, and it’s something that they can look forward to at the end of a workout,” Watson said.
Watson pointed out that cold beer and camaraderie — even at 10 a.m.– is one of the reasons why some weekend warriors actually get off the couch, especially to take advantage of lower alcohol and lower calorie options.
“Light beers have been huge for decades,” Watson said, calling the rollout of light beer in the late 1970s and early ’80s a “revolution” for the beer industry. “But no one ever expected them to taste good,” he continued. “What’s happening now is that craft brewers are taking this up and running with it — you’ve got full flavor and fewer calories.”
He concedes, though, that while growing, the market is still tiny for “lighter” craft beer. In terms of sales, it’s about 1% of the craft beer market, which is about 13% of the overall beer market.
At the Powisset Farm Trail Run in Dover, Mass., last month, runners thronged the table where Pedder and his wife were handing out beer. Christine Dinneen, 51, Stacy Cawley, 44, and Brooke Freeburg, 38, were each sipping a 16-ounce can of Zelus.
“Whenever you go to races anywhere, when you play soccer, we’re always rehydrating,” Dinneen said. “It’s not unusual to have a beverage after you work hard. It’s just tasty and feels good. Having lower alcohol in there is a good thing.”
Cawley said she isn’t much of a beer drinker, but her two friends convinced her to try one. “I have to say it’s really tasty. And I’m definitely motivated by the lower calories and (the) low alcohol,” she said.
For Freeburg, it’s the social aspect of having a beer that draws her, regardless of the sport.
“Now there are so many club sports for adults and everyone wants to hang out afterwards and having a drink is a much slower pace,” she says. “So, I think that’s always kind of attractive to the more mature athletes.”
A study from 2015, published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, found that “a moderate beer intake has no deleterious effects on markers of hydration in active individuals.” In other words, a couple beers — especially ones with low alcohol — are okay, especially because beer, like sports drinks, contains carbs, electrolytes and sodium, which has been shown to help with fluid loss.
No one here would say they’re drinking beer specifically to recover from the race. Mostly they echoed what Pedder said. They’re going to drink beer anyway, so why not a lower alcohol, lower-calorie can of suds that tastes good?
Two other friends in the race felt the same way.
Mark Southard, 62, and Rick Gill, 48, joked that they come to races like this for the beer.
“I enjoy beer, so… I’m not counting calories,” Gill said. “It’s the taste and the social aspect of it — like-minded people out doing fun stuff. The fact that there’s beer, I think that keeps people around a bit longer, willing to socialize and meet new people.”
Building on this active lifestyle model, some craft brewers have actually gone the non-alcoholic route. Bill Shufelt co-founded Athletic Brewing two years ago. The company sells its brews at bars and restaurants in the Northeast. It also distributes to more than 2,000 stores nationwide.
“We’ve actually been totally overwhelmed and shocked by how strong the nationwide online demand is,” Shufelt told NPR in June.
And the trend may keep growing. As NPR’s Allison Aubrey reported, a survey by analysts at Bank of America last year found that 22% of millennials say they’re drinking less — and when asked why, the majority said that increased concerns about health and wellness are driving this behavior change.
Running for the reward of beer and hanging out is all well and good, say researchers, as long as people understand that lower-alcohol beer is only slightly better than its boozier cousins. But none of it is “good” for you.
Tim Naimi is an alcohol researcher at Boston University and the Boston University Medical Center.
Naimi said it’s certainly better to drink lower alcohol beer, but he pointed out what happens — especially after a race — is that people just tend to drink more of it, and often end up consuming the same amount of alcohol.
As a researcher, he’s especially frustrated that alcohol is being made to seem healthy, at worst, or even just less dangerous than it is, with terms like “it’s wine-o’clock” or “mommy juice.”
“You know, alcohol’s alcohol. It doesn’t matter whether it comes in beer or wine or whiskey. The issue is how much ethanol over what period of time. So, there’s nothing magically good or bad about one type of alcoholic beverage over another,” Naimi said.
If you want to drink alcohol, Naimi said, that’s fine. Just don’t pretend it’s something that it isn’t.
This story comes to us from member station WGBH in Boston.