Sufferfest Brewing Company Origin Story – Caitlin Landesberg – Runner’s World

Sufferfest Brewing Company Origin Story – Caitlin Landesberg  Runner’s World

Sufferfest has the tagline #WillSweatForBeer, and the San Francisco-based company means that quite literally.

Sufferfest, started in 2016, is beer made by athletes for athletes. And unlike some other beer brands showing fit people in Spandex for their commercials, the people behind the brews with names like “FKT,” “Flyby,” and “Repeat” have real athletes producing the product.

The founder, Caitlin Landesberg, is a long-distance trail runner and started brewing beers that she would love to indulge in after hard workouts. The beers aren’t meant to be low calorie, but instead have extra ingredients that you might find in other recovery drinks, like PURE Blackcurrant Recovery, Gatorade, or Nuun with electrolytes and caffeine.

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Landesberg, 36 and the former director of marketing at Strava, has now built a team of athletes—runners, rock climbers, surfers, lacrosse players and Spartan racers—who bring their enthusiasm for fitness to making and selling Sufferfest beer. It seems to have paid off. Earlier this year Sufferfest became the first brewery ever acquired by Sierra Nevada.

Landesberg took a break from running and brewing and to tell us about how the company got started, what she was looking for with the ideal running beer, and why you won’t see Sufferfest at those standard beer festivals.


Runner’s World: When did you first decide you wanted to make beer?

Caitlin Landesberg: I describe it as a happy accident. I’ve always identified myself as an athlete and played sports in high school and college. After college, through a friend of a friend, I got involved in an endurance running club and fell in love with distance running. I started competing in racing at local races in the Bay Area.

I also didn’t really identify myself as a beer drinker or took much notice of my drinking habits. It was never really been part of my routine or regimen. But before I could even realize it, every finish line moment that I was used to was paired with a commemorative pint glass and that local brew that was being served. So, there was always this hard workout or hard race followed by a really delicious reward at the end.

I was experiencing a lot of dietary issues and was diagnosed with this autoimmune deficiency that really impacted by my diet. I was rebuilding my diet from the ground up and removing all sorts of elements from my life, including gluten. I started looking for more obscure ciders and gluten-free beers that I could enjoy at the finish line. But I really came up short. Ciders were either really too sweet, or gluten-free beers had such a lackluster taste and experience. I started bringing my own little coolers that I would share those beers with friends.

How did you then go about starting a company?

After a lot of complaining, my boyfriend at the time—now my husband—signed me up and got me a beer-making course for my birthday. He challenged me, and I think the last thing you want to do is challenge an athlete. He wanted me to make a beer that I actually liked and that I was proud of.

I started making gluten-free beers at a cooperative workshop here in San Francisco, and they were terrible. I really just choked them down. But they were mine, and I got super excited about the microbiology of beer. I had my first aha moment around, oh, no wonder we crave this beer. Not only is it a lot of fun to drink and celebrate with, but the natural ingredients involved in beer have these great qualities that we’re looking for at these sweaty moments.

And then how did you start selling your beers?

I got better at brewing and then started making beers I could sell. I literally walked and ran the streets in my running stuff door to door to my favorite grocery stores and pitched a buyer with my two beers in hand [she sold Taper IPA and Flyby Pilsner to start]. It was sampled right then and there, and I started batting a thousand. Buyers really just wanted this beer, and I hit the market right.

How did you come up with the Sufferfest name?

It was never supposed to be the name. I first heard the term “sufferfest” at Strava. We were developing this product called a suffer score, a premium product for mostly cyclists. If you put our formula together around miles and time and output you’d get a suffer score. We do the same thing for running in terms of elevation gain/lost, time, mileage. We give you a suffer score, basically showing how hard you work.

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I think it’s certainly been a term of endearment that I’ve heard within the context of endurance. But then I asked one of the developers, I said, “Gosh, we’ve only given a score from 0 to 200. What happens if someone goes beyond that scale?” They said well that’s sufferfest. That’s the holy grail of working hard. I always use that as a way of describing a really hard workout, and all of a sudden it translated into a beer. And when I said I wanted a sufferfest, that was my code word for my husband to grab me a beer, bring me my sufferfest.

As I started going through the motions of trying to figure out how to start a company and get licenses, all these awful trials and tribulations, I thought there’s no better word to describe building a beer company this day and age than sufferfest.

And so it’s stuck and I’m happy that it did. It’s helped people understand that concept of earning your beer and that beer can fit into a healthy and active lifestyle, versus something that might be sedentary or inside all day at a bar.

How did you develop the ideal running beer?

Barley, hops, yeast, and water are essentially the four primary products in a beer and they have these wonderful attributes already and they’re all natural. We know their benefits, we understand them, but because we are in a beer industry that is regulated, there’s only so much that I can say around what’s healthy in fermented alcoholic beverage. We use conventional beer with added ingredients that help assist with the flavor, the aroma, the complexity of a beer. For instance, black current, salt, bee pollen, coconut water, free trade coffee beans.

These are ingredients that we know from our experience as healthy and active consumers and from listening to the demands and asks of our very own community of runners and climbers and swimmers and surfers and cyclists that they’re looking for. These added components allow someone to maybe pick up a beer instead of a handful of peanuts or gummy bears and Gatorade at the end of a workout.

Courtesy of Sufferfest Beer Company

Some people will stop drinking leading up to a race or an athletic event. What do you think about that?

There are times where we want something super alcoholic and we’re celebrating and there are times when we want to drink something alcohol free but still makes us feel included and participatory. Or we want something right down the middle. I really try to honor the multifaceted nature of our community. I’ve made a beer [Taper IPA] for when I was injured. I made a beer [Shakeout Blonde] for after my first pregnancy getting into a postpartum body and back into a better physique. I’ve made an everyday drinking beer [Repeat Kolsch] that just flavored really well with food but something that I can have on Tuesday and Wednesday night and not feel any of the effects of alcohol. I have a finish line beer [FKT Pale Ale] that’s our full-fledged beer right after you work out. I also made Flyby Pilsner for my own wedding. So we really tried to develop beer for the multiple tenants of an athlete’s lifestyle.

How did you build your team around this company culture of activity?

We don’t plan to have Sufferfest at your conventional beer festival. You see us at a race or a trailhead or at the climbing crag or after a Soul Cycle workout. We try to be at those places where we already are and to really fit into our lifestyle.

When it came time for me to make my first hire, I didn’t really care about experience in the beer industry. It was really about do you understand this idea of just sweating for your beer. Also, we are reimagining a pretty old school industry that’s male dominated, that’s really focused on these high hop, high alcohol whimsical beers that are focused on bringing people into tap rooms and brew pubs to drink and eat indoors. Those are the things that never appealed to me. And so this was an exercise of saying that there’s so many of us who identify ourselves as fit or active or health focused, but no brand was really catering or serving my lifestyle. We have people here who represent their own communities and who help us communicate and relay our mission and our vision for this beer company to those communities. And it’s anywhere from thru hikers to water polo players and everyone in between.


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