Since Gatorade caught the sports world’s eye when it was credited with contributing to the University of Florida’s Orange Bowl victory in 1967, there hasn’t been much in the way of innovation for athletic beverages.
Different vitamin and electrolyte configurations, yes. Some sugar reductions or protein additions. But mostly, athletes were left to choose among fruity, electric-colored drinks in flavors such as Glacier Freeze and Tidal Punch.
Except in Germany. There, in the land of bratwursts and streusel, an unorthodox health trend emerged.
A 2011 study on runners training for the Munich Marathon found that athletes who drank nonalcoholic beer in the weeks before and after the race had lower levels of inflammation and a decreased incidence of respiratory infections than a control group. Polyphenols in the beer — antioxidant compounds derived from plants — were given most of the credit.
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Early last year, the German Olympic team drew media attention for including nonalcoholic beer in its training and recovery regimen. The ski team’s coach, Johannes Scherr, was a co-author of the marathon study.
An article about German skiers hoisting a stein while on the slopes caught the eye of St. Louis brewer Jeff Stevens just after he had launched WellBeing Brewing Company in January 2018. WellBeing exclusively makes nonalcoholic craft beers.
“We knew by taking alcohol out of beer that it would be healthier,” Stevens said. “But at that moment it was like, ‘Wow, what if we could add electrolytes?’”
Electrolytes — sodium, potassium, chloride and magnesium — help the body regulate nerve and muscle function, among other tasks. They are lost through sweat.
But adding any substance to beer has the potential to muddle the flavor, and Stevens wanted his nutrient-enhanced “sports brew” to taste like any other craft beer.
Then he made a serendipitous connection. A mutual acquaintance introduced Stevens to Daniel Schindler, one of the founders of Buoy, the maker of an electrolyte supplement. The 2-year-old St. Louis-based startup primarily sells the flavorless additive through Amazon but had been looking for beverage companies to partner with.
“What distinguishes Buoy is we worked to determine the right proportion of what your body needs,” said Schindler. “We used a lot of research from the World Health Organization.” A squeeze of Buoy, he said, has more electrolytes than a Gatorade and can be added to any type of beverage.
So Stevens had his nutrient source, but wanted to magnify the beer’s health-conscious image with the right flavor profile. He landed on an orange-infused wheat ale and slightly lowered the carbonation level to smooth its finish.
Each 16-ounce can has 85 calories, electrolytes, B vitamins and zero added sugars. WellBeing Victory Wheat went on the market last month.
Dietitian Dena French, a professor at Fontbonne University, said that while most people will do just fine chasing their workout with plain old water, “Victory Wheat will also rehydrate you, and without an exorbitant amount of calories.”
Eventually, Stevens sees Victory Wheat sponsoring athletic events and races, which have been dominated by A-B InBev’s Michelob Ultra, a lower-calorie lager. “Because we don’t have alcohol in it, we could sponsor athletes in a way Michelob Ultra never could,” he said.
But it’s as a sports-drink alternative that he really sees Victory Wheat finding its niche.
“Sports drinks fall down because they have a lot of sugar and aren’t very celebratory,” he said. “You don’t celebrate with a Gatorade.”