How Ultrarunner Caitlin Landesberg Turned Her Diagnosis Into Suffer-Free BeerNovember 18, 2019
“I’ve never identified myself as a beer drinker.”
Caitlin Landesberg is almost apologetic when she admits this, but her sheepishness makes sense considering she’s the founder and CEO of Sufferfest Beer Company, a San Francisco outfit dedicated to the somewhat delicate art of crafting gluten-removed brews. What is perhaps more incongruous than her revelation is how Landesberg eventually came around to the good stuff—via the pursuit of better health.
Raised under the banner that “a family that sweats together, stays together,” Landesberg was a multi-sport aficionado as a kid, then a competitive tennis player during college in Ohio. Back in the Bay Area, however, court time was expensive and hard to come by. A friend suggested running as a cheaper, more accessible alternative and invited Landesberg to join his trail running club one Saturday for a long session in the Marin Headlands north of the city. She was immediately enthralled not just by the area’s natural beauty, but also by the challenge and camaraderie she found on the trail.
“I just fell in love,” says Landesberg. “You experienced so much with these strangers three hours before and by the end, because of that hardship and that suffering together, you leave best friends.”
By 2010, Landesberg had taken a marketing job at Strava, a social-based app geared toward endurance athletes, and had become an ultrarunner herself. The sport was a “religion” of sorts for her, and races a place to commune with her fellow faithful. Tossing back a celebratory pint became an important ritual. “It was just ingrained in me: I cross the line, I get a beer,” says Landesberg. “It was always this moment of celebration and relief and pain and anguish, all wrapped up in being able to sip on something and share with your newfound ‘suffer-friends.’”
Fate offered a cruel twist when Landesberg, who was suddenly beset with an array of ailments, from migraines to hair loss, was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune condition that attacks the thyroid. After a battery of tests, it was suggested that, among other things, she should cut gluten from her diet—and with it, her beloved finish line beers.
Landesberg searched for gluten-free alternatives, but wasn’t thrilled with the market’s slim offerings back in 2011, nor did she feel that any spoke to her identity as an athlete. After complaining to her boyfriend (now, husband), he gifted Landesberg with a homebrewing course. Her expectations were low—and she calls those first sorghum-based concoctions “awful”—but the experience sparked a revelation. “Beer [is] made with four really beautiful, naturally occurring ingredients, very similar to the types of foods and drinks that we're eating at the end of the race for refurbishment and recovery,” says Landesberg. “It makes sense—I'm craving this not only because it's a part of a social construct that I had in my head, but I'm literally craving this because my body wants this.”
That revelation fueled her curiosity and Landesberg enrolled in courses at UC Davis, renowned for its brewing curriculum. Studying under food scientists and accomplished brewers, she began to ponder something bigger than just making a better-tasting gluten-free beer: “What does the Gatorade of beers look like?”
While she makes no claims that the products in Sufferfest’s lineup, say, help you run faster or recover from those miles more quickly, Landesberg did start polling her running buddies to find out what they wanted in a beer to see if she could create something “purpose-brewed” with athletes in mind. As a result of that somewhat nontraditional research and design process, you can now down Sufferfest’s FKT Pale Ale, with 96 milligrams of sodium; its Repeat, a low-calorie kolsch boosted with bee pollen; and the brand new Head Start Stout, crafted with coconut water.
But back in 2015, her first order of business was brewing a gluten-removed pilsner (now the brand’s Flyby) to serve at her wedding. Guests drained the entire batch. Landesberg began fielding orders from friends, including some with medical issues, like two women in her running group who have celiac disease, where the smallest bit of gluten can wreak havoc on the intestinal lining. Landesberg recalls nervously watching them sip. While scientific studies have fueled some debate about whether gluten-removed beers are as safe as their gluten-free counterparts for those with celiac disease, luckily the only side effect in this case was pure elation.
But it wasn’t just people with medical needs who enjoyed Landesberg’s creations; they also drew non-traditional beer drinkers who’d found something in her messaging and ingredients that spoke to them—including brands, athletes, and race directors she’d met through her job at Strava.
What had begun as a “selfish” pursuit had grown beyond a simple hobby. When her husband pointed out the time and money Landesberg had sunk into this pursuit and wondered if her efforts might have legs, she decided to quit her job and allot six months to further experimentation. “I had no intention of this actually becoming a business,” says Landesberg. “I was thinking, this is a really nice hiatus between my next marketing job that I would certainly go and do after I got this out of my system.”
What she didn’t anticipate was the immediate and somewhat overwhelming reaction when she first brought Sufferfest to market in March 2016. Landesberg pounded the pavement, hoping that a few favorite shops would carry her beer. Within a week, pre-orders had far outgrown her capacity to manage them, and Landesberg had to hire a delivery service. Within the first three months, every Whole Foods in the Bay Area carried Sufferfest. And by that sixth month, Landesberg had already cycled through three contract brewers as demand exceeded the capacity of each.
The funny thing is, the name “Sufferfest” was never meant to stick—it was a joke of sorts, since Landesberg referred to her post-race beers as “sufferfests”—but it’s also become an apt metaphor for the mixture of joy, endurance, and, yes, suffering, that she experienced while the brand scaled at light speed. There was the time she secured a huge order from Whole Foods—just as Citra hops became scarce. And the time she and her dad shivered in 30-degree weather to hand-sticker cans when the labeling machine broke at a contracted brewery. Oh, and the time a delivery driver forget to deposit kegs at a massive festival in Lake Tahoe, so Landesberg drove through the night to ensure they arrived on time.
It’s been a wild ride. “From someone who was home bottling my beers for my run club to within a year signing contracts for massive quantities of beer, there was just this constant feeling like the other shoe's got to drop,” says Landesberg.
Thankfully, both shoes are still laced firmly in place. Within the last year, Sufferfest’s market exploded from three states to 33. And in a deal that surprised no one more than Landesberg herself, the brand was acquired six months ago by Sierra Nevada. Without realizing it, she had been sitting next to the company’s CEO, Jeff White, during a beverage industry event in Los Angeles; they struck up a conversation after Landesberg gave a speech. She calls the resulting partnership “lightning in a bottle”—and refers to Sierra Nevada as Sufferfest’s “forever home.”
With the additional resources and support offered by the Sierra Nevada acquisition, Landesberg is able to focus on what she does the best—developing new beers and serving the ever-growing Sufferfest community. She’s still surprised by the warp speed and wide reach of it all—that in addressing her own needs, she was able to create something that resonates far beyond the finish line.
“We're not about winning and losing. We're not even about extreme athletes with a capital ‘A,’” says Landesberg. “We're really focusing on grit and perseverance, and putting one foot in front of the other.”
Top photo courtesy of Sufferfest Beer Company.