I’m so excited to introduce you to my next guest, Caitlin Landesberg.
Caitlin is the Founder and CEO of Sufferfest, a beer made by and for athletes to enhance their “finish line” experience!
Sufferfest Beer can be found at retailers, restaurants, run and bike shops, climbing gyms and CrossFit boxes throughout California, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest (and they are quickly growing to more states across the country).
On today’s show, Caitlin talks about how she decided to start Sufferfest Beer, what it is like to create a beverage by and for athletes, being a mom + CEO, and much more.
You can Subscribe and Listen to the Podcast on Apple Podcasts. And be sure to leave us a Rating and Review!
“It is 90% water. It’s totally naturally fibers. It has all these great anti-oxidants.” – Caitlin Landesberg
- What is Sufferfest Beer
- How to partner with a company
- What is healthy beer
- Best drinks for athletes
- How to start a beer business
- What it is like to be a mom and CEO
- Connect with Caitlin:
“We love being known as that go-to beer for the healthy and active, or for the adventurer or for the sweaty person.” – Caitlin Landesberg
Kara Goldin: Hi everybody, it’s Kara and we’re here on Unstoppable and we’re so excited this morning to have Caitlin Landesberg who is the CEO and founder and friend at Sufferfest Beer Company. So, so excited. Thank you so much for coming in this morning.
Caitlin Landesberg: Thanks for having me.
Kara Goldin: Yeah.
Caitlin Landesberg: I’m thrilled.
Kara Goldin: And there’s all kinds of news going on right now. But I want to just start by congratulating Caitlin. She just actually did two major, major things that we’ll get into. But just had a baby. Her second baby which is so exciting.
Caitlin Landesberg: Thank you.
Kara Goldin: So if there’s any question can you actually have a family and actually run a company and maybe do some other things, the answer is yes. And Caitlin will talk to us more about that. So let’s go back to the beginning. I remember meeting you at the beginning. Actually, I remember one of the guys that works in our office was doing a race and he met you at one of the races, so tell me a little bit about Sufferfest and what you guys are doing.
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah. That’s a perfect place to start. Dane.
Kara Goldin: Yeah.
Caitlin Landesberg: Wonderful Dane on your team is an ultra runner, and so am I and a lot of members of our team are. Our very first event, March 4th of 2016, we served beer to sweaty athletes coming in from the Way Too Cool trail running event. That’s kind of a beautiful race because it’s the kick-off of the ultra season and a lot of first time 50K and 50-mile runners go out and do that Way Too Cool event and every year there’s cupcakes and camaraderie and mud. It’s one of the toughest out there actually and that was our kick-off and that’s kind of a nice way to start this by saying Sufferfest is all about celebrating the effort.
I’m an athlete, I’ve always identified my athlete. More so than being a beer drinker, but can’t see running without my finish line beer. And so, long story short on that front just started making beer for that finish line experience and the rest is history.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. So that was the first time that you brought Sufferfest? So for those of you who don’t know what Sufferfest is, so Caitlin talk to us about that a little bit. What makes it unique and different?
Caitlin Landesberg: So we are dubbed as a functional beer company by the industry and by the alcohol beverage industry, but essentially I was looking for a beer to drink, again for that finish line experience, and nothing really filled my needs as an endurance athlete both from a dietary perspective and just from a healthy and active perspective. So what I really did was in 2012 I started home brewing and had my first ah-ha moment that actually beer is this wonderful, natural product. And kind of had that sort of lightning strike, or light bulb and wondered why aren’t more alcohol beverage companies looking at their products to serve this community?
I was in a unique position at the time running marketing at a fitness application called Strava and brewing beer on the side that was brewed with non-conventional ingredients. Really focused again on digestion and celebrating the effort using quality ingredients that our sweaty tribe would recognize as replenishment ingredients that they would enjoy.
Kara Goldin: So what makes it unique? What are those ingredients that are different from most beers?
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah. So, for instance, we have a Kolsch which is a light beer. It’s under 100 calories and under five carbs. But we’ve added bee pollen to that and that’s a wonderful element for all the great attributes bee pollen has. I mean I even put it on my face. I digest it all the time and I thought what a wonderful ingredient to use in something like a Kolsch that also will sort of trick the brain of thinking that you’re having something sweeter than you actually are. Bringing in a really nice honey aroma, but also giving back to our sweaty athletes that are really earning their beer. And so again, this business is a functional beer company that celebrates the effort. That’s why we’re called Sufferfest. It’s a term of endearment that we endurance athletes use to describe the anguish and ailing that you feel during a race or cycle or a workout, or even a tough day at the office. But the fest part, the celebration makes it all worth it.
Kara Goldin: That’s super awesome. So you were talking about, you know, you just went home and started making the beer. Had you ever made beer before?
Caitlin Landesberg: No. And I actually didn’t really want to. I was complaining to my boyfriend who’s now my husband about not really having to give up beer at that moment in time where you get that commemorative pint glass and was saying, “I’m bring this cooler now of sugary ciders and these really obscure gluten-free beers. Nothing tastes good.” My whole existence at that finish line is pretty lonely. He sort of challenged me and said, “Complaining is not a good look for you. You’re not the kind of person that just sort of sits on the sidelines.” And so for my birthday in 2012, he got me a beer making course in Hays Valley actually. And that’s when I started making beer for the first time. Again, wasn’t looking at beer through the lens of like a craft brewer who wanted to get into that, but from an athlete perspective having that ah-ha moment of, “Wow, it’s 90% water. It’s totally, naturally fibrous, it has all these great antioxidants.” And I thought wow again, you know, there’s probably a lot of lobbyists and money in wine that are talking to us about antioxidants, but no one’s talking about these beautiful qualities of beer. That’s when I started thinking, “Okay, there’s something here and there’s something that I can drink. I got to figure out how to make a gluten-removed version of this beer that focuses and understands, sort of, the unique needs of someone who’s healthy and active,” and I started taking courses at UC Davis School of Brewing and getting really into the biochemistry of beer. That’s when I learned how to make better tasting… Really overall just more purpose brewed beers if you will using enzymes and food science at UC Davis.
Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. And you came from a marketing background, right?
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah. I’m an English major. I’m a fish out of water.
Kara Goldin: I always tell people though too, I think understanding the aspects, you know, having a passion and having a reason for starting something but also be willing to go take a class at UC Davis Brewing and really, you know, it’s fun but you also learn how to do it.
Caitlin Landesberg: Absolutely, it’s fun, you learn. These extension courses and being part of that UC network in California, it’s all around us. I would just really stress that more people do it because I didn’t believe that the top brewing school in the country is right here, two hours away.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. And so when we met when you were first starting, so you were out raising, I think, your first round of capital and now you were just telling me before we started here, you ended up speaking at a conference and meeting somebody. Do you want to tell a little bit about that story?
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah, sure. I think I remember taking you out to breakfast at Roses in 2016 going, “How do you deal with all the no’s? How do we do this?” It’s been a grind from day one of course, but again, the business is very aptly named because building any business, certainly an alcohol beverage, it is all about the grit and the perseverance and that’s one thing I’ve learned. As it relates, we have been really fortunate enough to stick to our guns and serve our sweaty consumer as I call them, and really focus on celebrating the effort. And as such, have really played a part in creating this functional beer category. It’s not necessarily a white space that I tried to go into, it’s being very self-referential and saying this is a need, there wasn’t a brand that talked to me and turns out I wasn’t alone.
So we were really fortunate enough to get some interest from other brands and other strategics to help us grow fairly early on in our existence. We’re really focused on serving our athletes. We’re really focused on a pace that allows us to build relationships with our buyers. These conversations were probably too soon and didn’t necessarily set us up to build that brand that I have envisioned. I think I was talking to you, Kara, raising A. You know, my head was down this past fall starting to think about raising funds for series B and really going down that next chapter of growth to be an independent beer brand. Knowing that it would be very difficult, but knowing that was probably the right thing to do to build a brand effectively the way that we should.
It was at that time that I happened to go to a conference down in Los Angeles. A small beverage conference that asked me to speak just on brand marketing and our loyalty building. I happened to sit next to Jeff White, the CEO of Sierra Nevada. He was also presenting that day. We hadn’t really talked, we both sort of focused on the stage. But I presented in the afternoon and then he presented right after me and we both sat down. Really, I mean it was a moment. We looked at each other and went… kind of had this sort of face palm like hit over the head, like why have we not met before, how has this happened, where have you been all my life kind of thing.
Kara Goldin: Yeah. That’s awesome.
Caitlin Landesberg: And we immediately just started collaborating and thinking about all the fun we would have. They’re just such a values-driven company. They’re the only platinum lead certified brewery in the country, they’ve got just ferocious focus on their quality and their people and wellness. Anyway, we were thinking about collaborating but one thing led to another, the sparks were flying and we knew we had to go in deeper and really partner. So…
Kara Goldin: And did you… were they at some of the same events that you had been at? Like had you meet them along the way or not really?
Caitlin Landesberg: We hadn’t, not necessarily. I think some events. They are focused on the outdoor community as well, but from a more casual trail and backpacker community, I would say. Not to label them or pigeonhole them in that area, but film festivals and environmentally focused events, we would see them certainly. But I don’t think… They’ve been such, to me at least, just an incredible brand that I grew up with being a California kid, but also elusive. You know, I’ve never really understood given that they were privately owned and operated and by a family, it never really struck me about our future partnership together.
Kara Goldin: It wasn’t your goal to just like-
Caitlin Landesberg: It was not, no.
Kara Goldin: You didn’t think a few months ago that that was actually going to happen?
Caitlin Landesberg: Not at all. Took me by surprise and it was a whirlwind partnership and they are absolutely the best partner in the world for us.
Kara Goldin: That’s amazing. Do they actually have trucks that you can get on for distribution and all that?
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah, they do. They have a self-distribution model outside of Chico, so locally they do have their own trucks. But again, they were the original craft beer company and they’ve been in existence for 30 years plus now. They have a wholesaler network around the country that obviously allows us to tap into, but those fleets are now wholesalers that obviously service on behalf of their brand.
Kara Goldin: And so you’ll remain a CEO of the brand?
Caitlin Landesberg: I will.
Kara Goldin: Which is super great.
Caitlin Landesberg: I’m excited. Yes.
Kara Goldin: That’s amazing but be able to have a partner that can really leverage some things for you and get the distribution out. That’s amazing. So are you distributed… like how vast are you distributed now?
Caitlin Landesberg: Sure. So, we’re just starting to change our model into that wholesaler network, but as I mentioned before, the focus has really been serving our sweaty athletes and consumers. We’ve been self-distributed since day one. That started in 2016. We’re now three years later we’ve had a service here that has helped up provide for the state of California and Colorado. In Colorado, we opened up in 2017 because our brand was already going rouge-
Kara Goldin: I can imagine.
Caitlin Landesberg: You can imagine the lot of parallels with that community. So, we’ve been distributing in California and Colorado for about two and a half years, and then we just opened up the Pacific Northwest. But that will be our first ever wholesaler relationship. Now that we’re tapping in Sierra Nevada’s wholesaler relationship, that expansion is moving at a faster clip certainly. But they’ve been a fantastic partner in understanding and honoring how we want to go slow and really build community and really focus again on being at the finish line and being different from, I wouldn’t say our competitive set, but our cohorts in this category. I think our unfair advantage is that our team doesn’t come from the beer business. We are a team of rock climbers, water polo players, lacrosse players, runners, cyclists. That’s what we know and so our unfair advantage is being at those cycling classes, at that trailhead, in these in-situation moments sweating with our own tribe, and that’s important to us because I think real really recognizes real. Especially in this day and age and we want to continue that approach.
Kara Goldin: Well, I think you guys also coming outside of the beer industry too, you’re just thinking differently about it. And obviously, that was something that Sierra Nevada saw in what you were doing too. So that’s amazing.
Kara Goldin: So looking back on your achievements, what are you the most proud of?
Caitlin Landesberg: Probably without flinching and I’m certainly the most proud of, parenthood and juggling parenthood in a demanding world. I think any role, frankly, of being a parent is an astounding achievement and a life long job. I don’t think I ever had an appreciation for my mom. I still tell her, “Oh my gosh mom, I’m so sorry for everything I’ve done.”
Kara Goldin: I hear you. I totally agree.
Caitlin Landesberg: Having Fran, so I started this company March of 2016 was when we first started selling, I was working on it about a year and a half prior to that, but became pregnant in 2016 and closed around in early 2017 with Fran, my two year old now, and that was really hard. That was a lot of, sort of an ah-ha moment just from a female and business perspective of all the things that I think I was projecting onto myself. I was embarrassed that I was pregnant, I was hiding that from investors, I was projecting all of these socialite fears onto my own body and to myself and my psyche and considering pregnancy and motherhood as a weakness at that time. I think-
Kara Goldin: And what about with this next one?
Caitlin Landesberg: And with this next one, and it was definitely, you know, obviously a transition, but knowing what I had accomplished and being able to show that to I think the people I didn’t necessarily have to show it to, but that I thought I had to, it really made me understand that we were on a rocket ship and if they wanted to get on they could but if they didn’t I was happy leaving them at the station. I think that mentality shift was really important for me and I hope really important for the women in my office to see as well.
We are a women-founded and led business. We are 50% male/female in this business. I hope it continues to stay that way and I’m super proud that I made that mental shift to understanding that. In fact, I think that balance of parenthood and running a business can really, really impact for the benefit and for the positive your decision-making abilities, your leadership abilities, your negotiation abilities. All these things I think, and skills, I don’t think I was appreciating opened up. So I’m proud of that.
Kara Goldin: Well, we were just talking a little bit about, you know, Jenny from Rent the Runway. She just raised a huge round as well being pregnant and a few other founders that are out there. So I think more and more it’s becoming like this is what it is and it doesn’t… just because I’m carrying a child or have children it doesn’t mean I can’t do my job any less.
Caitlin Landesberg: Absolutely.
Kara Goldin: So I think it’s awesome. I love being able to point to examples like you and what you’re doing. So what are the plans for Sufferfest over the next few years? I mean you’re getting integrated into the Sierra Nevada system and where do you see… do you think you’ll focus more on the West Coast then? I mean you talked about some of the different territories. Sierra Nevada, I’m just trying to remember, I think when they first came out, totally dating myself, but they really were a West Coast brew right?
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah.
Kara Goldin: So is there pressure to grow in that way? Like just stay on the West Coast, don’t go anywhere?
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah, no it’s a great question. I love that question actually because we’ve always focused on that healthy and active consumer, that consumer lives everywhere. We’ve never identified ourselves as a San Francisco company. In fact, you don’t even see that word on our can or our label and packaging. We’ve been able to be this local friend in so many of these beachheads because we hit the cycle graphic community around sweating for your beer, earning your beer. In that way, like I mentioned, we made a decision to go into Colorado because our brand was already going rouge there. People were grabbing it from California. So we tend to follow that and from a sales perspective. There isn’t again, they’re honoring how we grow and how we grow organically. We’re a very word of mouth product. You usually hear about us from a running club member or your coach or nutritionist or what have you. And so places where we glow bright red right now are maybe the place you would imagine. Stowe, Vermont; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Flagstaff, Arizona; Tampa, Florida, places were people are already very active already and so we love to be known as that go-to beer for the healthy and active, or for the adventurer, or for the sweaty person. So for that reason, we will be going national. We will be in, you know, east, west, north, south. We will pick the places that make the most sense for our brand. We’re lucky enough now that we do have that infrastructure to do that on a pretty quick clip that we wouldn’t have had otherwise.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome.
Caitlin Landesberg: While it’s important for us to go a mile deep and an inch wide, I think we can become… we can certainly cherry-pick our new communities where we’ve already had a lot of success from a brand perspective and set us up well for that follow through sales.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome. So what advice would you give to up and coming entrepreneurs who are looking to really turn their passion into a full-time career that they really love and what they’re doing? What do you think is the biggest thing?
Caitlin Landesberg: Right. Sure. And I think you would probably hear this across the board, but number one, no really means not right now and you’ve got to tell yourself that because no’s are just part of the job. I think you just always get that. I’d say with CBG in particular and beverage alcohol, one it’s a regulated business, so you have to know that paperwork and red tape is going to be part of your life. Sometimes that’s almost like the barrier to entry. For some people that’s just too much. But if you can get through that, a lot fewer people are on the other side. Now all of a sudden things start to become more clear and open up.
Kara Goldin: What are those things? I always hear that alcohol has the extra pieces of red tape. What are the big ones?
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah. Well when I was even first starting Sufferfest, I just wanted to label my beer and I started slinging it down the road here and I had to spend hours upon hours upon hours at the city planning office at the ABC with the TTB. Basically, if I wanted to run a business, even if I wasn’t holding beer in my house, but if I wanted to run my business from my bedroom, which I did, I had to basically license my home. You’ve seen some of those like Scarlet Letter signs on those buildings when they get an alcohol license. I had that on my front door. We had an emergency HOA meeting because my neighbors thought we were running some sort of speakeasy from our basement.
Kara Goldin: Oh, that is so funny.
Caitlin Landesberg: But we’d have city officials and police officers walking through our little mini, tiny, San Francisco apartment on a quarterly basis to make sure that we weren’t selling from our home office. You have to submit samples of each of your beers to make sure that they are exactly what you say they are on the label from a nutritional perspective and an alcohol volume perspective. It’s a regulated business so you can’t just go out and sell direct to a consumer. You have to go and sell to a buyer who will then sell to a consumer.
Kara Goldin: Got it.
Caitlin Landesberg: There’s just… even from an event perspective we work with certain events that actually serve on our behalf. So this is all Prohibition-era law that’s super, super archaic, but you still have to follow those. And every state is different and you have to pay to play in some states. You have to do enormous license ordeals just to get into certain states.
Kara Goldin: So it’s a state by state. As you start to get into Colorado and Vermont and some of these other states you have to…
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah.
Kara Goldin: What’s the hardest state in the country that you’ve run across?
Caitlin Landesberg: There’s some that are just… I’d say Texas really is continued to be called the wild west for lots of reasons, but Texas is a very difficult state to get licensed in.
Kara Goldin: Interesting.
Caitlin Landesberg: Even if you change… it has different alcohol thresholds, so depending on if you have one beer at 3 1/2% and another beer at 5 1/2%, you have to change your label completely for those two different beers. So from a production perspective even as a small craft company that’s just enormously time and cost intensive. There’s places that just deter young companies from going into those states because it’s just too convoluted.
Kara Goldin: There’s so many components of this. In many ways harder than non-alcoholic industry.
Caitlin Landesberg: Yeah. Yeah. There’s pros and cons.
Kara Goldin: You know, they all have their challenges to it.
Caitlin Landesberg: Right.
Kara Goldin: So what’s your favorite Sufferfest beer?
Caitlin Landesberg: Well, that’s like Sophie’s Choice. They are my children, but my very first one that I brewed I actually brewed it for our wedding. It was first called the Mischief because a mischief is two mice or more and my husband and I called each other little mice in our house running our little businesses. He runs a bee corp as well and that was a Mischief pilsner. I served it at our wedding in 2015. It was before I even… Sufferfest was a twinkle in my eye at that point. We got all this expensive, fancy craft beer from the region but everyone wanted the bride to be, or maybe that was because they were pandering to the bride I’m not sure, but it was sort of the push I needed. Everyone said, “I would drink this, this is an amazing pilsner.” It’s now our Flyby. It’s our number one selling beer. It won the 2017 Good Food award. It won us Pilsner Brewer of the Year last year.
Kara Goldin: That’s so great.
Caitlin Landesberg: It’s just been one of those wonderful beers that it’s kind of a gateway beer to all our other functional beers. So my favorite because it’s got the most memories attached to it I suppose.
Kara Goldin: So what do you think you would tell your kids to do? Knowing what you know about careers and you’ve developed a great company and sold a great company. What do you think you would tell your kids at this point?
Caitlin Landesberg: I guess I would say maybe a few years as a two and three month old. But I love the fact that I was an English major and that I am a fish out of water and now I’m doing something that I love and actually seeing some results. So I think that is a lesson for my kids and everyone that you may be in one career now, but life is long and if you have a passion then do something about it because it could turn out to be greater than you’d ever expect.
Kara Goldin: What makes you unstoppable?
Caitlin Landesberg: Again, I think as a runner myself and being out there by myself for hours and hours with my thoughts and just grinding through that night the sun will rise and that is a beautiful moment in a runners life when that sun rises and you can turn off your headlamp. I’ve never been able to… let me put it this way, there hasn’t been a problem I wasn’t able to solve after a run.
Kara Goldin: That’s awesome.
Caitlin Landesberg: So that makes me unstoppable. I’ll just put one foot in front of the other.
Kara Goldin: That’s so great. Well, Caitlin, thank you so much for coming by and where can people buy the product?
Caitlin Landesberg: Hopefully soon around the country, but if you’re in California, Colorado, Washington or Oregon you can find us at Whole Foods Market, Mollie Stone’s, Safeway/Albertsons, Target. Lots of indies we love our natural groceries all around the state.
Kara Goldin: And it is so yummy you guys. It’s so, so good. I remember when I first tried it and, I don’t know, I think especially when things are gluten-free you’re sort of like, “I don’t know, what’s the trade-off of it?” But it is so good. I mean everybody, we actually had a bunch around our office and everybody was trying it and they were like, “Wow this is so good.” So you guys definitely give it a try.
Caitlin Landesberg: Thank you.
Kara Goldin: Okay great. Well, thanks Caitlin.
Caitlin Landesberg: Thank you. Thank you for having me.