Jeff Stevens spent much of his career as a creative director in advertising in St. Louis and loved doing beer marketing for Anheuser-Busch.
“I loved the [company’s] connection to St. Louis and how much it means to our city, so it was really a fun product to work on,” he said.
But Stevens doesn’t drink. And when he attended public events, there were never any good beverage options for people like him.
“Nobody cared about non-drinkers, so you could drink [only] coffee or tap water,” he recalled.
Those two factors — excitement about beer’s place in our culture and the absence of options for non-drinkers — fermented into an idea: offering great non-alcoholic beers.
In 2016, Stevens and his wife, Genevieve Barlow, launched WellBeing Brewing Company, a non-alcoholic craft brewer in St. Louis.
“We started out with the question, ‘Could we help the world drink a little less?’ And if we could, there is a real, wellbeing play in society just for doing that. Alcohol is incredibly destructive on a societal level — it costs a lot of money, kills a lot of people — and we’re not against drinking; we’re just trying to give people a good option,” said Stevens.
People appear to appreciate that additional choice. In 2020, one of the more taxing years in modern history, brewers sold $188 million of non-alcoholic beers in the United States, a 38 percent increase from the previous year, according to the market research firm IRI.
That growth has included WellBeing, which sold 9,000 barrels of beer in 2020 — twice as much as the previous year, Stevens said. The company now is preparing to also begin brewing in Virginia Beach, Virginia, which “will hopefully allow us to grow on the East Coast,” Stevens said.
And in May, WellBeing will partner with fellow St. Louis brewer 4-Hands to offer a “Things We Don’t Talk About IPA,” with a portion of the proceeds going to Hope for the Day, a nonprofit organization aimed at suicide prevention and mental health education.
In spite of the brewery’s success, Stevens has made mistakes that were mentally taxing.
“I have all these huge career mistakes, and they all come from a place of trying to do something different, trying to push the envelope,” particularly when he was in advertising, he said. “And they just blow up in your face . . . and on the flipside, I have had lots of those moments that turn into incredible successes, and I guess they just kind of go hand-in-hand, right?”
At WellBeing, his biggest mistake came from an unusual opportunity. Unlike other brewers, WellBeing is able to ship its beer directly to consumers because it does not contain alcohol.
Problem was, WellBeing initially used glass bottles for its beers, which isn’t exactly FedEx-friendly. Stevens and his wife placed the beer cases in protective wrapping, which didn’t really work.
“We would get these pictures back of just bags of broken glass and blood, and oh my God, just awful things,” Stevens said.
Then the two founders started to place individual beers in bubble wrap; about 80 percent made it to the customer successfully. Finally, they were able to obtain a mobile canning unit and switched to the more durable aluminum.
Stevens regularly gets questions from people launching beverage start-ups. The first thing he asks them is about their plans for packaging.
“I think of the story of the U.S. government making a zero-gravity ballpoint pen that works in space, and they go through all of these millions of dollars in developing this thing to write in space — and the Russian program just used a pencil,” Stevens said. Likewise, after spending that time and money wrapping glass bottles, “Our obvious answer was, just put it in cans.”
— Jeff Stevens
— Jeff Stevens