5: Caitlin Landesberg of Sufferfest Beer Company

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Caitlin Landesberg is the founder and CEO of Sufferfest Beer Company, a brand that is focused on brewing functional, gluten-removed beers. As a runner and athlete, some of Caitlin’s most treasured memories include grabbing a beer with her teammates after a marathon, or heading to a local pub after a run. But when she was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and had to phase out gluten, not only was her diet impacted, but she did she have to restructure her diet, but her social life as well. She then began to take a radically different approach to beer making - she began to brew for flavor, fitness, and for a reduced-gluten profile. She used healthful ingredients and considered athletic occasions as prime beer-drinking moments. Caitlin then began to share these beers with her friends, family, fellow trail runners, and even the occasional unsuspecting open cooler. It was then that she decided to make a dramatic change in her life and quit her high paying job in Silicon Valley tech and pursued Sufferfest Beer Company full time. Since then, Sufferfest has brought their functional beers to the market (Flyby, their pilsner won a Good Food Award in 2017), obtained a B Corp certification, and can now be found at retailers, restaurants, run and bike shops, climbing gyms and CrossFit boxes throughout California, Colorado, and the Pacific Northwest. 


FOND FOOD MEMORY: A fond memory of mine is my mother’s gluten-free carrot cake. She overnighted it to my college dorm room when I was a freshman. I’ve always had carrot cake on my birthday, and it has to be my mother’s. She makes it with coconut, and golden raisins, and mom’s love. I think you heard in my first story, as I was developing my auto-immune deficiency, and having to remove gluten, especially back in my college years - that was a really dark time. Everything that I ate was giving me issues. I had a lot of curiosities around why, but we were just starting to find gluten-free recipes, and trying that when there were no options available. And my mom overnighted this carrot cake to my dorm room in Ohio, and it was so juicy, and moist, and delicious, and I could eat it really well. And all of my friends ate it - I think actually charged them money for a slice. And every year now, I get that cake, and so that is my fondest memory. If anyone ever wants a spot in my heart, it would be to make me a gluten-free carrot cake.


PEI-RU KO: So to start, it’s been over a year since your live storytelling gathering. A lot of exciting things have happened for you, including the launch of a new beer! What has the last year looked like for both you and Sufferfest Beer Company? 

CAITLIN LANDESBERG: So, 2018 goes by in a flash, like every year when you’re building a business. But the team has grown - it’s all relative, we’re still small, but when you grow by 50% with a team internally, and you bring in new personalities, and new skill sets, that’s super exciting. We’ve hired folks on the operations team, on the marketing team, and on the sales team, every team. Also, like you mentioned, we've launched two new beers. We have our Fastest Known Time now, finally alive and in the market, which is super exciting. This is our electrolytic, nutritive rich beer. This has always been the twinkling in my eye - it’s just taken me this long to figure out how to brew it, and also how to become compliant in labeling because it’s such a unique and different beer when we’re talking about recovery and replenishment. It's got just as many electrolytes as Gatorade. It’s got superfood black currant in it, which is packed full of vitamin C, so again, were never going to tell you to have a beer before a water, but if you’re going to have a beer, we really think that this is going to give a lot more back to you than take away from you. We’re so we’re really excited about our FKT. And then we launched our Repeat Kolsch which is our low-cal, low-carb, keto-friendly Kolsch with superfoods like bee pollen for extra micronutrients, proteins, fatty acids, and lipids to give you that extra not only aroma, but some great vitamins and minerals. So that was a huge undertaking. 

But it really launched Sufferfest into this new era around the kind of company and brand we’ve always thought of ourselves as, which is functional. And we’ve dubbed ourselves a functional beverage company. We’re going to get into more functionality that may or may not be alcoholic or even beer related. We really believe that we’re here to serve the athlete, and build beers, and produce beverages that fit the multiple tenets of an active, sweaty consumer. And we’ve grown! We’ve changed our business model, we’re now selling in Colorado now, and we’re about to sell into two more states. So that’s really exciting, and just an operational mania, but it’s really fulfilling for the team to see the fruits of our labor move into new territories, and new doors.


CL: On the personal side, the love story that I talked about continues. We have a baby boy coming in December, so I’m trying my stab again at balancing family, and being a present parent, with being a really present parent to my beers, and my employees, and my team. And I think that that’s been the real difference in terms of my psyche this time around. I think that before, when I was starting Sufferfest as a parent, I was really scared, and maybe even potentially ashamed, and embarrassed by the fact that I wanted to be a mom. I was trying to be a mom while also starting a company and raising money, and I didn’t want investors to be confused by my priorities. As you know, I was thinking a lot about what everyone thought about me versus what I thought about me. This time around, the business is in a different place, and my mental state is in a different place. I’ve really embraced the fact that I’m growing a family, and becoming more and more of an involved parent. So lots going on, on both fronts, but the difference there is that the lines of communication about how those two worlds can connect, and support each other is really the biggest difference in my life.

PK: Yeah, one of my questions was to ask what being a mom, and in many ways, a matriarch for your family and your business, has taught you?

CL: Empathy, empathy! Being a founder, and a CEO, and fundraising - it’s lonely. It’s thankless, and you get knocked down a lot, and you have to pick yourself up. I think the same thing happens with parenting. It’s not about me anymore, I don’t even think about that anymore. So I think in terms of really putting yourself second, eating last, is sort of the mantra. And making sure that everyone around you is taken care of. You’ve got to take care of yourself, and I’m still learning that, but nothing gives me greater joy than to really take care of the team, take care of the business, and take care of my children. It’s just part of the way I’m designed now, and I think it really works for me, and how we’ve built this business. And right now I’m still the only parent here at the business, we have a young team. We have a lot of brides, and we have a lot of grooms. So we’re kind of a young team that’s getting to this next stage of life, and I get to be a good role model for how to think about work/life balance, versus a crazy deranged founder who doesn't make any other time for themselves but the business. That’s not how I want to showcase the way I think. So that's been a good learning, and hopefully contribution that I’ve made.


PK: I love hearing about that you role modeling that work/life balance from the beginning. You also mentioned celebration, which I think any company who cares about her employees would want to do that, but for you to be so forthcoming about that being something important for you and for the company - I think that’s really beautiful to watch. I’m just wondering how you feel like these important tenets of how you run the company may have affected how you launch products. Or how you grow as a business? How does it manifest itself?

CL: At the end of the day, we are a beer company. Let’s call a spade a spade. We’re an occasion beverage. We want to fit in at that perfect moment, that celebrates something that you’ve done or accomplished. So by living the brand - that’s part of our charters, and one of our values - we’re going the extra mile, and then high-fiving at the end. As we’ve built the team, this team is working at a breakneck pace, and we have a lot of ambitious goals. People are really, in some ways, burning the candle at both ends. But one of our new hires, and actually one of the programs that I spend a lot of time with, is on our Happiness and Culture program. It’s funny - we can work so hard, and put our heads down, and we sort of forget that we’re built on the fact that we’re an achievement and occasion beverage. So what we do is now, is have a teammate of the month, and talk about people who have gone that extra mile. We also have a Thirsty 30 Happy Hour every last Thursday every month, with the team, first and foremost. But they are invited to bring anyone they’ve worked with that month, or any of their partners that they’ve sold to, or any other buyers to come. We pick up a retail location or a bar that we sell at, and we just celebrate the month! We talk about our lives, and our partners, and really just kind of keep business checked at the door, and high five each other when we walk in. Every month, that’s our ritual to support an account of course, but also to have a really good time getting to know each other as people

And of course, our B-corp charter, we love because we are always thinking about volunteering. What are some things that we can do, as a team, that kind of helps yes, give back to the community, but also for us as a business. It frees our minds, and gets us collaborating on a different level. So the ways we can celebrate other industries or other organizations that we care about with our time or investment, those are the things that I think that give us these high-five little injections into our growth. That help us move forward, but keep the human element alive. 


PK: We love it! We love keeping the human in your brand, in your company, and in your food. That is so cool. I’m now remembering that lovely anecdote in your story, where you said that you used to go around with your husband and plant Sufferfest beers in unsuspecting coolers, and do some guerilla surveying. Since then, what have people been saying about the beer? What is the best piece of advice that you’ve received?

CL: That still keeps happening! I don’t think that’s something that will ever stop. We’re still finding ways to plant beers in places, and see who picks it up, especially as we’re moving into new regions. But I think it’s evolved. Now I’m a secret shopper. No one recognizes me of course, but I’m usually pretty branded, so I’ll cover my sweatshirt or my hat, and I’ll go in and I’ll ask “what’s this type of beer?,” or “what’s a good blonde?”, or “do you have anything functional?” and see what buyers say. It’s really fun to get my story told back to me in so many ways. It’s funny, I think the things that stand out more than anything are things like “oh this was founded by a female, and she really likes to run, and I think her team likes to run a lot too. They’ve got a lot of really great gluten-free options.” And so more or less, they get the story. Some get it better than others, but more than that, I’ve been surprised by the level of excitement, and that people have remembered the story, and have remembered some of our key pillars, and why we exist.


PK: For most of your professional life, much of your support system - family, friends, significant others - knew you by your identity as a high-tech worker, and were probably quite shocked as you slowly moved away from that. Do you have any advice for people that might be scared of risking everything and changing their entire career? What are some of the skills you brought with you from working in high-tech to the beer space that were the most useful? 

CL: I really like that question because I’m on the other side now. I’ve survived, and am happier than I’ve ever been before. I was in high-tech marketing because that’s what I fell into, that’s what was comfortable. As a Silicon Valley kid, I just came back from college, and the jobs that were interesting and available to me in this particular region, and my particular scenario were in high-tech. So it’s not as if I really challenged myself to think about my interests or my skill set. I just found a place, and thought that this is what I’m supposed to be doing, and hopefully I’m good at it, and hopefully I get better. And I think as those years went by, and now being in this space, where I’m working with something physical, and being more of a builder, and an operator in the trenches, I really feel a difference. I really feel a lot of gratitude for the cosmic picture of it all because I did definitely have those moments of “man, I was pretty good, but maybe I wasn’t that good?” Without getting that kick in the butt, I wouldn’t have necessarily had the courage to explore anything else because it was so comfortable financially, and what I had always “known” as what I was supposed to do. But feeling that uncomfortability, and moving into a space where I originally felt like a fish out of water in,  has really given me so much more confidence as a person. A confidence to speak up and share with other women, or other friends around my journey. So I think it’s been great for my personal well-being, and my own self awareness, and just mentality around what I bring to the table, which I think was probably lacking a bit. And it’s really given me happiness! It’s something that I can’t describe any other way, except for fulfillment, and purpose that I don’t think I felt before. I only say that because, and that’s not a tip necessarily, but there’s something so beautiful about being uncomfortable, and then actually evolving into something. Having it evolve into something really powerful for me personally, and my own personal growth. So the tips that I would give around that is - try it if you're thinking of it. If you do have optionality, and you do have the option to think about another move, sometimes the most unconventional things are the best things out there. I’ve always been bashful, and soft-spoken, and didn’t want to ask for a lot of help, or waste people's time with my silly questions. But getting out of that headspace and really being bullish and non-apologetic, I think people really like to pay it forward and share what they know, and knowledge transfer. So if you are interested in an industry, if you can reach out, there’s so many tools now to do that, digitally. Just say “hey, this is what I’m interested in.” People do that to me all the time, and I love it! I’ve met with a lot of really cool businesses that are just starting out because people have just asked for a couple of thoughts around how you do this, or do you have to go to the planning commission to do that. And just to hear a little bit about where they are is super exciting, but it definitely reminds me that I wouldn’t be here without getting those great answers and asking questions. So keep asking questions, and keep putting yourself out there. Take random people who have really great relevant experience out to lunch, and just pick everyone’s brain around you. And that’s still what serves me the best to date. 


PK: I love that. Thank you for being unapologetic. That’s why there’s Sufferfest today for all of us! I think that’s it from me, thank you so much, Caitlin! 

CL: Thank you!