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Runner creates gluten-free beer

Removing gluten from her diet improved Caitlin Landesberg’s health and fitness, and propelled her to create Sufferfest.

Caitlin Landesberg’s path to becoming an entrepreneur wound through a high-tech Bay area company to trail running and a life-changing hospital stay.

Even as a child, Landesberg said she “always identified as being an athlete,” playing every sport imaginable but focusing mostly on soccer and tennis. In college, she continued to play tennis.

After finishing college she returned home to San Francisco and started working in marketing at Strava.

Landesberg wanted to continue her athletics but “quickly realized that playing at a private club was (1) one not in the budget for a young 20something just out of college and (2) with the hours I was working it was not possible to leave at 4 p.m. for a tennis match. So I quickly had to shift gears and find a different way to get out and exercise.”

Then a good friend, Eric, suggested that she join him at his ultra running club (the Endurables) on Saturdays. “I kind of rolled my eyes and said, ‘I would never survive,’” she remembers saying. “But I joined him one Saturday for his club run and it was extremely tough.”

She really didn’t know what she was getting herself into. “I was so excited by the feeling and the views. I got excited about the people and being outside doing what they loved. I was hooked immediately.”

A few days later, Landesberg signed up for her first trail race, the Double Dipsea, “a race near and dear to my heart.”

And she was hooked. “It was the hardest thing I have ever done,” Landesberg said, noting that she prefers trails but has run road races such as the San Francisco Marathon and Half Marathon. “I guess the rest is history. I enjoyed the camaraderie and getting lost out there.”

But as much as she enjoyed trail running, something wasn’t right.

Landesberg started feeling poorly in 2011. But it didn’t make sense.

“I was a very healthy, fit runner who was very active,” she recalled. “However, my sleeping pattern was erratic, I was gaining and losing weight, my hair was falling out. I was having migraines, treating myself for ulcers. I was falling apart inside and out. I really could not figure out what was going on but I chalked it up to stress.”

She chalked it up stress from work and training hard, and tried to fix the problems by taking medications.

A life-changing discovery

Landesberg and five co-workers decided to do a Ragnar race from San Francisco to Napa, “A fun race we would do over the weekend,” she thought. “I only made it two legs before I was doubled over, feeling sick. I ended up spending the night in the hospital in Sonoma.”

After testing, her thyroid levels were off the charts and she was diagnosed with a thyroid and an autoimmune condition. The doctors ordered some tests to check for allergies — dairy, gluten, etc.

Once gluten was removed, things changed. “Overall, from an internal health perspective, it was incredible how quickly I started feeling better — within 10 to 14 days,” she said. “My hair was growing back. My headaches were gone. My stomach was feeling better. I was able to reduce my medications. I felt like I had never felt before.”

At first, her gluten-free diet was challenging but over time gluten-free options have expanded. “There is an alternative for anything that I crave,” she said. “I’m a beer and pizza girl. That’s one reason why I was so active and didn’t have to think about what I ate. I loved my carbs. I was a 20something runner.”

She has moved to a vegetarian diet. Her husband is vegan. “We are much more concerned with what we put into our bodies now.”

The path to brewing beer

After ridding herself of gluten, she noticed the impact on its absence had on her athletic performance. Gone were IT band issues, inflammation, drowsiness and more. “Anecdotally, from an overall perspective, I was sleeping better, more energetic and running faster. Generally, my ability to feel those endorphins were way more pronounced after I changed my diet.”

Still, something was missing. Beer.

“I realized, ‘Oh, my gosh — one of the reasons I sign up for these trail races is to collect a pint glass at the end and fill it up with a beer,” Landesberg said. “Or have a beer with friends after a workout. All of these social elements involve running and a beer. The celebratory nature of training and running was gone for me.”

The Landesbergs went to the grocery store and tried out various ciders and gluten-free beer. “I had to choke them down. I was not a happy camper,” she admitted.

Her friends would “wince when they tried” those options.

Things changed when her husband, Stuart, gave her a birthday present, signing her up for a beer-making course to make gluten-free beers.

“There was no magic to it. I was just learning how to make gluten-free beers,” she said. “What the components are — I would have to replace barley with sorghum. They were not good at all. But at the same time two things happened. One is that I took pride in that I made something. And (2), it didn’t taste all that different from the gluten-free beers I would buy at the grocery store.”

It wasn’t necessarily the process of making the beer, it was her competitive spirit that drove her to create a better gluten-free beer that she could enjoy with friends. “I am going to try to make this better,” she recalled thinking. “I am going to make this enjoyable for me. My goal was to make a beer that I could give to friends that they would drink with me.”

She went to more serious courses, finding mentors and buying equipment for her home brew production. A brewer named Joe Williams helped her transform her vision into reality, and eventually, Sufferfest.

The Epic pilsner was the first she shared with friends, runners and race directors. “And from there, it took off and the rest is history,” she says.

‘That was quite the sufferfest’

Landesberg says the name Sufferfest came “from the pinnacle of anguish and working hard and our masochistic ways of being runners and athletes.” While at Strava, she was working on a project for bikers and runners. They developed a feature that dealt with heart rate and cadence, and gave the athlete a score from 0 to 250 after the workout. She wondered what happened after 250 and a designer told her that would be considered a Sufferfest.

“That just sort of stuck with me,” she said. “After I would have a tough run or workout, I would come home and think, ‘That was quite the sufferfest. I need a beer. Then it became an inside joke with her and her husband.”

First page of her business plan was titled Sufferfest “as a joke.” But in time it came to be “the essence of what we are about.” So the name stuck.

Sufferfest is actually a gluten-reduced beer, a concept that Landesberg developed while taking classes at UC-Davis.

A gluten-reduced beer “allows me to make a totally conventional beer — the way you would make any other beer with barley — and at the end of the brewing process I add an enzyme that attacks the prolamine in the protein in the barley. That essentially takes away the prolamine that creates our sensitivity to gluten. By doing that it essentially makes the beer gluten free and allows folks like myself to enjoy a beer that tastes like beer.”

(Editor’s note: Sufferfest sent me samples of three of their beers to try. As someone with a gluten-free diet, I have also experienced the letdown of tasteless gluten-free beers. However, Sufferfest offers real beer taste without the gluten. It’s better than the other gluten-free beers have tried.)

What’s next for Sufferfest?

Landesberg will be working hard to earn her post-race beers.

After the birth of her daughter, she was unable to participate in this year’s Double Dipsea. Now, she is able to get out and run “even though it’s tough as a new parent.”

She has her sights set on some fall races including the Skyline to Sea 50K in October.

As for Sufferfest, it is gaining traction in California and online consumers can order it in 35 states.

“We’re in 430 locations in California now,” Landesberg said. “We’re just about 15 months old now and the team is growing.” They are planning on being at more races and getting in more stores. “We really believe in serving our athletes — runners, bikers, hikers, surfers, triathletes — anyone who is out there working hard to earn their beer.”

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