Sierra Nevada’s Trail Pass Starts a New Adventure in NA Brewing

Sierra Nevada Brewing (Sponsored) Dec 14, 2023 - 7 min read

Sierra Nevada’s Trail Pass Starts a New Adventure in NA Brewing Primary Image

On the surface, the country that throws the world’s biggest beer party isn’t the most obvious inspiration for nonalcoholic brewing.

Yet for Sierra Nevada Brewing, set to release its nonalcoholic Trail Pass IPA and Golden, the adventure started in Germany about five years ago.

“Back then, nonalcoholic still wasn’t taking off in American craft like it is now,” says James Conery, innovation brewmaster at Sierra Nevada. In the land of Oktoberfest, however, NA beer already was entwined in the drinking culture. “Ken [Grossman] went to Germany and said, ‘They can do it. Why can’t we?’”

Grossman, Sierra Nevada’s founder, was impressed with the NA brews he tried there. Germany has strict laws against impaired driving as well as rigorous research and no shortage of advanced brewing technology—all things that help spur innovation in nonalcoholic brewing.

So, Sierra Nevada began tinkering out of pure curiosity; there was no Trail Pass yet, nor a brand plan of any kind. Isaiah Mangold, head innovation brewer at Sierra Nevada, says there was healthy skepticism: “Making a non-alcoholic beer to Sierra Nevada standards was always the question. Like, ‘How do we do that? Can we do that? Is that even possible?’ Early exploration was 100 percent focused on that.”

Half a decade later, after exhaustive development, Conery and Mangold say Trail Pass IPA and Trail Pass Golden are absolute triumphs, living up to Sierra Nevada’s guiding credo—“Purest Ingredients, Finest Quality”—which is still found on the label.

With Trail Pass, it all started with a key decision: to either brew the traditional way or opt for a de-alcoholization process, such as vacuum distillation. Using natural methods, they say, felt truer to the brewery’s craft values and, frankly, delivers a product that tastes like beer.

The ultimate goal, Conery says, was to make an exceptional nonalcoholic IPA—hops being the Sierra Nevada hallmark. However, the inaugural brewhouse experiments, as far back as early 2018, fell short of their sky-high standards.

“‘Underwhelming’ would be a good word,” Conery says. “A lot of the early [nonalcoholic] yeast strains produced off characteristics. Quite a few of them were hybrids of Belgian strains, so you would get the phenolic spice flavors or, you know, what we call hot-dog water and those kind of things … they don’t lend well to IPAs.”

Even when the occasional batch showed promise, consistency was a wildcard. “‘Oh wow, we really like this. Great, let’s try it again,’” Conery says. “And then it would ferment to 5 percent alcohol, or it would do something [else] weird.”

Nonalcoholic beers can contain trace alcohol, up to 0.5 percent ABV, but that means your yeast performance must be bulletproof. And after trying countless yeasts, including non-Saccharomyces strains, Sierra Nevada was losing hope and even pressing pause on the project—briefly.

“The science was not good enough with maltose-negative [yeast] products,” Conery says. “It just so happens that we stumbled across this new yeast that was being developed by Lallemand, and that’s really where we kicked it off again.”

That kickoff turned into a yearlong sprint toward Trail Pass. That yeast, Conery and Mangold say, was a vivid breakthrough. It’s a hybrid strain, a union of specific beer and wine yeasts, that they say does the good things and prevents the bad things. Namely, the yeast reliably keeps fermentations below 0.5 percent ABV, but it also minimizes sulfur compounds and can metabolize more wort aldehydes—what you might perceive as cardboard and stale.

Instead, this yeast ferments clean and bright, allowing other ingredients to pop, such as the pine and citrus from the Amarillo and CTZ hops in Trail Pass IPA. However, that also required some trials: You can’t dry hop an NA beer in the same way as a regular one, since there’s no alcohol to serve as a solvent for the hop oils and resins.

“So we have taken our learnings from Hop Splash,” Conery says, referring to Sierra Nevada’s hop-infused sparkling water, “because we had to figure out how to dry hop that obviously without any alcohol, which is why we get really good expression from hops in this IPA.”

And with the easy-drinking, biscuity Trail Pass Golden, the malt bill has to pull a sort of double duty. If alcohol contributes to mouthfeel, body, and even sweetness in a beer, what makes up for alcohol’s absence?

“We looked at the grains that we have to work with and layered them in to try to mimic some of those characteristics that we are missing,” Conery says, “to trick your palate into thinking, ‘Yeah, there’s a body here, and it’s smooth.’”

Trail Pass IPA and Golden, then, are brews that can actually headline a hangout—forget the nonalcoholic disclaimers, Mangold says.

“I want to be able to offer [friends] something I’m equally as proud of as normal beers that we produce every day,” he says. “It has to bridge the gap. There can’t be any sort of ‘buts’ in the conversation. And I think Trail Pass does it. Visually, everything’s there. Aromatically, everything’s there. Flavor-wise, it checks all the boxes.”

And Sierra Nevada’s hoppy reputation still shines in the NA beer, Conery says. “It passed all of our criteria for what we would consider a craft IPA—not necessarily even a craft nonalcoholic IPA, but a craft IPA.”

Sierra Nevada Trail Pass is currently available online, shipping to select states. Find it nationwide at your favorite retailers beginning January 2024.