The Journey Behind Non-Alc Trail Pass

Published on December 15th 2023 by SNBC

A Long Path to Trail Pass

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

Yet for non-alcoholic Trail Pass, our adventure started in Germany roughly five years ago.

“Back then non-alcoholic still wasn’t taking off in American craft like it is now,” says James Conery, our Innovation Brewmaster. But in the land of Oktoberfest, non-alc beer was already entwined in drinking culture. “Ken [Grossman] went to Germany and said, ‘They can do it. Why can’t we?’”

Grossman, who started Sierra Nevada, was impressed with the non-alc 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 non-alcoholic brewing.

So we began tinkering out of pure curiosity; there was no Trail Pass, no brand idea of any kind. Isaiah Mangold, our Head Innovation Brewer, says there was healthy skepticism.

“Making a non-alcoholic beer to Sierra Nevada standards was always the question,” he says. “Like, how do we do that? Can we do that? Is that even possible? Early exploration was one hundred percent focused on that.”

Half a decade later, after exhaustive development, Conery and Mangold say Trail Pass IPA and Trail Pass Golden are triumphs, living up to our guiding credo “Purest Ingredients, Finest Quality”—still found on our labels.

A can of non-alcoholic Sierra Nevada Trail Pass Golden and a can of Trail Pass IPA sitting on a log

How We Make Trail Pass

And it all started with a key decision: brew the traditional way, or opt for a dealcoholization process such as vacuum distillation. Using natural methods felt truer to our craft values and, frankly, delivers a product that tastes like beer.

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

“Underwhelming would be a good word,” says Conery. “A lot of the early [non-alcoholic] 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,” explains Conery. “And then it would ferment to 5% alcohol or it would do something [else] weird.”

Trail Pass Yeast Breakthrough

Non-alcoholic beers can contain trace alcohol, up to 0.5% ABV, but that means your yeast performance must be bulletproof. And after trying countless brewing yeasts, including non-Saccharomyces strains, we were losing hope, even pressing pause—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.”

A kickoff that 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 does the good things and prevents the bad things. Namely, it reliably keeps fermentations below 0.5% ABV, but the yeast 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, like the pine and citrus from Amarillo® and CTZ hops in Trail Pass IPA.

Two male hikers on a trail opening a can of non-alcoholic Sierra Nevada Trail Pass IPA

Replicating Full Craft Flavor In Non-Alc

But even hops were a hurdle, Conery says. You can’t dry hop a non-alc brew the same as a regular beer since there’s no alcohol as a solvent for the hop oils and resins.

“So we have taken our learnings from Hop Splash” says Conery, referring to our 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,” says Conery, “to trick your palate into thinking ‘Yeah, there’s a body here, and it’s smooth.’”

Four friends on a hike take a break to drink cans of non-alcoholic Sierra Nevada Trail Pass brews

Your Friends’ Favorite Non-Alc Brew

Trail Pass IPA and Golden, then, are brews that can actually headline a hangout; forget the non-alc 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. It has to bridge the gap. There can’t be any sort of ‘buts’ in the conversation,” he says. “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 shines, Conery says.

“It passed all of our criteria for what we would consider a craft IPA—not necessarily even a craft non-alcoholic IPA, but a craft IPA.”

Sierra Nevada Trail Pass is available nationwide January 2024. In select states now: CA, CO, WA. Currently direct shipping to a limited footprint.

Order Trail Pass Online



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