Gearhead: The Enviable Lightness of Craft Lager

What does it mean to worship at the altar of crisp? For brewers, it means special attention to technique, fermentation, and clarification.

John M. Verive Mar 28, 2024 - 15 min read

Gearhead: The Enviable Lightness of Craft Lager Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/

Finally, after years of watching brewers chase IBUs, shop for adjuncts in bakeries, and develop new techniques to balance drinkability with murk, there is an observable trend I can get behind. More of a return to a form once scorned, the “crispy boi” is the best thing to happen to American craft beer since Ken Grossman’s Pale Ale.

I don’t like that meme-ified name any more than you, but it’s a necessary evil. We need to call it something. The crispy boi is here to stay, and thank Dionysus and Ninkasi and Siduri and all the other goddesses and gods of brewing for that. I may not love the modern term-of-art, but I have a deep reverence for the crisp, clean, and—if you’ll excuse more cringy slang—crushable lager beer.

Many brewers clearly share that reverence, and these easygoing lagers arguably have been a brewer-driven trend. Greater attention to them—and to elevating crispness itself—has led to some different processes and kit in the typical American craft brewery. As always, it’s worthwhile to think about the sensory goal.

Not a style, the crispy boi eschews the quantitative requirements of any guidelines. It is defined by the sensory experience. Does the first sip sparkle across your tongue and finish with a clean break and no lingering faults, refreshing your senses? Does the tingle of bitterness linger for just a moment longer than the fleeting presence of the malt? Does it trigger a cascade of barely perceptible neurologic impulses that cause—like a reflex—you to lift that lager to your lips immediately after setting it down? Does the second sip reinforce your initial impressions with a light (but never watery) body and a spry interplay between malt and hops? Does it seem to disappear from your glass? You know it when you’re drinking one—or maybe even before.


There’s a visual component to tasting beer—we drink with our eyes, and all that. The crispiest of these refreshers share a brilliant visual impact: a flash of brightness and sparkling carbonation. The enticing clarity of this new breed of light lagers signals one of the key processes in their creation. It’s difficult to define “crisp” as a sensory descriptor, and most efforts end up with a list of similarly vague descriptors—snappy, structured, fresh, drinkable. Clean is part of what defines the crispy experience, and it’s an aspect of these beers that gets most of the brewer’s focus.

There’s such diversity built into the definition that lager yeast isn’t even a requirement. There’s no shortage of crispy kölsch or blonde ales, but they will always be working to overcome the presence of esters produced by ale yeasts. Cold-conditioned lager is where most brewers start.

“The recipes are simple, and similar, so you differentiate them with your process,” says Stefan Weber of Everywhere Brewing in Orange, California. “Lagers are made in the cellar.”

Everywhere opened in June 2022, the new home of several veterans of the SoCal brewing industry. It was important to cofounder and head brewer Weber to make a statement and open with both West Coast IPA and a lager. Their German-style pils Hello World! was the first can released by the brewery.

“Making lager is a good flex,” Weber says. “You can’t hide any flaws behind pilsner malt.”


Bright Lager on the Sunny Coast

I don’t know whether Southern California is the epicenter of this rise of crispy lagers, but coolers and tap lists from San Diego to the Central Coast are filled with supporting evidence. So, I’ve been asking brewers here how, exactly, they put the crispy into the bois.

“Please don’t call them that,” says Chris Enegren, founder and brewer at Enegren Brewing in Moorpark, northwest of Los Angeles. “Of all the dumb things to call beer, it’s the worst.”

He is leery of a fad-driven beer culture. One of the oldest craft breweries in Ventura County, Enegren opened in 2011 with a three-barrel brewhouse. Chris Enegren wanted to respond to the stunt beers and IBU obsession of the time—and clean lager doesn’t go out of style. By 2015, the brewery had expanded to a 15-barrel system and was known for its German-style lagers.

In the early days, customers who were new to craft would ask tasting-room staff for the lightest beer, perhaps wary of all the flavors lurking in the unfamiliar styles. So, Enegren brewed an answer: The Lightest One. This Bavarian-style helles is now their flagship, and it’s one that pleases the palates of the undiscerning and enthusiast alike. The 12-ounce cans don’t stick around long in a fridge.

In rephrasing my question to Enegren, I asked what gives lager its “X factor”—how can a brewery maximize brisk drinkability?


“It’s not an easy-to-brew beer,” he says. “You have to strike a balance between easy-drinking and interesting. It’s beer that shouldn’t bore you after a liter.” Clean flavors are a requirement. No distractions. No esters. No sticky hop character.

“Filtering helps you get there,” he says.

Seeking Clarity

Enegren respects the traditions of lager making, but he has the pragmatism of a mechanical engineer, and he isn’t shy about applying technological solutions to age-old brewing problems.

Clarification via time and gravity works, and it can make great beer, but it’s not the best solution if your business goes under while you wait for lager to condition. Mechanical separation of yeast from finished beer means shorter tank residency times, and the more times a brewery can turn over a tank, the more beer (and money) it can make.

There are many ways to separate yeast matter (and hop particles, and long-chain polyphenols, and other miscellaneous debris) from the liquid. While some are used independently, others work in concert to produce bright beer. Enegren Brewing’s first filter was a lenticular filter setup—common tech at small craft breweries. Lenticular filters use a disposable cartridge of filter medium to trap solids while the liquid flows through them. The stainless-steel column arrangements are comparatively simple to operate and maintain, but they’re not as efficient as some other methods. They’re prone to clogging, and they work best at slower flow rates. “It used to take us a 10-hour day to filter 60 barrels,” Enegren says.


In 2022, Enegren had the opportunity to buy a pressure-leaf filter at a steep discount from another Southern California brewery that was restructuring operations. The Enegren team refurbished the disused Spadoni unit and started learning how to use it. “It takes skill to run,” Enegren says, “but it’s a beautiful machine, and it’ll filter a batch in an hour.”

In a pressure-leaf filter, beer passes over a stack of mesh assemblies (those are the “leaves”) that hold a filter medium—often diatomaceous earth (DE)—between them. The stack of leaves is contained within a pressure vessel, and the amount of material filtered out of the beer is controlled by pressure, flow rate, and the grade of filter medium used. Wary of the health and environmental impact of using DE, Enegren instead uses perlite—a type of volcanic glass with a porous microstructure that captures solids much like DE does.

“It’s a sensitive system,” Enegren says. “You have to keep it really clean, and there are a lot of moving parts to maintain.” It’s also tricky to operate, and Enegren has deputized brewer James Potter to handle the filtering duties and become an expert in its operation.

There remains a sentiment in some circles that filtering is antithetical to craft beer because it’s an industrial method that strips away character. Enegren’s response: “They say that [filtering] takes flavor away like it’s a bad thing. Yeah, it’s pulling out flavor—the flavors I don’t want in my lagers.”

Fitting Lager into an Ale Mindset

While Enegren is primarily a lager specialist, it’s more common among breweries these days to offer one or two lagers among the requisite IPAs and other ale varieties in a tasting room. That’s the approach taken at 14 Cannons Brewery in Westlake Village, California, not far south of Enegren.


Head brewer Nic Bortolin got hooked on European lager while studying in Prague, and he learned the ins and outs of lager production at Figueroa Mountain in Buellton, California, under brewmaster Kevin Ashford. Bortolin says he stubbornly insisted on opening 14 Cannons with lagers at the outset, and in 2017 they launched with four of them.

They designed the brewery with lager production in mind, from the oversized dual-stage heat exchanger that facilitates “super-cold” knockouts to the single, 20-barrel horizontal lagering tank that frees up primary fermentation space for faster-selling IPAs. However, when it comes to clarification, Bortolin relies on tech that’s spec’d more for IPA production: a centrifuge.

We’ve covered centrifuges in this column (see “Gearhead: Shortening the Wait for Finished Beer,”, but here’s a refresher on the basics: The ’fuge separates solids from liquid through a judicious application of centripetal force, at tens of thousands of revolutions per minute. Turbid liquid—freshly fermented beer, for example—enters a spinning cone that flings the heavier yeast cells, hop particles, and anything else that’s suspended in the liquid away, allowing clarified liquid to flow through. Variable speeds and residence times give the operator fine control of the effect.

At 14 Cannons, the centrifuge helps maximize yield on hop-heavy brews, pulling out sediment from slurry that would otherwise clog filters or just get dumped down the floor drains. It also reduces tank times. Bortolin offers a comparison to making filter coffee—sure, the paper filter traps the coffee grounds, but it also traps some oils and other flavor components that might be desirable. The centrifuge, he says, allows those nuances to remain in the clarified beer.

“We don’t do any final polishing with a filter,” Bortolin says. “We have different set points on the ’fuge for every different beer, and [we] can dial in the clarity we want with no loss of aroma.”


Centrifuge tech was once reserved for large breweries with deep pockets, but the craft boom helped to drive development of smaller units. At 14 Cannons, they produce about 2,500 barrels annually, and the centrifuge is key to that capacity.

Spending money on a brewery is complex calculus. Does the return on investment on a centrifuge outpace a filter that’s cheaper up front, but has a higher cost in consumables? What are the labor costs of operating the different solutions? What works for a brewery at capacity X may be a costly bottleneck when the brewery is producing four times that capacity.

The calculus may also differ when your business plan involves taking over a turnkey opportunity.

Learning from Lager

When Stefan Weber and his partners—who’d all previously worked at The Bruery in Orange County, California—were looking for the location that would become Everywhere Beer, they wanted a space that that was built out and ready to start brewing to minimize the costly (and slow) construction phase. What they found was a Swiss Army knife of a production facility in Orange, California, previously operated by Gunwhale Ales.

They also knew they wanted to brew lagers, but their new brewery had been designed for ales. Did that give them pause? Weber says the most important elements already were in place, from a reverse-osmosis (RO) water-treatment system to the flexible and efficient mash filter.


“Lager brewing is more process based, so you just need good [standard operating procedures] in place to make good lager,” he says. Everywhere uses a lenticular filter for polishing finished beer before packaging, but Weber says mostly they just use “time and gravity” to clarify their lagers. It’s the aggregate of all the other steps in their SOPs that produce the clean, crispy lager that everyone is after.

“Get your water chem right, ferment clean, get the beer off the yeast and trub, and give it enough time to condition,” he says, naming the keys to his process. Biofine, a popular type of tank finings, is another. “It works really well to help coax that settling,” Weber says. The brewery also practices the old method of kräusening batches of fermented beer with a dose of vigorously fermenting fresh wort. Added up, these individual steps create lagers that are both simple in presentation and complex in character.

They’re also using the same method to produce bright, clean ales. “We’re applying all the lessons we learn while brewing lager to all the beers in the portfolio,” Weber says. Everywhere now uses pilsner malt and lager yeast to make most styles—even their bright and sticky West Coast IPAs.

Avoiding Shortcuts

Whether you call ’em crispy bois, new American light lagers, modern pilsners, or bright-and-cleanies, the freshest fad in American craft brewing is no fad at all, but rather a return to a form that the microbrewing culture once spurned. No longer the fizzy yellow butt of jokes, the light, drinkable, and yes, crispy lager has come full circle, and small breweries already have what they need to make it.

The best tools for getting clean, crisp lager are time and gravity combined with the brewer’s attention to detail and careful consideration of process. Don’t rush things, and don’t cut corners. “Cutting corners makes bad lager,” Enegren says, “and bad lager turns people off to the whole world of lager beer.”