The old adage that “brewers make wort, yeast makes beer” undersells the role the brewers have in taking care of their microbial coworkers. Brewers don’t just make wort; they also tend, nurture, and cultivate the yeast that’s at the heart of every brewery. And over the past few decades, America’s independent brewers have gotten good at working with yeast—ale yeast at least.
The top-fermenting Saccharomyces cerevisiae strains have long been the most common yeast in craft breweries, and the assertive, round, and fruity character these strains add to beer fit well with the styles and palates that craft brewers have focused on. But what about S. cervisiae’s close cousin: the cold-loving, bottom-dwelling Saccharomyces pastorianus?
Lager has never loomed larger in craft-beer culture; today’s brewers are tackling the challenge of creating these clean, crisp beers despite the fact that (or maybe because) lager brewing is technical and unforgiving. The transparent flavor of the lager yeast strains means there’s less for flaws to hide behind, and deficiencies in a brewer’s process or ingredients stand out on the palate.
As lager styles grow in popularity, some brewers are looking to a time-tested technique to help speed up production and keep their lager yeast happy as it slowly winnows a beer to crisp perfection. Instead of cold-conditioning in the ubiquitous stainless-steel cylindroconical fermentation vessels or “unitanks,” brewers are turning the lagering phase on its side, literally. The horizontal lagering tank, a vessel more common in the breweries of the world’s biggest brands, is finding a home in the small independent brewery.
Launching with Lagers in Mind
Lager is central to the ambitions of GameCraft Brewing, a startup concept in Laguna Hills, California, that wants to bring a mix of traditional German lagers and SoCal-style IPAs to a relatively underserved region of Orange County’s suburban sprawl. Cofounder Scott Cebula says that lager can showcase the craftsmanship behind beer more readily than ale, and GameCraft was designed to brew lager. Besides the steam-fired 3-vessel brewhouse designed with German styles in mind, a key piece of the lager-making capabilities at GameCraft is the stack of horizontal lagering tanks (HLTs) in the cellar.
Six 30-barrel HLTs are stacked three-high in two columns, and the addition of this dedicated conditioning stage for GameCraft’s lagers led to some unforeseen expenses beyond the $12,000 price tag of each tank. The cellar needed an upgraded tank-chilling glycol system to provide the muscle that quickly and accurately reduces temperatures in the HLT stack, and a ChillerTron cellar control system acts as the brains, allowing for precise control of temperature management and automation for each tank.
But that was the easy stuff. The seismic concerns for a triple stack of tanks weighing thousands of pounds empty, and upward of twelve tons when full, meant some extra bureaucratic headaches with permitting and more custom welding and mounting when the tanks arrived from China.
While the HLTs are extra tanks to clean and mean the brewers spend more time transferring beer, the yeast ends up working less.
“If we treat the yeast well, the yeast will treat us well,” Cebula says. Giving the yeast cells a comfortable place to work is one way to keep them happy during the conditioning phase, and the formula for yeast comfort is the height-to-volume ratio of a vessel. A shorter vessel of the same volume will have a greater surface area both at the bottom of the vessel and at the top of the liquid inside. This gives the suspended yeast more room to toil and means less stress and pressure for those single-cell workhorses.
The geometry of the tanks also means faster clarification once the conditioning is complete. During the cold crash, the suspended yeast doesn’t have as far to travel to settle on the bottom of the tank. It sounds minor, but it can mean several days are shaved off the tank residency—a big deal when production efficiency means better margins.
Rent isn’t cheap in South Orange Country, and Cebula says they need to keep production rates up to cover the overhead. GameCraft’s brewer, Andrew Moy, thinks that breaking into the local scene and keeping the beer flowing is the key to success, and he thinks a lager can do that for GameCraft.
“There are not a lot of breweries near us and not a lot of traditional craft/IPA drinkers either. A craft lager can be a gateway for people used to light lager,” he says, and he hopes GameCraft’s helles-style lager (Laguna Helles) might open people’s mind to what craft beer can offer. “It’s a test of technical brewing ability,” Moy says. “If you show people you can make a clean helles, they will trust the other beers on your board.”
Leveraging Lager to Expand
A few dozen miles south of GameCraft, across the San Diego county line, another brewery is turning to HLTs to meet production demands. Mason Ale Works is about 6 years old and has found a breakout hit in their Mexican-style lager, Respeto. Director of Brewery Operations Matt Webster calls it an “unintentional flagship,” and it takes careful scheduling to keep up with the demand. The addition of two 60-barrel HLTs in the fall of 2018 will cut cellaring times of each batch by 6 or 7 days, eliminating a bottleneck.
“It’s a style of beer that plays well in traditional craft accounts and at non-craft accounts,” Webster says, and the growth potential seems limitless. “There must be 10,000 Mexican restaurants in Southern California,” he says. That’s a big untapped market for craft brands, especially in a region where competition between craft brands has intensified in recent years. “We want to take the fight back to the macro brands, on their turf, using a page from their playbooks,” he says.
Growing Up with HLTs
Whereas GameCraft is launching with lagers in mind and Mason is leveraging lager to expand, SingleCut Beersmiths in Queens, New York, grew up with HLTs and has used their tanks in uncommon ways during periods of intense growth that saw the brewery straining against production limitations.
“They give us flexibility,” says Alan Busch, brewery operation manager. In the past 2 years of SingleCut’s growth and expansion, the stack of HLTs (two 30-barrel tanks and two 60-barrel tanks) has been used for production of their flagship Pilsner, as extra brite tanks for carbonating ales, as a conditioning tank for high- gravity stouts being flavored with chocolate or coffee, and as a place to park finished beer before packaging.
“It can mean more transfers and more cleaning, but using them not quite as intended is really handy for us,” he says. In 2018, the brewery purchased a larger production facility in Albany, New York (the former home of Shmaltz Brewing Company), and the extra capacity means the Queens brewery can get back to experimenting with new beers and different styles. The HLTs will be central to new lager developments, such as the traditional märzen, Inexplicably Used Umlaüt, that the brewery made in 2018; it was lagered for a full 3 months. “It’s not the most efficient thing to condition so long, but without it you’re missing the essence of these Old School German styles,” Busch says.
Perfect Shape for Steam Beer
Back in California, one of the state’s oldest craft breweries made their name brewing a hybrid style and built a brewery focused on the production of steam beer. Anchor Brewing’s eponymous Steam beer is a cold-conditioned ale, and the San Francisco brewery has used lagering tanks since the mid-seventies.
“Two-tank fermentation was Fritz’s [Fritz Maytag, Anchor’s owner from 1965 until 2010] vision,” says Scott Ungermann, of Anchor Brewing. While the first lagering tanks weren’t horizontal—they were 55-barrel “grenade-shaped” upright vessels—the cellar downstairs from the vessels where primary fermentation occurs is now home to dozens of HLTs sized between 110 and 290 barrels. Ungermann, the brewmaster, calls them “the perfect shape for steam beer” and its accelerated 12-day lagering phase.
Anchor Steam is still the brewery’s number one beer, but their number two is a re-creation of a historical nineteenth-century lager brewed in California’s gold country: Anchor California Lager. The beer exemplifies what lager brewing is about, which Ungermann calls “a truer expression of the ingredients’ character” and “a thing of beauty.”
After a few days of vigorous fermentation in the open fermentation vessels upstairs, the California Lager is transferred to the HLTs in the cellar where it is krausened to kickoff the secondary fermentation and provide the carbonation.
The brew is held at 60°F (16°C) for 17 days, “while the yeast do the heavy lifting.” Then the temperature is dropped to 32°F (0°C) for 11 more days for the yeast to drop out of suspension. The results belie the beer’s historical origins: it’s crisp, clean, and brilliantly clear.
GameCraft is perfecting a traditional helles style to win new drinkers in a craft desert, Mason Ale Works is using a Mexican-style lager to fuel their growth in a crowded market, SingleCut Beersmiths leveraged lagering capacity to survive the challenges that come with expansion, and stalwart Anchor Brewing is furthering their mission of bringing historical styles to the mainstream and winning new fans in the process.
After decades of being largely ignored by smaller breweries, lager is having its day. There’s no doubt that the industry is maturing, and lager just might be the key to craft beer’s next stage because lager offers brewers who rise to its challenges the opportunity to succeed where all ales have failed.