In the 1800s, American brewers created a beer style that baffled drinkers past, present, and future: the Cream Ale. Despite its name, there’s no cream in the beer. And compared to many other styles, this type of beer isn’t even exceptionally creamy.
So what is a cream ale? Like the platypus, it defies definition. Somewhere between an ale and a lager, this strangely named, easy-drinking beer is one of America’s earliest mass produced styles, and still maintains popularity today thanks to brands like Genesee, makers of the famous Genesee Cream Ale. Even the Beer Judge Certification Program notes on its “Overall Impression” that Cream Ale is a “flavorful American ‘lawnmower’ beer”.
Let’s break down some myths about the style and how it became a Rust Belt classic.
What is a Cream Ale?
Despite its name, Cream Ale doesn’t contain any dairy or lactose. It’s not going to taste like a Milkshake IPA. Traditionally, it’s actually more closely related to a lager –yes, even with “ale” in the name. The word “cream” is simply marketing jargon, possibly referring to the beer’s silky taste or richness.
Taste-wise, this style is almost like a plumper Kölsch, sometimes using corn adjuncts to create a smooth mouthfeel. It’s a pale, light bodied ale (though it’s sometimes made with lager yeast) that typically falls around 5% ABV.
In Radical Brewing, author Randy Mosher writes, “Some of the early brewery advertising indicates that cream ales were often a blend of stock ale with lager…” The smooth mouthfeel, balanced with high carbonation and low ABV, make for a very drinkable beer. Steve Johnsons’ 1994 classic, On Tap – Guide to North American Brewpubs, has a brief blurb referencing a new word for the style; Johnson defines this style of beer as, “a pale, light bodied ale which is lagered at cold temperatures or mixed with lager. Sometimes called a ‘lagale.’”
Though that term isn’t commonly used today, it demonstrates an amusing way to describe a perplexing style.
What’s Special About Cream Ale?
This is an old style, created in the 1840s by American brewers to rival the popularity of European-brewed lagers. In a stroke of ingenuity, those early American brewers took the essential profile of lagers and added a bit more flavor.
Since it’s a uniquely American invention, this ale is classified as an American-style beer. However, it’s more of an interpretation of English Milds and Bavarian Lagers, and has since been refined by Canadian brewers.
Like many other traditional beer styles, the Cream Ale uses old school hops like Cluster, Brewer’s Gold, and Liberty. And while it isn’t a particularly “hype” style, it makes up for its lack of flash in commemorative appeal.
Why Do People Like The Cream Ale?
As a light bodied beer, these ales are pretty approachable. The grist build of pale malts (and sometimes flaked corn) pairs well with salty bar food, or as an after-chore treat. It manifests a sense of nostalgia and regionality. And while it has a foggy history, it’s something people unabashedly hold dear.
Matt Robinson, the Operations Manager at Bissell Brothers Three Rivers says, “A beer like Kickflip [Bissell Brothers’ Cream Ale] is one of these fun ‘bridge’ beers for us. It rides the line between two of our core focuses. Kickflip is an amazing ‘journey beer’ that helps to nudge people along from lager or pilsner, to experimenting with more ales.”
Similarly, Scott Kerner, President of Good Measure Brewing Co. states, “To us, a good Cream Ale is the perfect balance of light, crisp, and sweet. Thirst quenching and hopefully a very dry finish. And it has to steam a hot dog real well.”
What Are Some Examples?
Perhaps the most famous cream ale is Genesee Cream Ale out of Rochester, New York, which was introduced in 1960 and has had unwavering fandom since.
Because of the loosely defined style, there have been various interpretations of the style, ranging from Imperial to fruited ones. In 2013, Natural “Natty” Ice actually won a gold medal at GABF for the category. Additionally, many Mexican Lagers have won medals as American Cream-Ales as well. Here are some more Cream Ales to check out:
Genesee Brewing Company – Cream Ale
New Glarus Brewing Company – Spotted Cow
Bissell Brothers Brewing Company – Kickflip
Good Measure Brewing Co. – Early Riser
Cloudwater Brew Co. – Summer Range – Bretted Cream Ale
To Øl – Primals Cream
Ale Smith Brewing Company – Cream Ale
Carton Brewing Company – Regular Coffee
Dogfish Head Craft Brewery – Costumes & Karaoke