Cream Ale may be the most unfortunately named beer style. I once offered to pour one for a customer who wanted a “lighter” beer, but when I told him it was a Cream Ale, he said, “I don’t like vanilla.” It’s a common misconception. There’s no vanilla, or anything else creamy, about a cream ale.
Cream Ale is one of my favorite styles to brew. It’s simple, enjoyable on a hot summer day and my Bud-drinking neighbors seem to like it. It’s a great gateway style to introduce your Bud/Miller/Coors friends to craft beer. The style has the most in common with light American lagers and makes an easy transition for people who think they don’t like craft beer.
In the last style post, we looked at Steam Beer, the other uniquely American style. Cream Ale originated in the 1800s, a pre-prohibition alternative to the new lagers brewed by German immigrants. Like Steam Beer, Cream Ale is a hybrid and may be brewed with Lager yeast, usually in combination in a blend with Ale yeast. It may be cold lagered to help clarity and diminish fruity esters, but some will have light fruity esters.
The classic Cream Ales, and most modern interpretations, use corn in the mash. The corn lightens the body, adds sweetness in the middle, yet makes a highly fermentable beer, leading to dry, crisp finish. Honestly, I’ve had cream ales that don’t taste much different from PBR. The light bitterness, corn sweetness and easy drinkability are commonalities between the two. However, most craft beer cream ales have a quality of ingredients you can taste.
Cream Ales are pale straw to gold in color, with an SRM* of 2.5 to 5. Hop bitterness is light, sometimes barely noticeable at 15-20 IBUs.* Cream Ales are the perfect lawnmower beer, at 4.2-5.6% ABV* its easy to put away a few on a hot summer day.
Catawba Brewing of Morganton, NC brews Farmer Ted’s Cream Ale. It has aromas of corn sweetness and light fruitiness. It pours a hazy pale gold with a full white head. But the use of corn in the mash isn’t good for head retention, and it collapses quickly. It’s a crisp, easy-drinking beer, with a sweetness in the middle that fades in the finish to give a glimpse of hop bitterness.
Although classified as a Saison/Farmhouse on Untappd, New Glarus Spotted Cow was once known as a Cream Ale. New Glarus now calls it a farmhouse, but there is corn in the mash. I think calling Spotted Cow a farmhouse ale contributes to the perception that Cream Ale is an inferior style.
The easy-drinking Cream Ale is perfect with the favorite foods of summer. Bring a cooler full of them to a cookout; the beer goes great with burger, brats and pulled-pork BBQ.
*Standard Reference Method (color)
*International Bitterness Units (hop alpha-acid utilization)
*Alcohol by Volume
All quantitative specifications are from the BJCP Style Guide