A betrayal of its own namesake, the Cream Ale is a classic summertime brew celebrated in certain corners of the U.S. as a regional gem.
The Cream Ale is neither brewed with lactose, nor is the beer particularly “creamy” to drink, like a nitro stout. To add to the etymological confusion, Cream Ales drink closer to European lagers, like a Kölsch, more so than American ales.
While some customers may be rightfully confused by the beer’s name, the Cream Ale remains a fairly popular beer among drinkers and brewers alike. The beer has a simple (but enjoyable) profile that makes it cheap to purchase, approachable to the general public and enjoyable in quantity.
Read below to take a closer look at this American craft beer style, with some examples of highly rated Cream Ales from across the country. To end, we’ll share a Cream Ale recipe that Brewvana’s own in-house homebrewing pros have whipped up that you can make yourself.
What is a Cream Ale?
First produced by North American breweries beginning in the mid-19th Century, the Cream Ale is a classic New World beer.
The earliest Cream Ales were brewed to compete with light-bodied and crystal clear lagers, which were becoming increasingly popular in the U.S. in the 1900s. As American brewers stopped or slowed production during Prohibition, many Canadian breweries took up the mantle to brew the style, and Canadian Cream Ales became a popular drinking selection thereafter.
Cream Ales are unique because they are fermented using American ale yeasts or lager yeasts fermented at high temperatures. Some brewers use both ale and lager yeasts in their production of Cream Ales. Regardless of the yeast strain, the beer then undergoes a period of cold-conditioning (or lagering) at colder temperatures after primary fermentation is complete.
The combination of fermenting using top-feeding yeast before lagering at cold temperatures contributes to a reduction of fruity esters. This gives a Cream Ale its characteristic clean flavor and clarity.
Furthermore, the beer is given its signature body by a rather simple selection of American pale malts complimented by light hop bittering. Most Cream Ale grist profiles also include corn or rice additions, which give the beer a small, but noticeable, sweet corn flavor. These adjuncts further contribute to the complexity of the beer’s light, straw-colored body.
The end result of fermentation is a beer that is perfectly suited for American summer. Cream Ales are light bodied and extremely crushable, holding up in the highest temperatures the summer sun can throw at you. To boot, Cream Ales are higher in alcohol content than may be expected from a beer with such a light body, commonly clocking in around 4%-5% ABV.
Highest Rated Cream Ales
Brewed in upstate New York since 1960, Genesee Cream Ale has become the most recognizable Cream Ale in the U.S. Genesee Brewing Company—which brews out of Rochester, New York—makes the beer year-round and distributes throughout much of the country, making Genesee Cream Ale one of the most commercially available Cream Ales for the American drinking public.
Many microbreweries across the country have also taken up brewing Cream Ales, particularly as warm weather rolls around. Here are some of the highest rated Cream Ales from American breweries:
Genesee Cream Ale
Clocking in at 5.1% ABV, Genesee Cream Ale remains the most popular choice of the style in America. The beer has even won consecutive medals at the Great American Beer Festival in 1990 and 1991, with even more silver and bronze medals collected over the years.
Mother Earth Brew Co. Cali Creamin’
California’s Mother Earth Brew Co. made its approachable Cream Ale its flagship beer. Cali Creamin’ is made with Madagascar vanilla bean to give the beer a bit of a flavor kick, but the brew still finishes dry despite the sweetness of the vanilla.
Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co. Vanilla Barrel Cream Ale
This Cream Ale from Lexington Brewing & Distilling Co. is made with flaked corn and bourbon vanilla beans before it is aged in bourbon barrels for at least six weeks. Side note: the Cream Ale was very popular in Kentucky, and variations on the style eventually led to the creation of the Kentucky Common.
Newburgh Brewing Co. Cream Ale
Newburgh Brewing Co.’s interpretation of the Cream Ale deviates from the beaten path, as the brewery’s version does not include any rice or corn in the mash. This beer, which took home a silver metal at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival, is available year-round in cans.
Hardywood Park Craft Brewery Cream Ale
A nod to a Cream Ale released back in 1935 by Krueger Brewing Company, Hardywood Park Craft Brewery’s Cream Ale is a well balanced example of the style checking in at a moderate 4.4% ABV.
Cream Ale Recipe
The Cream Ale, according to style guidelines set forth by the Beer Judge Certification Program, should be a refreshing and easily drinkable “lawnmower” beer.
The BJCP further states the beer should have a pale, golden appearance with sweet aromas coming from the malt profile. This is not a beer where the hops take center stage, and therefore the beer does not hold a noticeable bitterness.
From the BJCP’s Cream Ale overview:
“Low to medium-low hop bitterness. Low to moderate maltiness and sweetness, varying with gravity and attenuation. Usually well-attenuated. Neither malt nor hops dominate the palate.”
While the grain bill for a Cream Ale can be built entirely by a pale malt, Brewvana’s own Cream Ale recipe includes flaked corn to give the body light, sweet notes. Our recipe also calls for 20% of carapils in the malt bill, and this will help with better head retention while also increasing the ABV a touch.
The keystone of this recipe is really the yeast, but more so HOW you ferment the wort. You can certainly ferment your wort using a lagering yeast at high temperatures, but the Brewvana recipe uses White Labs Cream Ale Yeast Blend. This yeast is a blend of ale and lager yeast and is specifically designed for Cream Ales.
The ideal temperature range for this yeast is 65° F-70° F, though you can push a bit higher if you want to get fruity ester strains in your finished product. For a cleaner, crisp beer that is perfectly balanced, shoot right for that 65° F temperature throughout your fermentation.