Cream Ale – A Smooth and Flavorful American Lager-Style Beer

Sep 2023 | Last modified: November 14, 2023 | 5 min read | By Sean

Do you know the story behind cream ale?

In this article, we’ll cover the intriguing world of cream ales. Discover why this light and crisp American beer style carries such an unusual name.

A glass of Cream Ale beer

Read on to learn also what makes it a cream ale, its unique flavor profile and appearance, and some of the popular cream ale beer brands.

What is a cream ale?

The cream ale was a desperate attempt by American craft brewers during the mid-1800s to compete with German-style beers. Most notably, lagers. The crisp, light beers made with bottom- and cold-fermenting lager yeast were the many breweries’ top choices at the time.

In comes the marketing.

Cream ale is a beer brewed with either ale or lager yeast fermented at relatively warmer temperatures. For reference, most lager yeast generally requires low, close-to-freezing fermentation temperatures. Ale yeasts require comparatively warmer temperatures.

Cream ales undergo a cold lagering period following fermentation regardless of the yeast type used. This aging period lends the beer its light and clean flavor and mouthfeel.

What makes it a cream ale?

Cream ales are easy-drinking hybrid beers with a similar taste to American lagers but with more flavor variety and subtleties. Breweries often use up to a few adjuncts in their recipes to achieve that classic lawnmower beer flavor profile.

Note: Adjuncts are ingredients added to a recipe that are not required for its production.

So, what makes it a cream ale, and what ingredients do breweries use to make this beer taste the way it does?

Ingredients flavor profile and appearance

First things first, these ales do not use cream, and they aren’t thick, sweet, or creamy like a Milkshape IPA or a beer made with lactose. The beer style name is misleading, but the beers are nothing to frown about.

This beer style often substitutes barley with corn, sugar, or rice. These adjuncts, along with the warm fermentation, cold lagering, and the resulting drinkability, define the full ale style.

The grain bill comprises mostly pale malts that complement old-school hop varieties and their flavors and aromas–think Brewer’s Gold, Cluster, Bullion, and Liberty hops.

As for the yeast, a medium to highly flocculent strain is ideal for balancing the body between well-rounded, like an ale, and sharp, like a pilsner.

A light-bodied ale with high drinkability and more flavor than an American lager, that’s what this hybrid beer style is all about. It’s a refreshing, easy-drinking beer style, boasting a straw-golden color with slightly sweet notes.

Its flavor profile sometimes has a slight caramel sweetness when made with darker malts. Flaked corn is often used to lighten the body and reduce residual sweetness.

This beer style hovers around 5% ABV to enhance drinkability and versatility.

What is the difference between a pale ale and a cream ale?

The pale ale and cream ale are each pioneering craft beer styles. While they’re vetted by enthusiasts and craft pioneers, they differ wildly in their tastes, flavors, and ingredients. The difference between these two styles comes from ingredients and the final product.

Pale ales are hoppy, often bitter beers that balance hop aroma and flavor with a wide range of grains, resulting in various flavors.

Cream ales are more straightforward. These beers don’t deviate far from their style guidelines, except for adjuncts like coffee, vanilla, caramel, and so forth.

Pale ales are the more popular of the two, as they’ve stood the test of time among veteran craft beer drinkers, going so far as to breed more styles like the India pale ale, hazy pale ale, and imperial India pale ale.

While cream ales are still shown love, especially from mid-west and Canadian brewers, the style hasn’t had as significant an impact on craft beer as its hoppy, distant pale ale cousin.

What are some examples of cream ales?

The cream ale beer style is less popular now than in the mid-1800s. Still, it’s a style of drinking beer you might find on tap or the shelf at the beer store occasionally.

Here are some of its popular examples.

Cali Creamin’, Mother Earth Brewing

It is brewed with Madagascar vanilla bean for a slight sweetness. Golden with a silky white head and medium body. Finishes dry.

Cream Ale, Genesee Brewing

Clean and crisp with subtle corn sweetness and mild citrus hop undertones. Medium body with a smooth finish. A staple of the cream ale style.

Regular Coffe, Carton Brewing Company

Imperial cream ale brewed with Mexican Chiapas and Ethiopian Sidamo coffee beans. Golden hue with a medium body and full mouthfeel. Heavy lacing.

Marbled Hearts, Dancing Gnome

Made with American 2-Row barley and Maize (corn). A refreshingly modern take on the cream ale hopped with Cascade for a grapefruit bite and floral aroma.

Final Say

The cream ale is a lager-ale hybrid with the flavor depth and complexity of an ale and the drinkability of a lager.

Despite its name, cream ale beers are not made with cream and retain a medium body and mouthfeel with a crisp finish. Brewers often opt for barley substitutes in cream ales, including flaked corn, wheat, and sugars, as well as other adjuncts like coffee or caramel.

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