Sunday, November 1, 2009
Beer of the Week: Cream Ale
Cream Ale is one of two unique US beer styles, along with California Common (Anchor Steam being the predominant example) which originated prior to prohibition and is currently in large scale production. We owe the survival of Cream Ale through prohibition to Canada, where it was popular and brewed during much of the US prohibition.
The name "Cream Ale" can be misleading. The beers contain no cream or milk and do not have a particularly creamy mouth feel, being instead light and thirst-quenching. Adding to the confusion is that some breweries adopt the Cream Ale moniker for beers that better fit into other light ale styles.
So then what is a Cream Ale? It is an American Lager (think Budweiser or Coors) which is fermented instead as an ale. The style has its genesis in East Coast breweries which aimed to compete with the popular American Lagers but were not equipped to carry out a lager fermentation.
Like American Lagers, cream ales are light in color and flavor and thirst-quenching. There may be some residual sweetness and a corn flavor, if corn is used as an adjunct. Most are brewed with adjuncts but there are some all malt examples (surprisingly not at all correlated with the size of the brewery). The primary difference between an American Lager and a Cream Ale is that the Cream Ale may have some fruity esters from the ale fermentation. The lack of a crisp drying sensation from the sulfur produced by lager yeasts may lead to a perception of a fuller mouth feel, but the mouth feel will not approach "creamy".
Modern Cream Ales are often cold conditioned or use a lager yeast for all or part of fermentation. There is no historical basis for this, however, as the lack of refrigeration was the entire motivation for the creation of the style.
There are not a lot of Cream Ales on the shelves, but you should have no problem finding one. Craft brewed examples include Spotted Cow by New Glarus (Wisconsin only) and Summer Solstice Cervesa Crema by Anderson Valley Brewing Company. The latter is unusual in that it is all malt, has a distinct crystal malt sweetness, and has a subtle addition of vanilla.
The next time you are mowing the lawn (which is hopefully no time soon), put down your American Lager and grab something a little more uniquely American.