Certain times call for specific beers, where only one style will do. And, occasionally, no beer hits the spot quite like a cream ale. Whether looking for a light-bodied, sessionable brew for sipping, or something mellow to smooth out the lingering remnants of last night’s pub residency, the cream ale is a go-to. The only problem is that this special beer is a bit of an endangered species in today’s beer market.
According to one of my favorite beer gurus, Jeff Alworth, the silky sounding brew originated in the 19th century as a “light, bright, and effervescent” fermentation intended to compete with and resemble pale lagers. However, cream ale was often fermented with ale yeast, lager yeast, or a mix of the two strains for a crisp, clean profile that had just a touch of ale fruitiness. In an effort to brew for more clarity and a lighter body, corn was widely used early in U.S. brewing, making this adjunct ingredient a strong indicator of American beer. The use of the predominantly American Cluster hops in combination with the American grain during this period further leads Alworth to declare that of all pre-Prohibition beers brewed in the U.S., cream ale may have been “the most native of the natives ... the closest thing we have to a nineteenth-century indigenous beer.” However, following Prohibition, he adds, the style diminished considerably with less strength and bitterness found in future iterations.
Fortunately, there are excellent interpretations that’ve surfaced during the last decade of the craft beer revolution. Genesee Cream Ale is more often than not the only example you’re likely to stumble upon in most bars — an enjoyable brew at times — but what follows are some newer, varied creations to sample: Empire Brewing Company’s Cream Ale, a golden pub style ale poured on nitro with a smooth, malt-forward mouthfeel, crisp hop flavor and clean finish; Sixpoint’s “Sweet Action” a hoppy, stronger, less creamy creation, originally billed as a cream ale (newest versions classified as a wheat ale/blonde ale); and Carton Brewing’s collaboration with Barrier called “SS-C.R.E.A.M. Ale,” which is another outstanding and completely different approach to the style with big modern hop character atop a smooth, sweet, malt component.
In the end, you can’t go wrong with any of the aforementioned brews, but again, the trick is finding them. But, when you do, don’t think twice about diving in to enjoy this rarefied, delicious brew!
This week’s recommendation: Carton/Barrier “SS-C.R.E.A.M.” Imperial Cream Ale brewed in collaboration at “Smutt Labs” (Smuttynose) with Kolsch yeast, 6-row malt, and heavily dry-hopped. 8.5 percent ABV. Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey.
— Colin Hubbell is co-owner of the Green Onion Pub and The Beer Hub in South Utica, New York.