Leah’s Beer School: Lesson 23

A Brief History of Cream Ale 

Cream ales first originated in United States in the mid-nineteenth century. In response to the large influx of German immigrants and resulting popularity of German lagers, American brewers developed the cream ale as a counterpoint to celebrated German beer. Due to local preference and cooler climates, Northeastern brewers were predominantly ale brewers. Prior to prohibition, many American brewers began producing a light bodied ale to rival increasingly popular German lagers. This brew was known as a “present use” ale, as it had a short shelf life and was meant to drink fresh. The fermentation of this light American ale took about two-thirds the time as the fermentation of a lager, which meant that it was both cheaper and faster to produce. 

What is a Cream Ale?

Much like the cold-fermented kölsch ale brewed in Cologne, Germany, an American cream ale is light bodied top-fermenting ale, that has few fruity esters. In both styles, neither malt nor hops should dominate the flavour of the beer. A cream ale differs from a kölsch in that rice and/or corn are added to the grain bill to lighten the body. The term “cream ale” is a huge misnomer as there is no cream added to the beer – it is light, refreshing and meant to drink like a lager. 

In The Beer Bible, author Jeff Alworth suggests that cream ales were advertised much like cream sodas where “the word ‘cream’ suggests something rich or silky” – a prime example of empty marketing. Others have posited that the beer may have been named for its “creamed-corn” aroma resulting from a molecule called dimethyl sulfide (DMS), which occurs naturally through the malting and mashing process, though DMS should barely be detectable in a cream ale.

Irish Cream Ales

In the U.K. and Ireland, nitro beers are sometimes referred to as cream ales, though it is not recognized as a real beer style. Ireland’s Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale is not a cream ale at all, but is actually an Irish red ale. It’s called a cream ale because of its nitrogenated gas blend that gives it a creamy texture, but it otherwise bears little resemblance to an American cream ale.

The Cream (ale) always Rises…

For many years, the American cream ale has suffered an identity crisis, often mistaken for a creamy, silky nitrogenized ale. In spite of its misleading name, the cream ale continues to thrive, and its success is credited in large part to Canadian brewers. During Prohibition in the US, Canadian brewers began refining the cream ale and their interpretation of the beer gained traction in American markets. Today, North American brewers continue to produce this light, crisp, well-balanced and flavourful brew.

(Leah is a Toronto based freelance writer as well as Head Beer Weenie and server at C’est What)