History of the Cream Ale
What is a cream ale? Does it contain cream or any other form of dairy? Is it creamy on the palate? For many of us a cream ale is a beer style never heard of before. With so many new and revived beer styles available it may be difficult to keep up with them. This piece covers a brief history of the cream ale. For a start, the short definition of a cream ale according to the experts is: 'an ale version of the American lager style' which was conditioned like a lager (at colder temperatures). This definition may leave you with even more questions than ever before. See below a brief history of this beer style where we talk about the cream ale beer style and its origins in America's North-West.
American ale brewers and the new kids on the block
During the early and up until the mid 18th century, the most popular beers in America were porters, ipas and stouts. During the mid-18th century the large German immigration changed that. The newcomers were used to drinking lagers, pilsners and other similar beers. Wherever they settled, they brewed lagers, they consumed lagers and they sold lagers. By the late 1870's lager sales outstripped ale sales by far. Ale brewers realised that, in order to survive the new economic climate, they had to innovate and meet the consumers' expectations. They had to produce a lager-like beer and they started to experiment with different brewing techniques.
A new style rises and falls
Ale brewers soon discovered that by using a novel (at the time) fermentation method they could produce a similar-in-style beer at a much faster rate than lager brewers. By using a top fermentation (similar to the one being used by lager brewers) and a combination of ale and lager yeast strains they achieved a beer that the public enjoyed and received very well. The beer had similar characteristics to the American lager, it looked clean, crisp and showed a lively carbonation. Right up until the prohibition (1920) the cream ale style was a hit among ale drinkers. The beer was refreshing, it had a lot more character than American lagers and it left a creamy, mouth-coating sensation on the palate, cream ale was called.
The cream ale became a thing, more and more breweries produced them and areas where ales had been replaced by American lagers favoured it. It grew and grew in popularity. The cream ale disappeared during the prohibition, like most other forms of alcohol, although some people argue that the style was being brewed by rogues who sold it as 'cream lemonade' after adding sugar and lemon flavourings to beer. The style kept growing in popularity even after the prohibition however, it never regained its former glory. Large lager breweries merged with ale breweries absorbing them. These larger, in some cases gigantic, conglomerates focused on the beers that returned more money as they standarised beer production. The cream ale style disappeared off the radar for many people.
The cream ale makes a come back
Those breweries that continued making cream ales started to modify them. Some breweries were adding sugar, some others were trying to recreate cream ales made using recipes that had been lost for some 50 years at least. It was time to recreate from scratch. One thing was known, cream ales weren't sweet when they were originally conceived. There was a bitter edge and they were delicate and approachable without being watery. Different craft brewers experimented with various recipes were rice and corn starch was being used. The idea was to give a lighter body to the beer without leaving it tasteless or watery like many commercial lagers available. These days, well crafted cream ales offer the characteristic 'creamy' palate, a delicate nose, an approachable palate and a restrained hoppy note.
Examples in Britain are scarce and the best example available in Scotland is the Exiled Cream Ale. This cream ale is approachable and refreshing; it leaves a lovely creamy sensation on the palate, has a toasted malts undertone and offers a delicate yet persistent finish.