Make Your Best Cream Ale | Craft Beer & Brewing Magazine
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Make Your Best Cream Ale

Contrary to its name, the cream ale doesn’t have cream in its ingredients. Longtime homebrewer Josh Weikert walks you through the steps to make your best.

Josh Weikert March 19, 2017

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For reasons that I seriously hope are benign, I honestly don’t remember too much about my childhood. One thing I definitely do remember (in addition to someone spilling hot tea on me at my second birthday party) is playing with a toy truck with “Genesee Cream Ale” written on the side. It was then that I fell in love with beer…

No, just kidding—but it does now seem kind of perfect. Genesee is at least one macro beer that a lot of beer geeks don’t mind drinking now and again, and while better versions are definitely out there (New Glarus Spotted Cow [New Glarus, Wisconsin] is probably the best lawnmower beer in the world), Genesee actually gets a lot of things right about the style and certainly helped to make and keep it popular. With the blizzard of 2017 still on the ground outside as I write this, I think it’s time to start thinking of summer—so, cream ale it is.

Style

Think “good American lager, but not a lager” and you’ll be well on your way. Strictly speaking, cream ale is a hybrid beer, in that it can be made with either ale or lager yeast since it allows for a bit of esterification. Overall, this is in keeping with the reality that it’s a fairly restrained style. You won’t find strong flavors, and you definitely won’t find “cream” in it. I’ve tasted the results of people trying to make this beer creamy by adding things such as lactose to it, and it can safely be described as “highly unpleasant.” In fact, the best versions have an austere dryness to them that sets off nicely against a touch of classic American hops, or American-Noble hybrids, and a bit of berry ester. This beer should be refreshing, light, dry, and more flavorful than a typical dull American lager. “Hot day” beer. Baseball beer. Lawnmower beer.

Ingredients

Regular readers might notice that this recipe takes a very similar approach to the construction of my Standard American Lager recipe, and with good reason: they share a lot of DNA as styles, and the basic strategy for each is the same: light, restrained, but still adding good flavor.

Beginning with the grist, we start and end with 9 pounds (4.8 kg) of Pilsner malt. That’s it. In fact, this is effectively a SMaSH (Single Malt and Single Hop) beer. It isn’t often that a recipe calls for exactly what a single grain can provide (the only other example that jumps to mind is Doppelbock, which is often 100 percent Munich malt), but in this case, it does. Pilsner will impart a pleasant, mildly grainy and light honey-like flavor to the beer (and maybe even a touch of corn), which is absolutely perfect (so long as we dry it out—and we will). Other brewers will screw around with rice syrup, flaked corn, a pinch of this and a dash of that, but that’s really not necessary here (with all due respect to those who do it differently). The only other thing we’ll add to the beer in terms of fermentables is half a pound (227 g) of cane sugar. It will help ensure a bone-dry finish (though we’ll attack this from the process side, too), but adds no flavors to muck up our pretty Pilsner background.

As for hops, I love Crystal here. Crystal is an American triploid of Hallertau, Cascade, and Brewers Gold, which marries Old World, Old School, and new American hops into one lovely, woody, earthy, piney aroma hops. Our bittering level is pretty modest here—just 20 IBUs—which, even with the low alpha-acid percentage in Crystal (usually about 4 percent), means we’ll still need only a bit. An ounce (28 g) at 60 minutes and an ounce at 10 minutes should land you near 20 IBUs, and while that might seem like a lot of late hopping in a beer that generally calls for “low hops aroma,” it’s a pretty mild aroma and one that will do a lot for any of your pale beers. I’ve never had a single complaint about this beer being “too hoppy,” even from non-hop heads.

As for yeast, we want a low level of fruity esters here, so never mind those who tell you to just use Wyeast 1056/WLP001. Instead, if you have good temperature control, go with Wyeast 1007 (German Ale) yeast for its mild fruitiness and thorough/quick attenuation at low temperatures. If you don’t have good temperature control and are at the mercy of your basement temperature, try to get your hands on Wyeast 2565 (Kölsch) yeast—it should produce similar esters, but won’t overdo it even at slightly higher temps. Both will give you the same degree of attenuation as 1056/001 but add some character as well!

Process

Mash a bit cooler (say, 150°F/66°C) to promote a touch more attenuation, and if you have particularly hard water, you might consider diluting it with distilled water. A flinty background is a fault in this beer—we want dry, and not mineral. Boil and chill as usual, and ferment at 58°F (15°C) to start. The German Ale yeast can easily handle it (so can the Kölsch, for that matter). About 48 hours after fermentation begins, allow the beer to warm up to about 65°F (18°C) and leave it there for a couple of days after the end of primary fermentation. Cold crash, and then carbonate to about 2.5 volumes. A bit of spritz in this beer will increase the perception of dryness, and it will just evaporate on your tongue. In the event you’ve done too good a job with attenuating this beer down, slightly higher carbonation will also increase the impression of the body. If it ends up tasting metallic/carbolic, lower the pressure a bit. Too much of a good thing is no good, after all.

In Closing

You can treat this beer like a true lager: brew it today, and it’ll still have plenty of life left in it when it comes time to enjoy the warmer weather (especially with its bigger-than-advertised hops nose!) so long as you store it cold. Best wishes for a happy spring!

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Have you brewed this recipe? What did you think?