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The Smooth-Drinking Gimmickry of Cream Ale

In this edition of Style School, Jeff Alworth explains how an American heirloom style began as a marketing creation of the Industrial Age—and where today’s more playful breweries have run with it.

Jeff Alworth Feb 2, 2021 - 9 min read

The Smooth-Drinking Gimmickry of Cream Ale Primary Image

Photo: Matt Graves/mgravesphoto.com

Add the word “cream” to a beer style, and it becomes wonderfully evocative—but in this case, that’s just the problem. It’s a mite too evocative, and cynics might argue it’s less a style than a marketing gimmick. Cream ales notably lack cream—or even, originally, the quality of creaminess. Looking back to its 19th-century origins, we see contemporary accounts describe it as a cheaper, easier way to enter the burgeoning market for lagers. The “cream” part just sounded good.

Ah, but styles do evolve, and if we follow the thread of this curious regional specialty, we find a beer that begins to come into its own in the 1960s and that may be entering a new phase of evolution—and finally delivering on the promise of the name.

Just Before and Just After Prohibition

Let’s hop back to the period before Prohibition, when cream ales were in their youth. In the American Handy Book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades, Robert Wahl and Max Henius in 1901 describe a range of lager-like ales that had cropped up to compete with the German-style pilsners already dominating the market. “Cream, lively, or present use ale takes the place of English mild ale, and more recently the American ale brewers are equipping their plants with refrigerating machines to brew a beer—brilliant or sparkling ale—that combines the property of a lager beer and ale; i.e. a sparkling, brilliant beer with an ale taste and aroma.”

Ales are far faster to make than lagers and are therefore cheaper. Brewers who could make ales that satisfied lager customers would consequently make more money. Before refrigeration, it wasn’t easy to fast-track cold beer, but Wahl and Henius document how these “machines” made all that possible in an industrial setting. Just as they did with many lagers, brewers of the time used corn or sugar to make these ales “sparkling” with a light, sunny appearance. The “cream” word appears to have crept in as a way to make them sound more interesting (and it certainly evokes a tastier image than “present use ale”).

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After Prohibition is when cream ales started to develop some character of their own. Writing in 1937, Wahl (now co-writing with his son) affirms that cream ales—the older terms were now out of use—were “quite lively, clear, and sparkling, and quite pale.” They could be produced in two to three weeks, were made fairly dry, but were strong—about 6.3 percent ABV. That strength seems to be new, as is this fascinating comment: “Usually the finished ales are dry-hopped, that is, fresh hops of a good quality are added to the storage tank.” So still dry and sparkling, but now stronger and hoppier.

Genesee’s Foray into Cream

If you know cream ales today, you may know the one from Genesee Brewery of Rochester, New York—as archetypal to cream ale as Dupont is to saison.

Genesee Cream Ale, however, wasn’t the brewery’s first. In the 1940s, it brewed one called Light Cream Ale. It was not a success, though Genesee had reason to think it would be—cream ales were a regional specialty at the time. (Because of Genesee’s later, enduring success, that remains the case.) Three other Empire State breweries made cream ales—Utica Club, Schaefer, and in Manhattan, Fidelio brewed one for McSorley’s. Fidelio’s was possibly the most well-known—and at 6.3 percent ABV, it may have been the beer mentioned by Wahl. Still, it was at best a niche style, losing out to ever-more-popular lager brands. Whatever Genesee’s “Light” version was, it appears lost to history. “I was with the brewery 42 years full time, and I never saw a formula for Light Cream Ale,” says Gary Geminn, Genesee’s brewmaster from 1978 to 2005.

By 1959, Genesee was looking to add a new product after discontinuing their on-again, off-again 12 Horse ale, and the idea for a new cream ale emerged. Clarence Geminn—Gary’s father—was the brewmaster at the time, and he wanted to offer something else to fans of 12 Horse, a characterful and old-fashioned ale—not “mainstream,” according to Gary.

“There was a certain group who liked 12 Horse, and every time the brewery discontinued 12 Horse, there was a cry and they’d reintroduce it,” Gary says. “But there just wasn’t enough of a following to maintain the volumes we needed to put through the production cycle. Cream Ale came along because the marketing people were asking [for a new product]. My father and his team put together Cream Ale. It was a little lighter and smoother and sweeter than the regular 12 Horse.”

All Ale or a Blend?

Genesee has always been cagey about how Genesee Cream Ale is made. In 1982, Michael Jackson wrote, “The company is noticeably secretive.” That’s also what I found when I probed into Genesee’s brewing methods in 2017. Yet Jackson surmised that Genesee Cream Ale is actually a blend of ale and lager. Philadelphia beer columnist Don Russell, aka Joe Sixpack, confirmed this in 2009. “It’s still a closely guarded secret after all these years,” he quotes Geminn as saying, but then adds: “But he acknowledged that it’s essentially a blend of that old 12 Horse and the brewery’s lager, Genesee Beer.”

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If that sounds a bit like a cheat, it’s worth tasting the beer again with a fresh palate. The original 12 Horse was apparently so strongly ale-y that it alienated many drinkers. Despite being dismissed by some as mass-market and mainstream, that character is still quite evident in Genny Cream. It’s obvious from the first sniff—the fruity aroma of an English pub rises off a glass. There’s no way to confuse it with a lager.

Mike Mueller, the brewmaster who followed Gary Geminn, went to Rochester in part because he loved the Cream Ale. He agrees the yeast is a big part of the character. “The ale yeast produces some very fruity, estery character … My personal opinion is the yeast we have is what gives [it] its unique flavor and character.” It’s made with corn, which gives it a sweeter palate, and it’s fuller-bodied than a lager. Genesee Cream Ale “was in its heyday when I started working here,” Mueller says. “And it was different. At one time, it was one of our ad campaigns: ‘It’s something different.’”

Two Waves of Imitators

Genny Cream was a hit, and it inspired imitators such as Narragansett Brewing’s ’Gansett Cream and Lion Brewery’s Stegmaier Liebotschaner Cream Ale, as well as a few Midwest examples. By that time, cream ales seemed slightly nostalgic and homey. They offered enough of a difference to give drinkers a change of pace, while keeping them firmly in their comfort zones.

More interesting, perhaps, was a second wave of cream ales that came well into the craft era. By the second decade of the new century, most drinkers had been exposed to beers far more exotic than cream ales. So, while a number of breweries have made a return to the classic profile—such as Oregon’s Pelican Kiwanda or Wisconsin’s iconic New Glarus Spotted Cow—others have wondered about revisiting the “cream.”

No brewery has riffed on this more than New Jersey’s Carton Brewing, which has done a series. A classic Jersey beer—which draws on the regional heritage of cream ale—is Regular Coffee, a boomer at 12 percent ABV that nods to the classic paper-cup morning fix. In Seattle, Georgetown found similar inspiration in Gusto Crema, at 4.5 percent ABV with lactose and coffee. Southern California’s Mother Earth gave us Cali Creamin’, made with vanilla. Another California brewery, Anderson Valley, adds an unnamed flavoring (woodruff?) to create a cream-soda resonance. Brewery after brewery is now taking the old adjective in new directions.

As we enter an era where flavored beer is not just considered acceptable but is sought after, this seems like an excellent development. Cream ales have always depended on a little glam and sleight-of-hand, seducing us with promises of velvety textures. Why not, finally, 150 years later, make good on the promise?

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