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Cream Ale - An American Classic

05/16/2013

Cream Ale — An American Classic

Originally Published by Ben Jankowski - Brewing Techniques Volume 7, Issue 3

Is it a lager? Is it an ale? Its pedigree may not be pure, but cream ale has satisfied American drinkers for nearly a century.

Not many beer connoisseurs would care to admit it, but tucked away in many a beer basement or refrigerator behind the pale ales and the latest Belgian beer is a bottle or two of cream ale. When confronted with the evidence, these enthusiasts will staunchly defend cream ale as a beer that is easy to drink and just plain tastes good.

Whether it is classified as an ale, lager, or hybrid, cream ale has flourished as a style since the late nineteenth century. It is alive and well at several regional breweries in New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Seeking to tempt customers with a familiar taste, some brewpubs and micros are also beginning to produce cream ale, delighting many beer fanciers who fondly remember cream ale as the beer of their youth. The upsurge of interest is a fitting tribute to a style that, like steam beer, is distinctly American.

German Roots, American Competitiveness

The first step in the development of cream ale was the American lager beer revolution in the mid-1800s. Until Anton Schwarz popularized adjunct brewing around that time (1) — combining the cheapness of rice and corn with the high protein, and thus high diastatic power, of American six-row barley— most ales brewed in the United States reflected the English style, consisting of running beers (ales served immediately after primary or secondary fermentation), IPAs, porters, and stouts. But the large German immigration of the mid-1800s introduced Americans to lagers. Wherever the Germans settled, they began brewing, drinking, and selling lager. By the late 1870s, lager beer had eclipsed ales as the beer of choice in most regions of the country.

Welsh and Yankee brewers in the Delaware Valley region of Pennsylvania had established Philadelphia as a center for ale brewing, but around the beginning of this century, the adjunct lagers being sold by the area’s new German brewers began to make inroads into ale sales. The public was beginning to prefer American lager’s light, clear, and effervescent appearance. Ale brewers responded to this demand by creating a top-fermented product similar to an American lager. Using ale yeast (or possibly even a combination of lager and ale yeasts, though no concrete evidence exists for the use of lager yeast in the early cream ales), they could produce beer more quickly than the lager brewers could, thereby potentially increasing sales and market share.* It may also have meant that they could use the same worts for both lagers and ales and benefit from economies of scale. These new beers were termed “brilliant,” “sparkling,” or “present use” ales, with the nickname “cream ale” sticking as the common name.† Cream ales of the early twentieth century were described as having the appearance of a lager beer, but a fairly pronounced ale taste and character (2).

By the eve of Prohibition, cream ale had become a viable style in established ale-drinking regions. Although ale producer Ballantine (Newark, New Jersey) did brew cream ale into the 1960s, ale breweries that survived the 18th Amendment were merging with lager brewers, who thus gained ales by acquisition. These brewers included Christian Schmidt (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), Narragansett (Providence, Rhode Island), F. & M. Schaefer (Brooklyn, New York), Hudepohl (Cincinnati, Ohio), and Stegmaier (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania). Today, the breweries that carry on the tradition of bottled cream ales include Genesee (Rochester, New York), Lion (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania) with Stegmaier’s Liebotschaner, and Hudepohl-Schoenling with its Little Kings, which just celebrated its fortieth year of production (3).

A certified beer judge living in Oyster Bay, New York, Ben Jankowski has been home brewing for eight years and writing for five. This is his eighth article for BrewingTechniques. He has won two Quill and Tankard awards from the North American Guild of Beer Writers for his articles on beer styles. His writing can also be seen in Celebrator Beer News.

*Some authors have postulated that steam beer brewers adapted East Coast cream ale hybrid techniques to their products. Because lager yeast was used in steam beer, whereas ale yeast or a combination of ale and lager yeasts was used in cream ale, I believe that steam beer brewing techniques evolved independently of cream ale.

†As to who coined the phrase “cream ale,” no evidence points to any particular individual. I believe the phrase was used by various breweries at the fairs and expositions that occurred in various cities in the late nineteenth century.

What Makes a Cream Ale?

Although cream ale is descended from American lager, several factors distinguish the two styles. Unlike American premium lagers with their clean, crisp palates and pre-Prohibition lagers with their higher levels of malt and hops, cream ales today are characterized by faint fruity esters in the palate, reserved hopping rates, and kräusening or sugar priming to create an effervescent product.

Taste: The faint fruity flavor is achieved either by using a top-fermenting or a lager strain with warm primary fermentation temperatures. Many historical examples of cream ale and its predecessor, sparkling ale, had finishing gravities below 3 °P (S.G. 1.012). (See box, “Some Cream Ale Specifications,” at right.) These highly attenuated beers may also have been double fermented; brewers in Pennsylvania reportedly used an ale yeast for primary fermentation and a lager strain for secondary maturation (4), ensuring finishing gravities in the vicinity of 1.010.

Priming: The German method of kräusening (priming with fermenting beer) and the American technique of priming with sugar are essential to the style. Kräusening for cream ales occurs either in the secondary (after racking) or at the end of primary fermentation (before racking) (5). This practice produces a lively carbonated product, with residual sweetness and mouthfeel imparted by unfermentables. Priming the ale with sugars in the maturation tanks is an alternate way to induce a secondary fermentation; the sugar adds a roundness to the beer.

Grain bill: Grain bills for cream ales are straightforward. American six-row and flaked maize are the traditional ingredients. The introduction of adjunct brewing was important to the style’s development, because corn and rice produced a lighter-bodied and lighter-colored beer than pure malt could (7). Early cream ale brewers used as much as 30% adjuncts in early cream ales, taking advantage of the excess diastatic power of the six-row malt. Starting gravities for historical cream ales were between 13 °P (1.053) and 14 °P (1.057). (See box, “Some Cream Ale Specifications,” on page 27.)

Some Cream Ale Specifications

According to the Beer Judge Certification Program style guidelines, cream ale is “an adaptation of the American light lager style, chiefly involving fermentation of the beer as an ale followed by a period of cold conditioning. Grain adjuncts such as corn or rice can be used and the beer is light-bodied. Pale straw to pale gold color. Low hop bittering and some hop aroma. Usually well carbonated.” According to the Association of Brewers style guidelines, cream ale’s O.G. should be 1.044–1.056, F.G. should be 1.004–1.010, alcohol content should be 3.4–4.5% (w/w) or 4.2–5.6% (v/v), bitterness should be 10–22 IBUs, and color (°SRM) should be 2–5. Below are characteristics of some cream ales past and present.

Name

Year

O.G.

F.G.

IBUs

Sparkling Ale*

1901

1.056

1.006

N/A

Cream Ale*

1901

1.055

1.008

N/A

Wahl-Henius Test†

1906

1.053

1.012

N/A

Cream Ale‡

1948

1.055

N/A

N/A

Little Kings§

1989

1.049

N/A

14

Lion/Stegmaier**

1998

1.050

1.012

15

Little Kings††

1998

1.054

1.013

20

*Reference 1.

†Reference 2.

‡Reference 5.

§Reference 8.

**Courtesy Lion Brewing Company.

††Courtesy Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Company.

Wahl-Henius Specifications, 1908:

For cream or present use ale, 14 °B: 70% malt, 30% unmalted cereal or 75% malt, 25% sugar, 1.5 lb hops per bbl (1).

Nugey Specifications, 1948:

For 100 bbl of 13.6° B cream ale: 4,000 lb malt, 1,000 lb refined grits, 400 lb corn sugar, 75 lb domestic hops for 1.5-hour maximum boil, 25 lb imported hops for 10-min boil (5).

Sugar: Sugar imparts a warm mouthfeel to the style, providing alcohol when added to the primary fermentation, and, when added to the secondary, the unfermented sugars leave a sweet taste on the palate.

Whereas most American lagers rely on corn and rice adjuncts alone, cream ales always contain some form of sugar added to the boiling kettle. Originally, this was glucose, often derived from grapes, and later dextrose (corn sugar) and invert syrup came into use. Sugar in some cream ales comprised as much as 25% of the grain bill. At levels above that, it will impart cidery flavors.

Hops: Cluster was the standard bittering hop through the early 1960s (and probably still are for many beers), and various aromatic hop varieties were used for finishing. Turn-of-the-century hopping rates are difficult to determine, but at least one reference provides a hopping schedule for a brilliant ale that would calculate out to about 40–60 IBUs using the Clusters of that era (1) — certainly far more bitter than the lagers of the time. It is likely, however, that IBUs of 25–40 were more likely during that era. Hops are no longer as high-profile in cream ales as in other styles, but they do impart some aroma and subtle tempering of the malt. Some brewpub cream ales have been dry-hopped, but it is unknown if this was a standard practice for the style in the past.

Cream Ale Recipes

Exposition Cream Ale

Courtesy of the author

Grist

90% six-row malt

10% flaked maize

Add in kettle

50 g/gal corn sugar

Hops (22 IBUs)

4.2 g/gal Cluster, 60 min before end of boil

1.4 g/gal Tettnanger, 45 min before end of boil

1.4 g/gal Crystal, 30 min before end of boil

Yeast

Wyeast #1056 American Ale, #1007 German Ale, or #1338 European Ale

Gravity

O.G. 1.054

F.G. 1.012

Dough in malt and flaked maize and protein rest at 122 °F (50 °C) for 20 minutes, then 144 °F (62.5 °C) for 20 minutes, and 156 °F (69 °C) for 20 minutes. Mash out at 168 °F (75.5 °C). Add sugar to kettle. Primary fermentation at 52–56 °F (11–13.5 °C), and secondary at 32–40 °F (0–4.5 °C). Sugar prime or kräusen if desired.

Delaware Valley Cream Ale

Courtesy of Lou Farrell, Thunder Bay Brewing

Grist

96% two-row Harrington malt

4% Munich malt

Add to every 5 gal water

1 tsp gypsum

Add in kettle

90 g/gal dextrose

Hops (20 IBUs)

2.8 g/gal Perle, 60 min before end of boil

4.2 g/gal Northern Brewer, 45 min before end of boil

1.4 g/gal Willamette, dry hop in secondary

Yeast

Wyeast #1007 German Ale or #1056 American Ale

Gravity

O.G. 1.046

F.G. 1.010

Dough in malt and rest at 122 °F (50 °C) for 20 minutes, then 156 °F (69 °C) for 40 minutes. Add dextrose to kettle. Ferment in primary fermentor at 58–62 °F (14.5–16.5 °C). Condition in secondary at 48–52 °F (9–11.5 °C), with addition of dry hops. Prime or kräusen in the secondary, if desired.

Today’s Commercial Cream Ales

From their glory days early in this century, cream ales declined in strength and flavor until, in the not-too-distant past, they were virtually indistinguishable from lagers at the few remaining breweries that produced them, and their starting gravities were often at or below 11 °P (1.044). Happily, two of the stalwart breweries that continuously produced the product are brewing retro cream ales.

The Lion Brewery manufactures the former Stegmaier cream ale Liebotschaner. This beer has won four gold medals in the American lager/cream ale category at The Great American Beer Festival. Brewer Leo Orlandini uses a combination of two-and six-row malt with corn sugar in the kettle for a deep golden ale having a starting gravity of 12.5 °P (1.050). Fifteen IBUs of Mt. Hood, Saaz, and Cascade temper the malt, and the beer is primed with corn sugar in the secondary.

Cincinnati’s Hudepohl–Schoenling Brewery brews perhaps the best nationally known cream ale, Little Kings, originally a product of the long-standing Schoenling brewery (which also made a dark cream ale). In 1958, the brewery tried to stimulate sales of the product by introducing the beer in green bottles. Ohio law at the time stipulated that ales were not permitted to be sold in 12-oz. bottles, so the company instead sold the ale in 7-oz. bottles. Sales escalated, and the beer gained a cult following in the South and Southwest in the late 1970s. Today, Little Kings is sold in 44 states and exported to the United Kingdom. The Little Kings of 1999 is slightly higher in gravity than it used to be (1.053 today; 1.049 in 1989), and is brewed using six-row malt and corn grits. Cluster and Saaz hops amount to 20 IBUs, and the beer is fermented by a proprietary strain of lager yeast (called “ale yeast” by employees to differentiate it from the company’s other lager yeasts). Paul Abrams of Hudepohl-Schoenling says this yeast gives the beer a spicy flavor not found in other strains at the brewery. The beer is kräusened and aged for six weeks.

One of the more notable brewpub cream ales of the 1990s was produced in Philadelphia at Dock Street Brewery. Brewer Lou Farrell teamed with veteran brewer/consultant Bill Moeller for a recipe that won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival in 1992.

“Cream ale is a complex style,” Farrell said recently. “There are many components to balance and little room for errors, since the malt and hops are used with a light hand and any technical flaws will show.”

The recipe appears on the previous page. Two-row malt was used with some Munich for color and slight dextrin building. The key to this beer is the time-honored tradition of kräusening. After racking into the secondary and letting the beer drop clear, adding 20% of newly fermented kräusened beer will drop the apparent extract from 4 to 2.5. The finished beer will be highly carbonated (“spritzy,” says Farrell) with hints of lemon zest.

Not known for a cream ale tradition (though some might suggest that golden ales come from the same stock), Canada is beginning to pick up the style. The Sleeman Brewing Company of Guelph, Ontario, produces cream ale from a recipe used in 1895 by John Sleeman’s great-great-grandfather, and packages it in clear bottles. Molson has just released Dave’s Original Cream Ale, and the cask conditioning craze has not passed this style by, for the Wellington County Brewery (Guelph, Ontario) is making a cream pale cask ale.

Brewing Cream Ale

Brewing a cream ale can be a rewarding experience, provided you can keep an open mind about adjuncts. Many beer enthusiasts have embraced the pre-Prohibition Pilsner style for its taste and the historical value of using adjuncts, and the same holds true for cream ale. Although many brewers do appreciate adjuncts for their value to American beer profiles, far too many others consider corn, rice, and sugar anathema and avoid them at all costs. Cream ales cannot be accurately reproduced without adjuncts, for malt alone could not supply their distinctive character.

Tasting Cream Ales

I recently sampled two cream ales with Phil Markowski, brewer at the Southampton Publick House in Southampton, New York.

Genesee Cream Ale was first. The color was straw or light gold. “It has a dry malt, myrcene hop character,” Markowski remarked. “There is a slight cidery note in the flavor, with more sugary sweetness than malt sweetness.” The beer was faintly hopped, with a head that disappeared quickly.

The other beer we tasted was Stegmaier/Lion’s Liebotschaner. This cream ale had a deep gold color similar to that of Pilsner Urquell, with a head that kept a small halo around the pint glass. “There’s a perfume sweet nose and more malt character than Genny,” Markowski said. The beer had a peach ester in the nose. Moderate body, malt, some warmth from fermented sugars, and a small amount of hop aroma rounded out the flavor profile.

At other tasting sessions, Little Kings was found to be in favor with West Coast evaluators. Straw in color, the beer was quite sweet, with a distinct sulfur aroma, smooth mouthfeel, little if any hop taste, and a clean finish.

By comparison, my Exposition Cream Ale was found to be moderately golden in color, with a bit of perfumy hop note and pear ester in the nose and much less sweetness than the LK. The beer appeared to have some DMS in the middle, and finished clean, with a slight tartness.

The recipes shown are good starting points around which to design your own cream ale. The ingredients you choose depend on how closely you would like to approximate those traditionally used in the cream ales of the early twentieth century. A gravity of 1.050 is a good target gravity. All-grain brewers who wish to be traditional should use 8–9 lb of six-row malt in a five-gallon batch, depending on their extract efficiencies. Flaked maize is the adjunct of choice in the mash tun, with anywhere from ½ to 1 lb being sufficient, although some sources suggest that 20% of the grist is minimum. The flakes should not be milled, but can be tossed into the grist as they are. (Depending on the geometry of your mash tun, they may contribute to a stuck mash.) If a moderately deeper gold cast is desired in the ale, add 1/3 lb of Munich or Vienna malt to the mash. A step infusion mash can be effective for maximum extract efficiency (see recipes). Extract brewers are also able to produce a good cream ale by using 6.6 lb of light malt extract along with 8 oz of maltodextrin. Whether mashing or extracting, some form of sugar should be in the boil, so 2/3 cup of corn sugar or invert syrup is recommended. Treat the water at your discretion; soft or slightly hard water is acceptable, in keeping with the water profile in the mid-Atlantic region that spawned the style.

The choice of hops is a matter of taste, but keep in mind that the bitterness should be 15–25 IBUs. Moderate-alpha bittering hops such as Cluster, Brewers Gold, and Northern Brewer work well, although high-alpha triploids such as Nugget, Eroica, and Southern Cross have also been used for bittering. Aroma hops to consider include all noble varieties and their triploid offspring such as Mt. Hood, Liberty, Crystal, and Santiam. Styrian Golding, Willamette, and Cascade will also work well. Dry hopping in the secondary with a low-alpha hop is an option to consider.

The choice of ale or lager (or both) yeast is entirely up to you, but look for one that will attenuate the beer down to 1.008–1.012. Some well-attenuating ale yeasts include Wyeast Laboratories #1056 (American Ale), #1007 (German Ale), and #1338 (Alt). Lager yeasts include Wyeast #2112 California Lager and #2272 North American Lager. Primary fermentation with either lager or ale yeast should be somewhat warm at 56–62 °F (13–17 °C). Secondary maturation should be either at cellar temperature at 48–52 °F (9–11 °C) or, in the hybrid tradition, lagered at 35 °F (2 °C) for three weeks.

Cream ale is one of the few styles for which priming with sugar to induce carbonation before bottling is accurate to style. Three-quarters of a cup of corn sugar or glucose will create a lively carbonation rate for 5 gallons. Kräusening with 1½ cups of gyle will also have the desired results.

For kräusening, professional brewers can use any newly fermented blonde beer; Wahl-Henius recommends a 10% rate taken 36 hours after pitching, but Lou Farrell recommends a 20% kräusening rate regardless of batch size. Home brewers who don’t have newly fermented beer lying around can boil 1½ cups of light malt extract, cool it, and add it to a carboy, then add the beer to be bottled. The beer will carbonate in the bottle 7–10 days after filling.

A Style Not to Be S-corned

Few beer styles can be said to have developed in the United States. Steam beer and its East Coast cousin, cream ale, are two. Born of economic necessity and raised on the eve of Prohibition, the style has matured into a respected cornerstone of the North American brewing heritage.

Acknowledgments

My thanks to Leo Orlandini, Lion Brewing Company; Paul Abrams, Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing Company; Jaime Jurado, Gambrinus Company (Cincinnati, Ohio); Lou Farrell, Thunder Bay Brewing Company (Englewood, New Jersey); Martin Lodahl; and Stephen Beaumont. BT also wishes to thank Jeff Renner and Dave Sapsis for their input.

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