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Common wisdom has it that in the late 1800’s East Coast brewers invented what would become known as American cream ale. It was, as all great inventions are, born from necessity—as a competitive response to the introduction of lighter-tasting pilsner lagers that newly arriving German brewers had brought to America, their new country. You know the story: the Adolfs and Fredricks who brought us the crisp, clear Buds and Millers of American lagers.
The new American style (one of only three that are truly so…) was brewed with top-fermenting ‘ale’ yeast, but cold-conditioned for a light-bodied, refreshing taste. Ironically the new American Cream Ale was very similar to a German Kolsch, which gained popularity in Germany at about the same time – and also in response to a growing demand for an easier-to-brew ale to take on the hugely popular pilsner lager. Brewers in Germany also sought a refreshing, light-bodied session beer, but made with top fermenting yeast and cold conditioned in temperatures between 35-50 C.
After Prohibition, American Cream Ales faded in popularity, as the lighter lagers won the battle, and took over the country. They remained in the shadows until Genesee Brewmaster Clarence Geminn introduced the iconic Genesee Cream Ale, also known as Genny Cream and first brewed under the tagline, ‘smooth like a lager and crisp like an ale.’
And that is precisely the punchline for the style, which has been making a hearty comeback with craft brewers (many whose brewing systems prefer ale yeasts) across the country.
We talked with Greg Fleehart, Director of Brewing Operations at Honor Brewing in Chantilly, Virginia about American cream ales, the wonderful resurgence of the style with craft brewers, and how the style compares with its German cousin, Kolsch…and their common Grandad, pilsner.
PXM: American Cream Ales have been around for over a hundred years. Have craft brewers finally come around to the style?
Greg: Slowly but surely! Brewers are finally understanding the style a little better, as essentially an ale version of an American Adjunct Lager. With that realization, it naturally fits into those who enjoy drinking and brewing lighter beer styles. And when it’s a good one, it flies out of the brewery.
PXM: Why do you think consumers continue to support the style, enough to push it into the craft beer universe?
Greg: We’ve been seeing steadily the ingress of more and more people trying craft beer, so this is a very accessible style for new-to-craft beer drinkers. In addition, as more craft beer familiar drinkers tire of heavier and more intense flavors, they are continuing to look to lighter styles for a more refreshing and less intoxicating experience.
PXM: What characteristics define an American Cream Ale as compared to a Kolsch?
Greg: ABV min/max – very similar targets, while Cream Ale can be a little higher than a Kolsch would be. This could be in response to some pre-prohibition beers that were slightly higher in abv, pushing 6% ABV
Bitterness target – Very similar targets, Kolsch’s perception of bitterness can often be higher, as there are frequently flavor and/or aroma hop additions and a crisper body than the typical Cream Ale
Color target – Both are very light styles, but you may see Cream Ales being slightly paler due to higher use of rice or corn in the mash which contributes very little color to the final product. Kolsch is more golden in color, due to the 100% malt inclusion.
Light on the pallet–refreshing, not filling, Kolsch accomplishes this with a slightly lower ABV at times, and with some additional hop additions and lends a crispness to the beer. Cream Ale relies on pale US malt and a significant does of adjunct that will reduce the final gravity of the beer, leading to a drier finish. Flavors of cream ales are usually a little more malt forward than a Kolsch, so the adjuncts help to reduce the malt intensity.
PXM: How does brewing an American Cream Ale compare with brewing a Kolsch?
Greg: Grain bill – US base malt/Pilsen and rice and/or corn are it for a Cream Ale, while Kolsch is often just international Pilsen malt. For Cream Ales, brewers often add a little Dextrin malt, as well.
Hops – Cream Ales are typically just a single, small bittering addition that will often be a high alpha acid bittering hop that is just there to aid in drinkability and balance. Kolsch will use noble-type hops and can have more herbal, floral and fruity characters than Cream Ales. However, Kolsch is still a very restrained and delicate style, so hopping rates are typically very low, with low alpha acid hops.
Yeast (both ales…) A traditional Kolsch ale strain will ferment fairly dry and minerally but with a fantastic almost white-wine nose. Think Pinot Grigio. Again, this is a restrained style so it will be very slight, but that character is the sign of a great Kolsch. You may also get some stone fruit character from cooler fermentations with Kolsch yeast. Some of that is desirable but it is very easy to overdo it and end up with an Apricot flavored beer that can be hard to drink. Cream Ales are often very neutral Ale strains, or a warmer fermenting lager strain. So very little yeast character, letting the beer be a very clean and very much like a macro lager.
PXM: Are you going to introduce an American Cream Ale at Honor Brewing? If so, what classics will you lean on? What will be the defining characteristic?
Greg: Yes; we are going to be brewing a ton of different styles and our customers love classic styles. It will be clean US base malt, with a significant adjunct addition of most likely a blend of flaked corn and flaked rice. We would aim to have an extremely clean and drinkable beer.
PXM: In 2022, five out of six WBC or GABF American Cream Ale medalists were from California breweries, and 5 out of 6 seem to be a riff on a Mexican Light Lager. How do you explain that?
Greg: I think that may come from the resurgence of Mexican light lager in the craft scene, and Cream Ale is very similar to an ale version of a Mexican light lager. Craft brewers in the bordering states to Mexico, with vibrant Latin cultures were some of the first to explore the style in craft form. So it may have come to the same style by slightly different inspirations.