American Cream Ales disappeared during Prohibition, but craft brewers revived the style and it is now made in New Zealand.
A century before English brewers developed Golden Ales to take on mainstream lagers, US brewers had developed Cream Ales to do the same job.
Cream Ale is a broad description, and just to set the record straight, it is entirely dairy-free. It covers a range of brewing techniques and ingredients, and the result is pale, well-carbonated and with moderate hops.
According to BYO.com, “Cream ale came into being sometime in the 1880s. It was an invention by American ale breweries who wanted to compete with the lagers that began to spread from the eastern seaboard throughout the New World after the American Civil War. However, there was no single model that set the new anti-lager style. Rather, like much in American culture in those days, the new brew was a ‘make-do’ beer. As such, cream ale was defined by very broad and general concepts of what it was and what it was not: The brew had to be suitable for an ale brewery, but in terms of appearance and drinkability, it had to be more German ‘lager-ish’ than British ‘ale-ish’.
“Because cream ale was made by ale breweries which tended not be set up for cold fermentation, it was probably brewed warm regardless of yeast type, at least until Prohibition. Like many beers in the latter part of the 19th century, it was probably more assertively hopped and contained more alcohol than is common today, but we cannot be sure. Because we have no clear evidence one way or the other, we can speculate that the mash composition was fairly flexible, probably involving a combination of two and six-row barleys as well as various adjuncts.”
The popular BJCP style guidelines reflect this pragmatic approach to techniques and ingredients. “Lager [yeast] strains were (and sometimes still are) used by some brewers but were not historically mixed with ale strains…Adjuncts can include up to up to 20% maize in the mash, and up to 20% glucose or other sugars in the boil. Any variety of hops can be used for bittering and finishing.”
The result is variously described as “refreshing”, “highly-attenuated with a dry finish”, “thirst-quencher”, “effervescent” and even “lawn-mower”. Don’t confuse it with the nitro-powered Boddington’s Cream Ale, the Cream of Manchester.
New Zealand brewers have largely ignored Cream Ales. Laughing Bones makes one occasionally but it’s hard to track down. Last month Bach Brewing released Breakabay Sparkling Cream Ale (5.2%), after Bach owner Craig Cooper was inspired by Pelican’s Kiwanda Cream Ale.
“I took a couple of bottles to a Sichuan restaurant, not knowing what to expect, and it was absolutely stunning. When we were thinking about what to release for spring I thought I’d love to have a crack at a Cream Ale. So I got together with the brewers at Steam and we nutted out a craft version of the style.”
Breakabay is brewed primarily with US Liberty hops, with German Hersbrucker noble hops giving a light spicy character, with a slight dry hopping. Bach has included flaked corn, but instead of adding glucose, it includes pohutukawa honey from Rangitoto Island.
With Cream Ale’s broad definition, Craig could have released Breakabay as a more recognised style, such as Golden Ale or Summer Ale. “Some people might think it has cream in it, or avoid it because they don’t know the style. But Cream Ale has its own story and history, and the great thing about craft beer is we’re talking to people who are willing to experiment.”
Bach Brewing Breakabay Sparkling Cream Ale is available now in bottles and on tap.