NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Cream Ale has moved to Style 1C in Category 1 Standard American Beer which describes everyday American beers that have a wide public appeal. Containing both ales and lagers, the beers of this category are not typically complex, and have smooth, accessible flavors. The ales tend to have lager-like qualities, or are designed to appeal to mass-market lager drinkers as crossover beers. Mass-market beers with a more international appeal or origin are described in the International Lager category.
The information below is still valid, but if you are studying for the current BJCP exam, use it as reference material.
Cream ale is sometimes called American Sparkling Ale and is a style which originated in America. The style was developed after the German immigrants introduced lager beer to America. The remaining ale brewers were losing tremendous market share to the big breweries and the new golden lager style that took the country by storm in the 1800s. They needed a beer that could compete. The answer was an ale that tasted and looked like a lager. Cream ales were brewed at near lager temperatures and sometimes cold conditioned. There is a debate on whether the style should be brewed at ale temperatures and then cold conditioned (lagered) for a long period of time, finished with a lager yeast in a long cold conditioning period, or brewed with an ale yeast at near lager temperatures. I believe you’d end up with a very similar beer no matter which method you tried.
Many times the beers are Kraeusened for natural carbonation. Historically, these beers may have been blended with lager beer to dilute the ale characteristics. Some brewers even finished the beer with a lager yeast at cold temperatures to mellow the beer and produce a nice crisp finish. The use of adjuncts such as corn or rice to lighten the body is typical for the style but is not required. A great many craft brewers make an excellent all malt example.
To determine the characteristics of the beer you want to brew, you must decide if you want to brew a modern version or a pre-prohibition version. Pre-prohibition versions, like the pre-prohibition pilseners, will be stronger, hoppier, and have more bitterness. Since these characteristics throw the beer outside the style guidelines for modern Cream-ale, they would be considered specialty or experimental beers and should be entered into competitions in that category. This beer may be made with up to 20% adjuncts and 20% glucose to lighten the beer. It should be like a Standard American Lager with more malt presence. Under no circumstances should you add vanilla to make a cream soda, this is just a misunderstanding of the term “Cream Ale” by many homebrewers.
Cream Ale Description
- Aroma: The aroma will have some malty notes and corn-like aroma if corn is used as the adjunct. Some low levels of DMS are acceptable and common. There should only be a slight hop aroma if any and it doesn’t have to be American hops, any variety works fine. Some light fruity esters are acceptable but not required and there should be no diacetyl evident.
- Appearance: The beer is a pale straw or light golden color. The head should be low to moderate and the beer should be highly carbonated. With all the adjuncts and additional sugars used, the head retention usually suffers and may be quick to fade. The beer’s clarity should be brilliant.
- Flavor: All things in this beer are low to moderate. Everything is in balance and nothing stands out. The hop flavors are low to medium-low as is the bitterness. The hop character should be in balance with the malts. The malt flavors should be low to moderate as well. This beer should be dry so a good attenuation is important. Pay close attention to fermentation temperatures to keep the esters low and still get a full attenuation. Don’t let the temperature drift around if you can prevent it. The BJCP guidelines say that the finish can be slightly sweet, but keep in mind that this beer was supposed to emulate an American lager so try and keep the sweetness as low as possible. You should not taste any diacetyl in this beer.
- Mouthfeel: This beer should be light and crisp, so if it doesn’t finish dry enough, try adding some sugar to the recipe. Some examples may have up to a medium mouthfeel. These ales should have high carbonation so the impression is of crispness in the finish. When the beer is brewed at the higher OG range, some alcohol warming may be evident, but no harshness or astringency should be.
- Overall Impression: This is a well-attenuated, clean crisp lawnmower beer, similar in many ways to a standard American lager.
- Comments: It may be difficult to decide what the judges want to see in this beer since some sweetness, DMS, and corn-like flavors are acceptable. You can use rice as an adjunct to get a cleaner beer as well as a large portion of sugar (up to 20% in some cases, but you should probably keep it closer to 10%). Be sure the beer is brilliantly clear and filter if necessary.
- Ingredients: American ingredients most commonly used. A grain bill of six-row malt, or a combination of six-row and North American two-row, is common. Adjuncts can include up to 20% flaked maize in the mash, and up to 20% glucose or other sugars in the boil. Soft water preferred. Any variety of hops can be used for bittering and finishing.
- Vital Statistics: OG: 1.042 – 1.055 FG: 1.006 – 1.012 IBUs: 15 – 20 SRM: 2.5 – 5 ABV: 4.2 – 5.6%.
- Commercial Examples: Genesee Cream Ale, Little Kings Cream Ale (Hudepohl), Anderson Valley Summer Solstice Cerveza Crema, Sleeman Cream Ale, New Glarus Spotted Cow, Wisconsin Brewing Whitetail Cream Ale
References: Information for this page was adapted from the 2008 BJCP Style Guidelines and Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer.