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Cream ales are easy to drink and not so easy to define. That’s partly because they’re part ale and part lager: Brewers typically deploy ale and lager yeasts, brew it warm like an ale, and cold-ferment it like a lager. The result is light and refreshing, uncomplicated, and clean, with subtle fruitiness and a crisp edge to finish, and with slightly more bitterness than a typical American lager. A key note for the uninitiated: The “cream” refers to the beer’s silky mouthfeel, not the addition of any dairy product.
It’s the product of early German immigrant populations in the Northeast attempting to recreate the beers they loved back home in the Old World—think blondes and kolsches—with the ingredients at their disposal across the Atlantic. The different types of hops inspired them to add more adjuncts like rice and corn to round out flavor and feel.
Peter Licht describes cream ales as well as anyone. The award-winning brewmaster for San Jose, California-based Hermitage Brewing Company was born in the heart of the Northwest’s cream ale country (Rochester, New York, home to Genesee Brewing, the headquarters of Genesee Cream Ale) and crafted hundreds of thousands of gallons of cream ales while working for a range of breweries.
“Cream ales are more interesting than standard lager, but like standard lagers, the flavor impact is mild,” says Licht. “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with a beer that’s delicious and thirst-quenching and doesn’t make you ask too many questions.”
While Licht has been on the cream-ale caravan for a while, the wider beer-loving public (at least outside of the Northeast) has been flocking to it more recently. That’s partly a result of increasing lager popularity and more craft brewers experimenting with their own takes. As a result, the cream ale category at the Great American Beer Festival has seen an explosion in entries, from 87 in 2019 to 147 in 2021.
“I attribute this entirely to market forces that have created intense interest in lager categories among craft brewers and their drinkers in recent years,” says Brewers Association competition director Chris Swersey.
These are five cream ales to try, most of which have earned medals at the Great American Beer Festival.
Anderson Valley Brewing Summer Solstice
One of the more iconic labels in the category, this beer leans sweet, but that plays well with the creamy mouthfeel and emerges balanced because of its seamless malt and a tickle of Chinook hops. The Summer Solstice is about as drinkable as it gets, making it an outstanding representative of why cream ales work so well during the warm seasons.
Genesee Cream Ale
Many familiar with the cream-ale category acknowledge Genesee, launched in 1878, with two letters, calling it simply the “O.G.” Its smooth flagship beer and popular Genny Light are built from six-row barley malt, corn grits, and hops from the Yakima Valley. The resulting brew enjoys a medium body, a touch of floral aromas, a foundation of hoppy bitterness, and a little kiss of sweetness on the end. Genesee is both one of the largest and oldest continually operating breweries in the United States and the largest independently owned beer company in the country, a testament to the time-honored popularity of its flavor profile. “To me it is the gold standard,” says Licht. “If Genesee wasn’t around, nobody would be talking about cream ale. It’s like Guinness is for dry stouts.”
Kiwanda Cream Ale
Drawing on the traditional “pre-Prohibition” style, this beer from Oregon’s Pelican Brewing Company checks all the cream ale boxes: refreshing body, sunset color, floral aroma, a light bite of bitterness, and a nice snappy edge at the end. The beer was born on the beach, as its creators like to say, and goes down well on the beach too. The 5.4-ABV ale has earned 55 medals from the likes of the Best of Craft Beer Awards and Australian Beer Awards and, yes, a whopping eight from GABF, dating back to a gold in 2000.
Newburgh Cream Ale
Cream ale is the beer with which Newburgh Brewing began, and it’s made 100 styles since. It features a silky mouthfeel and a crisp lager-like finish, light body, clean floral hop expression, easy-drinking aftertaste, and a sessionable 4.2 ABV. A differentiator beer nerds will enjoy: Newburgh’s cream ale uses wheat and oats as adjuncts to complement its spicy-yet-floral English and American hops. And it’s another medal-winner at GABF.
True North Ale Cerveza
Don’t let its name fool you: This qualifies a cream ale. According to the Great American Beer Fest’s aroma and flavor notes, a cream ale enjoys “pale malt sweetness at medium-low to medium levels [and] [c]aramel malt attributes should be absent. Attributes typical of corn or other adjuncts may be present at low levels.” This fits the bill, and gracefully so. True North Ale Company’s head brewer Seth Barnum ferments it with Mexican lager yeast, pilsner malt, and El Dorado hops, and adds flaked maize for fullness, a formula that earned it a silver at GABF in 2020.