Until recently, the only cream ale I had ever heard of was Genesee Cream Ale, brewed at Rochester, New York’s Genesee Brewing Co. since 1960. The Genesee Brewery itself dates to the late 19th century, and its beers — especially its cream ale — have been staples throughout the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic for generations. A producer of blue-collar beers, Genesee would certainly not be considered part of the craft brewing movement but for a recent renewed interest in its staple ale.
According to beer historian Jeff Alworth, cream ale is a uniquely American brew that dates to the turn of the 20th century. English ales had been the traditional beer for Americans, but as lagers began to dominate the beer market in the late 19th century, due in large part to the influx of German immigrants, breweries that produced ales tried to adapt by producing lighter styles that more resembled lagers and pilsners.
Cream ales were developed, therefore, as a means to compete with the increased popularity of lager beer in America. Incidentally, cream has nothing at all to do with cream ales; the name seems only to have been developed to make this new ale sound different and inviting, although it may also be a nod to the beer’s white, creamy head.
In the tradition of those earlier cream ales, Genesee Cream Ale (or “Genny Cream”) is kind of a hybrid of a lager and an ale. Sweet, but with more malt flavor than a lager, it has a light golden color and a nice head. Genny Cream has a relatively weak taste to those who have become used to drinking today’s craft beers, but with a bit more heft than traditional American lagers.
A number of craft breweries have brewed their own take on Genesee’s standard bearer in recent years. One of the best is Farmer Ted’s Cream Ale from North Carolina’s Catawba Brewing Co. It is a very smooth beer that tastes more like a strong lager than an ale, and is quite good, especially on a hot day. At 6 percent ABV, is it stronger than most cream ales but doesn’t taste heavy at all.
Unlike Catawba’s cream ale, Louisiana’s Abita Creole Cream Ale is bolder, with much more of a hoppy taste, although still very smooth. Abita actually uses Louisiana purple rice in its recipe, which it says produces a dry finish. While a very different take on the cream ale, it is very good, and faithful to the golden color and white head of the style.
The only cream ale I’ve found on tap locally is produced by our own Big Beach Brewery in Gulf Shores. Its version of a cream ale — Rod’s Reel Cream Ale — is named for Big Beach’s brewmaster, Rod Murray, and is quite good. It is light in color with a mildly malty taste, and at 5 percent ABV, perfect for a beach day on the Gulf Coast!