Cream Ale: Dumbed-Down Relic or Pretense-Free Delight?

Style Profile by | Jun 2007 | Issue #6
Photo by Martin Thiel

A harsher critic would sip an American Cream Ale and sniff that the brewer had dumbed down a perfectly good Pale Ale. Where are the hops? The body?

And that critic would have a point, because this often-overlooked style is truly a compromise. Head back to the late 19th century—when a new wave of immigrant brewers perfected the American Light Lager—and put yourself in the shoes of an ale maker. Suddenly, everyone’s drinking this crisp, confounded, brilliantly clear Bohemian-style lager, and you’re still making dark, ponderous ales and Porters. What are you going to do?

Lighten up, of course. Add corn—it’s completely fermentable, doesn’t leave behind any proteins and even softens the body. Then you’ve got to knock down some of those fruity yeast esters, so you condition your ale at a cooler temperature, like a lager.

You could call it a DumbedDown Ale; but take another gulp, and you might understand that what you’ve got is a whole ’nother kind of beer. A hybrid. Go ahead, shrug it off. And while you’re at it, cross out another classic light ale style: Kölsch, likewise brewed as northern Germany’s response to those confounded lagers.

Cream Ale was designed for simple refreshment in an era when beer was little more than something to drain when you climbed down off your John Deere. That’s what drove Clarence Geminn in 1960 to begin making what many regard as the classic modern version of Cream Ale, at Genesee Brewing in Rochester, N.Y.

“We always considered ourselves a true ale brewery,” said his son, Gary, who brewed countless batches himself during a 42-year span at the facility. “My father was looking for something a little milder than our 12 Horse Ale. Something a little less harsh, but with a little tartness.”

The result was Genny Cream, a beer that eventually became a million-barrel seller in New York and Pennsylvania alone. Its hint of hops aroma and soft flavor (not to mention its cheap price tag) made it a popular go-to draft for anyone looking for something other than the usual industrial lager.

Geminn, who retired from the brewery two years ago, won’t reveal the exact recipe. “It’s still a closely guarded secret after all these years,” he says. But he acknowledges it’s essentially a blend of that old 12 Horse and the brewery’s lager, Genesee Beer: “That gave it a nice balance.”

Today, only a few craft breweries bottle Cream Ale. But it is a fixture at many brewpubs, for the same reason those ale makers turned to it a century ago. It’s the ideal style to offer, say, a Coors drinker. “It’s an introduction beer,” says Steve Leason, brewmaster and founder of Selin’s Grove Brewing in central Pennsylvania. “Plus, it’s still an ale, so it ferments pretty quickly— which means it doesn’t tie up all my tank space.”

Leason started making Captain Selin’s Cream Ale because it was the favorite of his wife’s grandfather. “PopPop loved his Genny Cream,” Leason said. “He died at the Blue-White game [a hugely popular springtime intramural football game at Penn State]. When they carried him out, they dug a 40 of Genny out of his pocket.”

No pretensions, just pure refreshment.

Original gravity: 1.042–1.055
IBU: 15–20+
ABV: 4.2–5.65 percent
Other examples: Little Kings, Liebotschaner, New Glarus Spotted Cow, Anderson Valley Solstice Cerveza Crema