A HARSHER CRITIC would sip a cream ale and sniff that the brewer had dumbed down a perfectly good pale ale by adding sugar and corn to the kettle.
Where are the hops? The body?
And he would have a point, because this often-overlooked summertime style is truly a compromise.
Head back to the late 19th century, when a wave of immigrant brewers perfected the newfangled American lager, and put yourself in the shoes of an old-time ale maker. Everywhere you look, your customers are drinking this confounded, brilliantly clear, crisp Bohemian-style lager, and you're still making dark, ponderous ales and porters.
What are you going to do?
Lighten up, of course. Use pale malts and 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 produced by warm fermentation, so you condition your ale at a cooler temperature, like a lager.
What you get is fizzy and yellow, with only a nod toward the complexity of an ale.
Yes, it's tempting for the purist to shrug it off as lifeless, adjunct-filled factory swill. But take another gulp and understand that this is a whole 'nother kind of beer, a stylistic hybrid, an American original designed for simple refreshment.
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 Genesee Cream Ale, 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) made it a popular go-to draft for anyone looking for something other than the usual industrial lager.
Geminn, who retired from the brewery three years ago, won't reveal the exact recipe. "It's still a closely guarded secret after all these years," he said. But he acknowledged that it's essentially a blend of that old 12 Horse and the brewery's lager, Genesee Beer.
"That gave it a nice balance."
Genesee's famous beer took a back seat in recent years as its owners at High Falls Brewing, in Rochester, concentrated on its craft brands under the Dundee Ales & Lagers label. But the brewery's new owners announced last week that they will begin a new marketing push in the Northeast to return cream ale and other Genesee brands to their former glory.
Only a few craft breweries, notably including New Glarus (Wisconsin) and Anderson Valley (California), bottle cream ales. Traditionalists are more likely to turn to an old cult fave, Little Kings (Ohio), which just returned to the market after a short absence, in its trademark 7-ounce bottles.
The style, however, does turn up in brewpub restaurants, where it's often served as a "transition" beer for those weaned on mainstream lagers.
"It's a nice baby step up from BudMillerCoors," said brewer Victor Novak, whose award-winning cream ale is the No. 1 seller at TAPS Fish House & Brewery, near Anaheim, Calif.
Novak acknowledges that it's the same recipe he followed when he worked in the 1990s as an assistant at the old Dock Street brewpub at Logan Square. That recipe was designed by local brewery legend Bill Moeller, a former brewmaster at Schmidt's, whose Neuweiler Cream Ale was an area favorite.
According to Moeller's recipe, corn sugar - derided by many as a cheap adjunct ingredient - is essential in cream ale.
"That's the traditional way to make cream ale," Novak said. "You don't taste the corn because it's a very long boil, but it does add a touch of sweetness."
The beer is fermented at a typical ale temperature, about 68 degrees, for its first five days, then it's gradually chilled to a lager-like 33 degrees for 15 days of conditioning. The slow process produces a light, crisp, refreshing brew.
"Cream ale is not as hoppy as a pils," Novak said, "Once people realize it's not too dry, they suck it down like crazy."
And one other thing, Novak stressed: "It's definitely not a dumbed-down beer." *