Article

Cream Ale

by the numbers
OG: 1.042–1.055 (10.5–13.6 °P)
FG: 1.006–1.012 (1.5–3.1 °P)
SRM: 2.5–5
IBU: 15–20
ABV: 4.2–5.6%

My friends know I am fond of saying that I love every beer style if the example I am drinking is really well made, and the same is true for cream ale. For this style, however, I need to add one other caveat, which is the right drinking situation. I must be in the mood for something light and refreshing, but with alcohol as well. For me, the best occasion is when I have some sort of mind numbing chore to complete in the heat of the day — like pulling weeds. I used to think that cream ale was a “lawnmower” beer, but common sense will quickly tell you that power tools and alcohol do not mix. It is harder, however, to injure yourself pulling a few weeds.

Cream ale is a crisp, clean, dry beer, like an American standard lager with a little too much malt presence. I am surprised at the number of times I have had people ask about adding vanilla to a cream ale. Cream ale has absolutely no relationship to cream soda. Cream ale should never be sweet and it should never have vanilla flavor. Think of it as being similar to a mass market American-style lager, but made with ale yeast.
Cream ale should always be clean, crisp and refreshing. This is a moderate alcohol beer (4.2 to 5.6% ABV) with a light to medium body and medium to high carbonation. Appearance ranges from pale straw to gold with brilliant clarity. Good examples will exhibit a slight malt and hop character. Hop flavor and aroma are always low and should not overwhelm the malt character.

The grist for brewing this style often consists of either domestic two-row, six-row or Pilsner malt, and either corn or rice as an adjunct. You want the beer to have a subtle malty note. One trick that I find useful in this style is using half domestic two-row and half continental Pilsner malt. Pilsner malt lends a slightly sweet, grainy malt character to a beer. If you are an extract brewer, use an extract that includes at least some Pilsner malt. A beer like this does not have specialty malts to hide behind, so little tricks like this can stand out in a crowd. When all the other beers at the table have minimal malt character, the one with a touch of grainy flavor and aroma stands out as maltier. I would not bother using six-row malt, as long as you are not using a very high level of adjuncts (>30%).

About 20 to 30% of the fermentable sugars should be made from non-malt sources. Some brewers prefer to use a corn-based adjunct, although almost any non-malt adjunct will do. I prefer to use rice, as it has
a very clean flavor. However, if you are trying to impress some judges, you might want to stick with corn. The Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP) style guide says that, “A sweet, corn-like aroma and low levels of dimethyl sulfide (DMS )are commonly found.” Unfortunately, some judges will read “commonly found” as a requirement for corn and DMS. If you are in such a situation, you might want to stick with using corn for your adjunct. You can also use simple sugar to help get a crisp, dry finish. Simple sugar, such as table sugar, will ferment more completely than rice or corn converted in your mash or rice based syrups (which are mostly maltose). If your cream ale does not ferment dry enough, consider replacing 10% of the malt with simple sugar the next time you brew your cream ale. Hold the total adjunct use to 30% or less of the fermentables. A good target for this style is around 20%.

Many brewers want to add specialty grains to this style, such as crystal or Munich malts, but you should not add specialty grains as they can add too much sweetness or too much malt character for this style. If you are not getting enough malt character from North American two-row and Pilsner malt, then you should review your fermentation. Poor fermentation will result in a beer that is “flabby” and it masks the character of the grain. The same can happen with yeast strains, as some will leave more malt character behind than others. Keep in mind that high quality malt is only apparent when you have high quality fermentation. This beer is more about the clean malt and fermentation flavors so don’t hide that with specialty malts. Almost any amount of specialty grain is too much in this style.

Cream ale has a light to medium body. All-grain brewers should target a mash temperature around 149 °F (65 °C), which results in a lower concentration of non-fermentable sugars. For extract brewers, most light colored extracts will ferment out to the right level. If your extract does not attenuate enough, you should first review your fermentation parameters. If everything checks out, on your next batch of cream ale, experiment with replacing a portion of the malt extract with simple sugar.

Hop character in cream ale is restrained, usually no more than low levels with a floral aroma and flavor, but almost any pleasant hop flavor and aroma will work well. The important thing is to not allow the hop character to overwhelm the malt character.

Keep everything restrained and keep everything in balance. It can be too easy to overwhelm the malt and fermentation character with hops. You want the drinker to get a hint of malt character in there, along with the hop bittering, flavor and aroma. A bittering addition at the beginning of the boil is all that is required of this style, but you can add some late hops if you do not overdo it. One small late addition of 1⁄4 to 1⁄2 ounce (7 to 14 g) per 5-gallon (19-L) batch is plenty.

Bittering ranges from low to medium, although medium is a bit generous for most good examples. Perhaps in the driest examples of cream ale the bittering may seem at medium levels. Remember, the goal is to keep the beer refreshing, crisp and highly drinkable. Too much or too little bitterness or sweetness can impact drinkability and send the beer into a different style. The bitterness-to-starting gravity ratio (IBU divided by OG) ranges between 0.3 and 0.4.

The right fermentation character for this style is clean and neutral ale fermentation. While all fermentation results in some ester production, even clean ales have more esters than most lagers. That is the key difference here. Cream ale is not quite like a clean lager, but somewhere in between lager and ale. Most American-type yeast strains should give acceptable results. I prefer the clean character of White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) and Wyeast 1056 (American Ale). An interesting alternative to those strains is to use a Kölsch yeast. This can produce a touch of sulfur and that adds a little lager-like character to the beer without it seeming like a lager. What about lager yeasts? Well, this is an ale, not a lager. If you ferment the same wort with a good American lager yeast, it should turn out very similar to an American lager. If you ferment it with a lager yeast that leaves more malt character, then it might pass as an under-hopped German lager. Sure, there are commercial examples produced with lager yeast, but I wonder if the fine distinction between ale and lager is sometimes lost on some folks.

Whatever yeast you use, remember that your fermentation conditions affect what flavors and aromas the yeast produce. Pitching rate, oxygen level, nutrients and temperature are like dials on your control panel of fermentation flavor. Starting with a healthy pitch of yeast, aerating or oxygenating and controlling temperatures are the keys to getting a well attenuated beer that allows the subtle malt flavors to shine through. When using a clean American yeast like White Labs WLP001 (California Ale) and Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), I like to ferment in the mid-60s °F (~ 18 °C). Lower temperatures (and environmental stress in general) tends to produce more sulfur in most yeasts, so watch that you do not push fermentation temperatures too low. You may find a higher or lower temperature gives you the ideal result, so do not be afraid to tweak the parameters until you get it right.

Weed Puller Cream Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.050 (12.4 °P)
FG = 1.009 (2.2 °P)
IBU = 18 SRM = 3 ABV = 5.4%

Ingredients

4.41 lbs. (2 kg) Best Malz Pilsner malt (2 °L) (or similar)
4.41 lbs. (2 kg) Great Western 2-row malt (2 °L) (or similar)
1.76 lbs. (800 g) flaked rice (0 °L)
3.36 AAU Liberty pellet hops (0.84 oz./24 g at 4% alpha acids)
(60 min.)
1.68 AAU Liberty pellet hops (0.42 oz./12 g at 4% alpha acids)
(1 min.)
White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or Fermentis Safale US-05 yeast

Step by Step

Mill the grains and dough-in targeting a mash of around 1.5 quarts of water to 1 pound of grain (a liquor-to-grist ratio of about 3:1 by weight) and a temperature of 149 °F (65 °C). Hold the mash at 149 °F (65 °C) until enzymatic conversion is complete. You might want to extend your mash time, due to the lower mash temperature. Infuse the mash with near boiling water while stirring or with a recirculating mash system raise the temperature to mash out at 168 °F (76 °C). Sparge slowly with 170 °F (77 °C) water, collecting wort until the pre-boil kettle volume is around 6.5 gallons (24.4 L) and the gravity is 1.039 (9.7 °P).

The total boil time will be 90 minutes. Add the bittering hops 30 minutes after the wort starts boiling. Add Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil. Add the last hop additions just one minute before shutting off the burner. Chill the wort rapidly to 65 °F (18 °C), let the break material settle, rack to the fermenter, pitch the yeast and aerate thoroughly.

Use nine grams of properly rehydrated dry yeast, two liquid yeast packages, or make a yeast starter. Ferment at 65 °F (18 °C). When fermentation is finished, carbonate the beer to approximately 2.5 volumes.

 

Weed Puller Cream Ale

(5 gallons/19 L, extract)
OG = 1.050 (12.4 °P)
FG = 1.009 (2.2 °P)
IBU = 18 SRM =3 ABV = 5.4%

Ingredients

5.84 lbs. (2.65 kg) Pilsner liquid malt extract (2 °L)
1.14 lbs. (520 g) rice syrup (0 °L)
3.36 AAU Liberty pellet hops (0.84 oz./24 g at 4% alpha acids)
(60 min.)
1.68 AAU Liberty pellet hops (0.42 oz./12 g at 4% alpha acids)
(1 min.)
White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), Wyeast 1056 (American Ale) or Fermentis Safale US-05 yeast

Step by Step

I use the lightest colored extract available at my local homebrew shop to brew cream ales, but feel free to substitute any high quality malt extract of a similar flavor and color from a different supplier. Always be sure to choose the freshest malt extract that fits the beer style. If you cannot get fresh liquid malt extract, it is better to use an appropriate amount of dried malt extract (DME) instead, since it does not oxidize nearly as fast and tends to be fresher.

Mix enough water with the malt extract to make a pre-boil volume of 5.9 gallons (22.3 L) and a gravity of 1.043 (10.6 °P). Stir the mixture thoroughly to help dissolve the extract and bring it to a boil.

Once the wort is boiling, add the bittering hops. The total wort boil time is 1 hour after adding the bittering hops. Add the Irish moss or other kettle finings with 15 minutes left in the boil. Add the last hop additions just one minute before shutting off the burner. Chill the wort rapidly to 65 °F (18 °C), let the break material settle, rack to the fermenter, pitch the yeast and aerate thoroughly.

Use nine grams of properly rehydrated dry yeast, two liquid yeast packages, or make a yeast starter. Ferment at 65 °F (18 °C). When fermentation is finished, carbonate the beer to approximately 2.5 volumes.

 

Issue: Special Issue: 30 Great Beer Styles