Those who know of my appreciation for British bitter might be puzzled by my high regard for cream ale. But I find sparkling ale (as it should properly be known) to be an historically American beer style, refreshing and character-ful in its own right.
The Association of Brewers publishes an on-line discussion forum for brewers and other professionals in the brewing business. A recent poster to the Forum asked about cream ale:
Monday, March 22, 2004 7:15 PM
Subject: Cream Ale
I am doing research on Cream Ale. Does anyone have a resource for history of the style, origin, brewing techniques etc? The web does not have much info. Any good books or magazines out there that do?
Here was my response to him.
From p. 56, The Essentials of Beer Styles, 1989, Fred Eckhardt:
"Sparkling ale originated in the late 19th century as a lagered, and bottled, ale version of the very pale Bohemian lager beer. Today the beverage which was originally called "sparkling ale" is not found as such, but is labeled as, and called, either American ale or cream ale, i.e., very pale, warm fermented (bottom or top) beer, which is cold lagered as lager beer. The term "cream ale" is often used instead of 'sparkling ale' as a name for this category. This is an incorrect use of that name because, originally 'cream ale' was the beer we (here) call blonde or golden draft ale. These are now brewed by the new micros, and served direct or bottled, filtered but without aging, in a manner very close to the classic 'cream ale' tradition of the late nineteenth century.
Alcohol content of American sparkling lager-ale is medium (4.5 - 5.6% abv)... This style when brewed with bottom yeast (common), is called "bastard ale" in old brewing literature, an apt title. Nevertheless, there are a few fairly good examples of this type with modest hop levels, and certainly with more taste than the American standard." [end of quote]
The use of the word "common" intrigued me; I talked with Fred about it when I happened to meet him at a Craft Brewers conference in Austin in the mid-1990s.
Was that an adjective or a reference to the steam-beer style?
Both, he told me. He believed that cream ale was born as the paler version of steam beer, that is, cask-conditioned pale ale made with lager yeast. Whereas sparkling ale began as what we think of nowadays as "cream ale".
Follow Kolsch recipes - German malts, German hops, low to mid 60s F for fermentation, lagering in the low 30s - and you should make a damn tasty yet drinkable beer. The hopheads won't like it... but others will. Avoid American malts; you want that clean continental maltiness.
Or brew an ale version of pre-prohibition lager - use American 6-row but temper that with up to 20% cornflakes. Don't worry: the 6-row's maltiness will come through without a taste of corn. Frankly, I think that American malts give you more 'corniness' than a small measure of corn itself.
In my area, Capitol City Brewing (Virginia) and Brewers Alley (Maryland) have both won medals for their Kolsches. Clipper City (Baltimore) makes a fine Gold, which won a medal in the gold ale category at the Great American Beer Festival.
In the mid-90s while I was a brewer in Philly, I brewed what I called Blue Mountain Sparkling Ale.
70% German lager malt, 11% Belgian Munich malt, 2% Belgian Carapils, 17%(!) cornflakes. 25 BUs: Galena for bitterness, Mt. Hood for flavor, Spalter Spalt for aroma. American Ale yeast. 3 weeks lagering at 31*F.I mashed at 159*F for extra body to account for the easy fermentables of the corn. Interesting combination. It made for a malt-flavored yet lighter bodied ale with a hint of fruitiness and a present but not overdone spicy hop character.
[not in my reply to him]
During my recent maladventures in Sissonsland (2000-2001), one of my partners haughtily dismissed any talk of sparkling ale as "gay beer." Repugnant at face value, his statement was a nonsensical disregard of a substantial market.