The Complete (Chicago) Beer Course: Cream Ale

When COVID-19 closed taprooms and cancelled festivals, I looked for ways to still engage with Chicago’s craft beer scene. I therefore decided to finally work my way through The Complete Beer Course. Doing so involves the tough job of sampling beers for each style the book details; I’ll balance national (and international) recommendations from author Joshua Bernstein with examples from Chicagoland breweries. Unless otherwise stated, historical background comes from The Complete Beer Course.


Cream Ale

History Lesson

You’ll recall from our history lesson on American lagers that 19th century, German-speaking immigrants brought the art of lager brewing to the New World. Consequently, light-colored pilsners took hold in the U.S. much the way they did in Europe. Existing ale breweries on the East Coast saw this threat and adapted.

“[They] devised a hybrid style that wedded lager’s crisp smoothness with the flavors of an ale. This was accomplished by fermenting and conditioning ales at cooler temperatures (a blend of ale and lager yeasts sometimes is used), which kept fruity flavors and aromas in check.”

Joshua Bernstein, The Complete Beer Course

This pale, cold-conditioned ale, frequently brewed with New World hops and corn as an adjunct grain, is something akin to an American kölsch. That similarity may not be coincidence. Bernstein cites Radical Brewing author Randy Mosher, who “posits that German immigrants familiar with brewing the cold-fermented ales of Cologne applied the techniques to American ales.”

BJCP Description

“A clean, well-attenuated, flavorful American ‘lawnmower’ beer. Easily drinkable and refreshing, with more character than typical American lagers.”

Fun Fact

Several sources describe cream ale as one of the few indigenous American beer styles. This description is technically true, but relies on a narrow, Western view of what constitutes beer. Cream ale is one of the few indigenous American beer styles brewed in the relatively modern, European tradition of employing water, malted barley, hops and yeast. In truth, human beings have been brewing something like beer for 10,000 years, a tradition that includes indigenous American cultures.

Third Coast Review’s Take

Cream ales are an excellent choice when you want a refreshing thirst-quencher, but still want some excitement. While they’re light and refreshing, they’re still full of character.

We Tried

  1. Off Color Beer for Ballgames
  2. Empirical Cold Fusion Cream Ale
  3. Around the Bend Vera Pistachio Cream Ale

Off Color accurately advertises their baseball season release as “light bodied but flavorful.” They use only American malt, corn, hops and water in this tribute to America’s past time. Interestingly, Off Color brews Beer for Ball Games with kölsch yeast, tying this beer to the world’s most famous golden, cold-conditioned ale.

Empirical uses rye as an extra grain in Cold Fusion, giving their cream ale a distinct complexity and spiciness atypical of the style. Clearly they’re onto something: Cold Fusion is their flagship and bestseller.

While many breweries employ rye to complement heaviness or hoppiness, its use in the relatively mild cream ale really showcases rye’s flavors. As a result, Cold Fusion is a great choice for someone who isn’t looking for hop bitterness, but still would like a bit of extra pizzazz in their pint.

Cream ales aren’t actually creamy. Except for Around the Bend Pistachio Cream Ale – it’s creamy. That creaminess is a byproduct of both pistachio flavor and the use of slightly heavier Carivianne malt.

While pistachio lends more aroma than flavor, it’s prevalent enough to make this a beer best suited to pairing with food. Luckily, Around the Bend provides some recommendations: lisu spiced-rubbed pork, light nutty cheeses and lemon custard tart.

Up Next

We welcome May and close the book on cold fermentation with maibock.

Nicholas Blashill
Nicholas Blashill

Nick Blashill is a native of Downers Grove who has recently returned to the Chicago area. By day he works in market research, but he is looking forward to sharing the experiences with Chicago’s craft beer and music scenes that fill his free time.