A couple of weeks ago, I was out at a local watering hole with some buddies. We were discussing Nietzsche, string theory, and the pervasive environmental threat of black carbon (our usual topics), when I saw a new Ballast Point offering on tap. I ordered it and when the bartender brought it to me, he shook my hand and said he just “wanted to meet the guy who ordered my favorite beer.”
That was an unusual moment to say the least. I have never seen a bartender so excited by a patron’s beer order before. Particularly when the beer being ordered was a Cream Ale…a style of beer most Aleheads tend to avoid. Nevertheless, after the bartender’s reaction, I was intrigued. The Calm Before the Storm, a brand-new, coffee and vanilla-infused Cream Ale from Ballast Point, was indeed a winner. The handshake made sense after the first sip. The brew was a killer version of an often unheralded style. I ended up having three pints before the night was over…a very rare occurrence for someone that rarely drinks the same beer twice in a row.*
*Slouch Sixpack further cemented my opinion of the beer when he texted a few days ago declaring his love for it as well. Two Aleheads excited about a Cream Ale? That’s post-worthy.
The humble Cream Ale is the top-fermented analogue to the oft-vilified pale lager. Brewed to be light in color and very easy-drinking, the Cream Ale is generally low in ABV, well-attenuated (think dry and crisp), and often fermented at low temperatures to help remove the fruity esters so prevalent (and desirable) in ales. Historically, Cream Ales also frequently made use of adjuncts like corn and rice to make the beer even lighter in color and body.
With the use of adjuncts like corn and lager-like fermentation temperatures, Cream Ales have been stigmatized a bit by being unfairly linked to the watery swill churned out by the macros. As such, most reputable craft breweries don’t even bother brewing a Cream Ale…let alone making one a flagship, year-round offering. And that’s a damn shame, because as the Calm Before the Storm proves, a well-crafted Cream Ale can be a beautiful thing.
Unfortunately, because of the less-than-stellar reputation of the style, there aren’t many Cream Ales out there that I can recommend to Alehead Nation. I’m hopeful that Cream Ale becomes the Gose of this year (ie: the under-brewed style that American craft breweries begin mainstreaming…like Gose, Session IPA, India Black Ale, and Saison in years past). There are a few great ones available though, so allow me to recommend my Top Five:
5. Anderson Valley Summer Solstice: Often called “cream soda for adults”, the Summer Solstice is a super easy-drinking, warm weather brew redolent with notes of vanilla, caramel and biscuits. That might sound cloying, but like most Cream Ales, it’s actually very light, well-carbonated and sessionable. If your palate gets tired of over-hopped IPAs during the warm summer months, the Summer Solstice is a great alternative.
4. New Glarus Spotted Cow: Not my favorite brew from the Wisconsin-based darling of the craft beer world (that would be their nigh-perfect Raspberry Tart), the Spotted Cow is nevertheless the platonic ideal of a Cream Ale. Light, flavorful and effervescent, the Spotted Cow is the very definition of “drinkable”. Hard to come by outside of Wisconsin, but I’ve “spotted” the Cow in a few different states over the years (usually at a New Glarus tap take-over) and it’s always great.
3. Mikkeller Cream Ale: A little darker, a little hoppier and a little fuller-bodied than your prototypical Cream Ale, Mikkeller’s version shows how good the style can be in the right hands. The whimsical Danes at Mikkeller love exploring new styles and ingredients and their take on this traditional American style is an absolute winner.
2. Sixpoint Sweet Action: The “hoppiest” beer on this list (a relative term for Cream Ales), the Sweet Action marries the drinkability and light body of a Cream Ale with the citrus-forward hops of an American Pale Ale. If you’re someone who finds Cream Ales a bit bland or uninspired, give the Sweet Action a try. It may convert you.
1. Ballast Point Calm Before the Storm: The catalyst for this post, the Calm Before the Storm is a revelation. Brewed by Ballast Point as a warm-weather alternative to their massive Victory At Sea Imperial Porter, the Calm Before the Storm is a light, sparkling golden ale infused with vanilla and cold-brewed coffee. Those coffee notes are the dominant flavor and before I had the Calm Before the Storm, I never would have guessed that a java-centric Cream Ale was something that had been missing from my life for so long. I love this beer and I am thrilled that it’s going to become a regular, year-round option.
Any other great Cream Ales out there, Alehead Nation? As always, let us know in the comments below. And if you’re someone who has been eschewing Cream Ales over the years for whatever reason, consider giving the style another chance.