Ask Kate About Beer: What Exactly Is Cream Ale?

Welcome to Ask Kate About Beer, in which The Takeout's resident beer expert answers everything you've ever wanted to know about beer but were too drunk to ask. Have a question? Shoot it to

My favorite beer questions are the ones that aren't back-handed ways to prove how much a person already knows. I love when someone says straight-up, I don't really know anything about this so can you explain it to me. Buddy, can I ever! Naturally, I was stoked to see this comment on one of my recent Beer Of The Week picks:

You're not alone, Dysentery. (Ew.) Cream ale is so often misunderstood; it's the Todd Cleary of pale beers. Much of that confusion stems from the beer's name: There's no cream in a cream ale; and it's not even especially creamy. Really, who came up with that name in the first place?

You're also not far off in the Banquet Beer comparison. According to beer-judging guidelines, a cream ale is a "clean, flavorful American 'lawnmower' beer: easily drinkable and refreshing, with more character than typical American lagers." I love the phrase "lawnmower beer," which refers to the types of beers you'd drink while, you know, mowing the lawn. They're thirst-quenching, simple, and not more than 5 percent alcohol.

Cream ales were first developed in the 1800s by American ale brewers who wanted to compete with the super-chuggable lagers coming out of Canada and the eastern half of the U.S. They took the basic profile of those mass-produced lagers and gave it just a smidge more flavor.

So yeah, it's like a Banquet Beer, but generally brewed with ale yeast instead of lager yeast so that some versions will have a tiny bit of fruity flavor. They're also supposed to be nearly evenly balanced between malt and hops, with neither standing out or dominating. They're light, generally pretty dry, super refreshing, and feature lots of carbonation.

This makes them sound boring, but I'd instead call them straight-forward. They're not easy to brew, since that balance between malt and hops is so delicate. But when you're drinking a well-made cream ale, there's not a ton to fuss over: a little malt sweetness (sometimes with a hint of corn flavor, as brewers sometimes add a small portion of flaked maize to their recipes), barely perceptible hops, sparkling carbonation, a snappy finish. I'm sighing "ahhhh" in my head right now just thinking about drinking one of these on a hot day by the lake.

If you're having a backyard party or picnic and are looking for something just one step more interesting than your regular light beer of choice, I'd stock up on some cream ales. Really, no one is going to not like them (unless you have some 'I only drink IPAs' contrarian in your friend group, in which case, you have my sympathies). A cream ale might not be flashy, but it's about as refreshing as an ice-cold popsicle on a humid day.