With milkshake IPAs everywhere these days, beer drinkers might be forgiven for thinking that a “cream ale” is the same kind of thing. An older American style that was popular in the 1980s, cream ales are starting to appear on BC breweries’ taplists again. But cream ale has no dairy in it, nor is it creamy in texture like a nitrogenized beer. So what is a cream ale, and where can you try one?
What is a cream ale?
Beer writer Michael Jackson includes cream ale among American ales, defining it as “a very mild, sweetish, golden style of ale made in the United States. A sociable brew.” Elsewhere he says a cream ale is “as pale and sparkling as a Pilsner” but with a sweet and “mildly hopped” character. Jackson connects the development of cream ale, which is somewhere between an ale and a lager, to American brewers’ desire to distinguish themselves from the popular dark lagers of Germany and the light lagers of the US. The American cream ale was America’s version of a Kölsch, sometimes with corn or wheat in the grain bill.
Despite the style’s American origins, the cream ale most BC drinkers recognize is a Canadian one — Sleeman’s Cream Ale, a longstanding and popular beer first sold in 1988. However, a west coast version of the cream ale was emerging at about the same time.
In 1987, Vancouver’s Shaftebury Brewing made a splash with its hugely popular Coastal Cream Ale. However, it wasn’t technically a cream ale at all; it was a British mild, according to Michael Jackson, and it was created by the very Brit who helped build BC craft beer — John Mitchell. Jackson admired Shaftebury’s Cream Ale but was confused at its name: “it’s a malty, nutty brew curiously launched as a Cream Ale.”
Barry Benson, brewer for Shaftebury and later a co-founder of R&B Brewing, agrees with Jackson. The Shaftebury Cream was a dark mild. However, at the time, marketing a beer as “dark” was a sure way to lose customers. “Cream” made the beer sound sweet, light, and approachable — exactly what drinkers wanted. Shaftebury’s marketing-savvy owners, Tim Wittig and Paul Beaton, may not have known the style guidelines for a cream ale, but they did know that “cream” sounded good.
Their choice to call Shaftebury’s dark mild a cream ale was overwhelmingly successful, not just for Shaftebury but for BC’s nascent microbrewing industry in general. Cream ale became associated with craft beer more generally (although in those days everyone still called it “microbrew” for lack of a better name), and since people loved cream ale they wanted more “microbrew.”
This is what Benson realized when he helped create the recipe for Russell Brewing’s Cream Ale, and then later, R&B Brewing’s version — the Raven Cream Ale. Both breweries looked to Shaftebury for inspiration, so both produced dark milds that were marketed with the power of the “cream” descriptor. Both ales became immediately popular and award-winning, due in large part to how they echoed the taste profile of Shaftebury’s (though with their own spin). Both are still being brewed to this day. Why change a good strategy?
Another popular cream ale in the early years was Granville Island’s Kitsilano Maple Cream Ale, launched in 2003. Like other breweries, Granville Island seemed to use “cream” as a marketing term rather than a style descriptor. This ale was dark amber in colour, which is much closer to Shaftebury’s dark mild than to the traditional American cream ale.
Because of this history, cream ale is sometimes mistakenly perceived as an unsophisticated beer style — a gateway into craft beer, but not something the discerning beer fan would seek out. However, BC’s brewers are now producing their own unique versions of this style with authentic recipes that reflect cream ale’s origins and their brewery’s brand identity.
A few BC craft brewery cream ales are profiled below, but we’re hoping to see even more cream ales in the near future – hunt some down for yourself!
Northpaw Brew Co.
Northpaw’s C.R.E.A.M. Ale was one of the signature beers that helped the brewery’s launch. Head brewer Kristy Isaak says that the reason they initially made a cream ale was that no one else was doing it — so why not fill a gap in the market? The recipe is that of a traditional American cream ale, with a lager-like base, but they’ve put a twist on the “cream” moniker by using the acronym: “Craft Rules Everything Around Me.” As Isaak puts it, “the cream ale is not only a tasty beer but it is literally a reflection of our craft here at Northpaw.” The traditional C.R.E.A.M ale as well as the radler-style C.R.E.A.M.s (seasonal versions of the same ale) are light, approachable, and very popular. Just like Shaftebury’s cream ale, Northpaw’s C.R.E.A.M. is a bridge between beer lovers and the non-beer-drinkers.
Okanagan Lake Cream Ale, now one of A-FRAME Brewing’s core beers, was first brewed on their pilot system before the brewery even opened. It’s proven so successful that it won a gold medal in the Cream Ales category at this year’s Canadian Brewing Awards. Head brewer Andrew Sawyer experimented with different ingredients to align with traditional cream ale style guidelines, but his ultimate priority was to create a light, approachable beer that would resonate with consumers. Sawyer admits that the beer can be hard to market because there are still misunderstandings about the style — some drinkers still expect something “creamy” when in fact a cream ale should be dry, crisp, and lager-like. But, Sawyer says, these moments are opportunities to introduce drinkers to new styles and experiences.
Land & Sea Brewing
Glacier Cream Ale is one Land & Sea’s core lineup, and has been consistently popular. In a February 2021 interview with Adam Chatburn of What’s Brewing magazine, head brewer Tessa Gabiniewicz discusses why the brewery added a cream ale to their core beers. She explains that it was one of the first brews she tried on their system, and that its unforgiving nature means that mistakes can’t be hidden — which is something that appeals to her. Gabiniewicz’s love of the clean, crisp style of a Kölsch was part of the reason she was drawn to cream ales, and it’s also why, according to her, their cream ale remains popular. The brewery describes the Glacier Cream as “a light-bodied lagered ale” with “faint aromas of fresh cut grass and sun-drenched fields.” Sharp and refreshing, but without any “creaminess” in sight.
Gladstone first made its cream ale in 2016. It’s their “lawnmower beer” — crisp, clean, and perfect on a hot day. Like some of the other newer cream ales around, Gladstone’s is a true American-style cream ale, produced with an ale yeast but then lagered at a cooler temperature. This remains a core beer due to its popularity, but customers sometimes still confuse the American Cream Ale style with an Irish Cream Ale (like Kilkenny) — which is a very different kind of beer.
Tin Whistle Brewing
Tin Whistle’s Peach Cream Ale is one of that brewery’s longest-standing and most iconic beers. First brewed in 1996, one year after the brewery’s opening, the Peach Cream Ale was an immediate success. In style it is a wheat ale made with Norwegian yeast, rather than a traditional cream ale, and the peach addition highlights Penticton’s local agriculture. Customers often ask if cream or milk is in the beer (it’s not), but are still drawn to the style because of how approachable and tasty it sounds — peaches and cream are a natural fit!