Cream ales are one of beer’s biggest misnomers. The name confuses consumers, frustrates bartenders, and occasionally leads to mansplaining.

One challenge in defining this style is that different brewers set different rules for cream ales. Historical accounts and modern interpretations vary wildly.

Compared to macro lagers, cream ales tend to be a little more bitter. They are also typically boozier (most hover between 4.2 and 5.6 percent ABV, according to “The Oxford Companion to Beer”), and a little fruity. That said, there are hoppy, bitter lagers; and doppelbocks sometimes have fruity flavors, too.

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It may seem like every rule about cream ales can be broken. Here are a few guiding principles.

No Cream, and Not Just an Ale

You might be wondering if there’s cream in a cream ale. Fair question! There isn’t. That said, modern cream ales do include all sorts of adjunct ingredients, which can include lactose and milk sugar. Eagle Park Brewing Berry Milkshake, for example, is a cream ale made with strawberry, raspberry, blackberry, lactose, and vanilla.

Generally speaking, ales are made using malted barley (and in some styles, wheat or oats). Cream ales, however, often feature other adjuncts like rice and corn. Some suspect that a “creamed-corn” aroma could be where the beer gets its name. (The aroma comes from a molecule called dimethyl sulfide, or DMS.) Other speculate it was marketing gloss.

Cream ales are fermented in warm temperatures, whereas lagers are fermented cold. However! A defining characteristic of cream ales is their use of lager yeast, which can be used like ale yeast, fermenting in warm temperatures; in those cases, the beer is then conditioned in cold temperatures, like a lager.

Complicating things further, some cream ales use both lager yeast and ale yeast, and in different ways. Some use ale and lager yeast simultaneously; some use ale yeast during primary fermentation, then lager yeast during cold conditioning; and others, like Summit Brewing Zingiber Cream Ale, make two of the same beer, one with ale yeast, one with lager yeast, and then blend them.

Finally, there are international variations regarding the term “cream ale.” In the U.K. and Ireland, nitro beers are sometimes referred to as cream ales. Ireland’s Kilkenny Irish Cream Ale is actually an Irish red. It’s called a cream ale because of its nitrogenated gas blend, which gives it a creamy texture, but it otherwise bears little resemblance to an American cream ale.

Cream Ale History

Cream ales originated in pre-Prohibition times, aiming to compete with mass-market lagers. Uniquely American, the style was meant to mimic the light, refreshing quality of the German-born lagers with slightly different ingredients and methods.

The best-known contemporary cream ale is Genesee Brewing’s Genesee Cream Ale, which originated in Rochester, N.Y., in 1960. Before Genesee, there was Krueger’s Cream Ale. Created in 1935 by the Gottfried Krueger Brewery in Richmond, Va., it was America’s first canned beer.

Another throwback is Little Kings Cream Ale. It was brewed by Hudepohl-Schoenling Brewing in Cincinnati until 2001, when the brewery was bought by Boston Beer and its brands ceased production. Little Kings was brought back in 2016 by Christian Moerlein Brewing of Cincinnati.

Coffee, Fruit, and Other Cream Ale Adjuncts

Carton Brewing of Atlantic Highlands, N.J., claims seven of the top 10 cream ales on popular rating sites BeerAdvocate and Untappd with its style-defying series of “imperial” cream ales with coffee added. The series started with Regular Coffee, a 12-percent ABV imperial cream ale with Mexican Chiapas and Ethiopian Sidamo coffee from Fair Mountain Coffee Roasters; then came more versions such as Café Y’ Churro, with vanilla and cinnamon; St Kitts Coffee, finished on Brinley Gold Shipwreck wood and coconut; Irish Coffee, finished on Irish wood and peppermint; and SS-C.R.E.A.M., a collaboration with Barrier that gets complicated.

Other coffee cream ales have popped up around the country, like Georgetown Brewing Gusto Crema Coffee Ale (a 2016 GABF gold medal winner in the coffee beer category); Hand of Fate Brewing Double Bean Dream cream ale with vanilla and coffee; RAR Brewing House Roast and Maryland Roast imperial coffee cream ales; Burley Oak Brewing Coffee N’ Cream made with house cold brew coffee; and Ingenious Brewing Vanilla Coffee Cream Ale with vanilla and cold brew coffee.

Another riff is adding fruit, like Burlington Beer’s Raspberry Whale Cake, with raspberries; Station 26 Brewing Tangerine Cream, with tangerine zest and vanilla; and the aforementioned Eagle Park Brewing Berry Milkshake.

5 American Cream Ales to Try

The exact definition of cream ale is hard to pin down. Slightly easier is finding a few tasty examples to try. Here are five of our recent favorites.

Crooked Hammock Hand of Buddha 
Lewes, Del.
ABV: 5.6%

Crooked Hammock Hand of Buddha

Mill House Cucumber Blessings
Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
ABV: 5.2%

Mill House Brewing Cucumber Blessings

Anderson Valley Summer Solstice
Boonville, Calif.
ABV: 5%

Anderson Valley Summer Solstice

Newburgh Cream Ale
Newburgh, N.Y.
ABV: 4.2%

Newburgh Cream Ale

Pelican Kiwanda Cream Ale
Pacific City, Ore.
ABV: 5.4%

Pelican Kiwanda Cream Ale