Genesee Cream Ale: Smooth Character
Select a type of beer and think about which one started or revived a tradition—Pilsner Urquell, Rodenbach, Fuller’s ESB. These are your classics. We tend to discount American beers made in large plants and sold in cans and not unreasonably; most tend to be targeted at the mass audience or are pallid imitations of more interesting lagers brewed elsewhere. But cream ale is an American style, one of the few from before Prohibition. What else but an older American brewery would be making the classic?
Cream ales are a quintessential American invention—part reinterpretation, part local flavor and part hustle and gloss. Before the 19th century, North America was ale country. Lagers weren’t common until Bavarians arrived and started setting up breweries to make them. From the middle of that century to the end, the country went through a wholesale shift as drinkers flocked to lagers. Ale breweries, trying to forestall obsolescence, responded by making beers that looked and tasted a lot like them.
In The American Handy-book of the Brewing, Malting and Auxiliary Trades by Robert Wahl and Max Henius, we find a catalog of the beers being made around the turn of the 20th century. Of these lagerlike ales, they write, “Cream, lively, or present use ale takes the place of English mild ale, and more recently the American ale brewers are equipping their plants with refrigerating machines to brew a beer—brilliant or sparkling ale—that combines the property of a lager beer and ale; i.e. a sparkling, brilliant beer with an ale taste and aroma.” This was achieved by the use of corn or sugar (but usually corn) in the grist, warm fermentation and a period of lagering. The “cream” part? It appears to be pure marketing spin (and a wise shift that sounds a lot more inviting than “present use ale”).
Genny Cream Ale does not date to that period; the current version was originally brewed by Clarence Geminn in 1960 (an earlier beer, Light Cream Ale, was brewed in the 1940s, but little is known about it). Genesee made an ale called 12 Horse that didn’t sell well, and the brewery was looking for something to replace it. And, whether Geminn consulted Wahl and Henius or not, he created a beer very much like the one they describe. It uses corn and the brewery’s English ale strain, and has the smoothness of a lager. Wahl and Henius do not mention sweetness, but Geminn tucked in a healthy dose, which does help evoke a sense of creaminess.
For my money, though, it’s a more subtle note that elevates Genesee above other light, pale beers. It’s fermented a bit cooler than other ales for smoothness, but the yeast gives it unmistakable character. Geminn’s son Gary, who came to Genesee shortly after Cream’s debut, points to the yeast’s English lineage as a big part of the character. “We had [what we] considered was a true ale yeast brought over from England. That’s where our ale … got its roots.” You can detect it immediately in the nose. The aroma reminds me of a London pub, and even though the flavors that follow—toasty notes, a hint of corn and that honeylike sweetness—are unlike an English bitter, the impression persists. Another unusual element, and a further extension of the creaminess, is a mouthfeel that reminds me of paraffin. Finally, Geminn gave Cream a beautiful golden color, deeper and more seductive than light lagers.
In the late 1800s, cream ales wouldn’t have fooled anyone looking for a lager. With greater ability to manipulate beers, breweries can today get very lagerlike character from ale yeast. What’s wonderful about Genny is that is so clearly not a lager; it was never intended to replace them. This may seem a minor achievement now, but in 1960, consolidation was scrubbing oddball beers from the market. There is something subversive about Cream Ale’s refusal to get with the program.
There are other elements that define a classic. Such a beer must also exhibit character and excellence; it must hew to traditional techniques. It must stand out in a crowd and impress a drinker.
Genesee’s famous ale is too old and too well-known for most people to taste it except through the filter of familiarity and nostalgia. But leave aside the cans and the convenience stores and taste it anew—you’ll find a beer of character that is really unusual and unique. In all the ways we measure a classic, Genny Cream fits the bill.
The following beers were tasted by Jeff Alworth.
Hardywood Cream AleABV: 4.4% | Cream Ale
Tasting Notes: The folks at Hardywood have made one of those cream ales that key on “the property of a lager beer.” It is straw-colored and vibrantly sparkling, crisp and dry as a Japanese lager. A sweetness in the mid-palate emerges with warmth, just hinting at the ale inside.
Sixpoint Sweet ActionABV: 5.2% | Hybrid Cream Ale
Tasting Notes: In a vacuum, squinting just right, you might trick yourself into thinking Sweet Action is a typical cream ale. But inhale those modern citrusy fumes, take note of that almost copper body, and taste the lemony bitterness going down. This is a fine pale ale with the dials turned down half a notch.
Beachwood Foam TopABV: 5.5% | Blond Ale
Tasting Notes: We finish with a beer that might be an homage to Genny. It has the same golden color, lush ale esters and a subdued effervescence. The highlight is a lovely honeylike sweetness with a kiss of toastiness. It is fuller than Genny, but ends with a snap that invites future sips.
Jeff Alworth is the author of The Beer Bible.