All About Beer Magazine - Volume 22, Issue 4
September 1, 2001 By

A few issues back, I wrote about some tasty blonde ale styles. This time the assignment is two authentic American styles.

For readers in their 20s or 30s: way back at the dawn of the current craft brewing age, the mid-1970s, there were but two native US beer styles, the blonde cream ale and a copper-colored style that used to be called “steam beer.” For legal reasons, the latter is now called California common beer, although that term does not appear on the label.

Today, there are more than a few all-American, homegrown beer styles produced by innovative brewers. Most of these styles developed out of a very simple process: take a recipe for an established style—say, wheat beer—do something to it, and see what happens. If enough happened, a new, American version of an old style was born.

Cream ale and California common, though, stand alone as original US styles. They are certainly not exotic like the Belgian lambic, enormous like barley wine, or full of character like dry stout. They are like Kristina Abernathy, the southern blonde Weather Channel honey, not Liz Hurley, the English model and actress with a wild streak as long as the Mississippi.

Don’t get me wrong. The world needs Liz Hurleys to keep life interesting and stir the blood. But, men, if you have nice, respectable, God-fearing parents, whom would you choose to bring home to meet them? The foreign, dark-haired, ultra-sexy Liz or the cute all-American beauty with stable, marrying qualities, Kristina?

That’s the sort of beers these are—like the pretty girl next door.

Cream ale and California common are worthy alternatives to some everyday drinking beers. You could substitute cream ale for standard and premium American lager, and California common for other copper-colored ales and lagers.

Cream ale is categorized an ale hybrid; and California common, a lager hybrid.

What’s All This about Hybrids?

For readers unfamiliar with these categories, an explanation is needed. The type of yeast used in fermentation helps determine whether a beer is an ale or a lager. Yeast strains are classified as either top or bottom fermenting. Top-fermenting strains are called ale yeasts and bottom-fermenting strains are called lager yeasts.

Fermentation temperature also plays a role in this process. Like other living things, different yeast strains work better at different temperatures. Typically, ale yeasts ferment best around room temperature, and lager yeasts work best at cellar temperatures, or colder. Put in human terms, we work best and much prefer to do heavy manual labor, such as digging a ditch, when it’s cool, but we wouldn’t take Kristina Abernathy to a day at the beach when the temperature is hovering in the 50s, would we?

So it is with yeast.

A beer is, therefore, called an ale when top-fermenting yeast is used and fermentation takes place at warm temperatures. The reverse is accepted for lagers.

But what if a brewer takes a lager yeast and ferments at ale temperatures, or uses an ale yeast, but employs a lager fermentation process? What he’s gone and done is produce a confused half-breed. Confused, because we beer style writers were at a loss about what to call these beers until someone came up with the politically safe term, “hybrid.” Fred Ekhardt, my colleague who appears elsewhere in this issue, once wrote that these hybrids were called “bastards” in old brewing literature.

California Common Beer

Specs: 4.4-5.5 ABV; 1044-56 OG; bitterness, 30-45 IBU; color, 10-20 SRM.

This style was, for years, called steam beer. Since Anchor Brewing of San Francisco trademarked that name for its eponymous brand, another euphemism had to be thought up. Companies, quite rightly, must take vigorous legal steps to prevent their trademarked brand names from being infringed upon or from falling into general usage, which would invalidate their trademark protection. (Someone pass me a kleenex.)

After years of discussion, an alternative was hit upon—California common beer, named in honor of the state where it was commonly brewed. A bit awkward and too many syllables, but there you have it.

The style originated in the San Francisco area during the Alaskan gold rush era (1890s), not during the California gold rush, which started in 1849 when 80,000 people, predominantly males, rushed to San Francisco. The city grew into a rough and tumble transit port for those traveling to Alaska. Indeed, San Francisco owes its transformation into a major metropolis to the economic booms of the mid-century.

Those rugged men, and service-oriented women, brought their eastern, lager beer drinking habit with them. Quickly, breweries sprang up to meet demand. Lacking bespoke brewing equipment in such an isolated outpost, the brewers improvised. They had lager yeast brought west. There were thousands of thirsty men with cash in their pockets, so they simply pitched that yeast into whatever vessels were at hand, or were easiest to construct, that were flat-bottomed, square and shallow. Lack of refrigeration equipment didn’t deter them. But, fortunately, that combination of vessel dimensions led to a rapid cooling of the wort to, and subsequent 
fermentation at, ambient temperatures.

So, from necessity being the mother of invention sprang a new style, a beer fermented with lager yeast but fermented at ale yeast temperatures.

Swept along by the Alaskan gold rush, the style first spread to there, and then, one imagines, was carried back as far east as Wisconsin by those who returned when the gold mines quickly played out.

The style nearly died out by the 1960s, a victim of both Prohibition and the switch to fizzy lager. Thankfully, it was rescued from oblivion, in an oft-told story that does not need repeating here, by Fritz Maytag, frequently called the father of the modern craft brewing revolution.

The color range of the original California common beer was quite wide—light to dark. It has now narrowed—from light amber to copper. Carbonation is quite lively. Alcohol strength is moderate, roughly spanning that of special bitter and ESB. The nose should be a lovely balance between nutty or soft malt and hops. Malt slowly yields to the hop on the palate and finish, and the body should be medium.

Cream Ale

Specs: 4.5-5.56 ABV; 1045-1053.2 OG; bitterness, 15-25 IBU; color, 3-10 SRM.

Cream ale, also called American sparkling ale, is an American ale-hybrid style, now taken up residence in Canada. Coincidentally, it also came about in the late 1800s. It developed out of the need by the few remaining ale brewers to find a beer style with which to fight the battle of the marketplace against golden lagers. Lager won, and ale brewers continued their decline. As sales shrank, the remaining ale brewers cheapened and blandified their product until it was no longer worth a thought.

The style dwindled to just a few brands, but is now undergoing somewhat of a rebound—and a much needed improvement. Craft brewers, who have picked up the gauntlet of improving the style, are making it a more distinctive beer deserving of our attention.

A procedure that differentiates this hybrid from others is the cold lagering (age conditioning) it undergoes. It may be argued, as it long has been in some American brewing circles, that the primary determining factor in classifying beers is fermentation temperature, not yeast strain.

Use of corn grits and/or flakes is typical of the grain bill for cream ale, but not always so. Expect better of any microbrewery brands, and those from regional brewers who actually care about what they sell. Some are kraeusened, often with lager wort and yeast, to induce natural carbonation, as opposed to artificial carbonation. Natural carbon dioxide tends to produce a smoother mouthfeel. A combination of American and German hops may be used, as well as North American grains.

Color is pale to bright yellow to medium gold. Body should be light to medium. Hops should be subtle on the nose, with possibly some fruity notes. Bitterness is moderate, and these beers are well carbonated, spritzy, and refreshing in the manner of blonde lagers. Cream ale is appropriate for those hot, muggy North American summer days. Poorer examples are best drunk as cold as possible and quickly, before they warm.

Classically American

Despite the fact the style lacks a well-recognized, brandable name, well-made, craft brewed California commons are a delight—easy drinking and moreish. Cream ales, despite their poor reputation, have made great strides under the careful eyes of caring brewers. They certainly are a preferable alternative to bog-standard lager and are refreshing during the hot season. Enjoy both for what they are: classically American, just like the girl next door.

Genesee Cream Ale

ABV: 5.1
Tasting Notes: Brilliant, medium yellow; throws a big, creamy white head of good duration. No off odors; more body than standard American lager; surprisingly aggressive nose that explodes out of the glass. Hoppy and earthy notes more pleasant than expected for the style; quite fizzy, lively like a lager. Nice hop/malt balance in the finish, but some corn comes through, especially as it warms. Initial hop character grows slightly, levels off, then vanishes, leaving a dry palate with some residual sweetness. It been years since I had a Genny and this has more character than I recall, and more character than bog-standard lager against which it competes.

Little Kings Cream Ale

ABV: 5.5
Tasting Notes: I had a slightly old bottle of this laying about, but thought it best that I get a fresh sample. I’m glad I did, as the brewery told me that this was recently reformulated to bring it back in line with the original. This new version is much improved. Brilliant medium yellow; creamy white head of moderate duration; no off odors; good, firm body for style; much more aggressive nose than the previous version. Good carbonation, but not over the top. Hops/malt balance is neutral; neither dominates on the palate or on the finish. There’s a white pepper, hot feel to the finish; more mouthfeel, at the upper rear of the palate, than a taste, which is interesting. The taste lingers in a leisurely sort of way, then slowly fades, with a bit of residual sweetness.

Anchor Steam Beer

ABV: 4.9
Tasting Notes: Brilliant copper; big creamy, ecru head of long duration; firm-bodied based on malt. Lovely hops over soft malt on the nose, with some faint earthy notes, which improve as the beer warms. Good, pleasant carbonation on the tongue. Initial fine hop notes on the palate carry right through to a long, pleasant finish; hoppy bitterness with no spikes from start to finish. The original, and still the standard against which others are judged. Best served at ale or cellar temperatures.