Gary Geminn was in high school and just approaching the old New York state drinking age of 18 when his father, Clarence Geminn, is said to have declared on the floor of the Genesee Brewing Co.’s brewhouse, “I think we have a winner here.”
The winning beer in question? Genesee Cream Ale, which debuted in 1960 and became for a time the best-selling ale in the United States, with some 1 million barrels annually rolling out of the Rochester-based regional brewery—no small feat, given it was then barely distributed beyond the Northeast. The elder Geminn, Genesee’s brewmaster since 1959 and an assistant brewmaster there for eight years before that, had spearheaded the beer’s creation.
It became the cream ale against which all others have come to be measured the past 55 years, including trendier new ones hopping on a mini-cream ale revival.
The cream ale was meant as a kind of middle ground between two earlier Genesee offerings, according to Gary Geminn, who himself went on to work for the brewery for 42 years, including as brewmaster from 1978, when he succeeded his father, to 2005, when he himself retired as both brewmaster and senior vice president of operations. Clarence Geminn died in 2006 at age 92.
Genesee’s Dickens Dry Ale enjoyed only a short shelf life in the late 1950s. Consumers apparently did not care for its drier taste. At the same time, Genesee produced a more popular—and heavier-tasting—offering called 12 Horse Ale.
Seeking a replacement for the discontinued Dickens as well as a happy taste median between that and the more robust 12 Horse led Geminn to the cream ale style. (As did surely another earlier Genesee creation: a light cream ale introduced in the late 1940s and discontinued in the mid-1950s.)
Cream ale is one of the very few beer styles born and raised in the United States. Predating Prohibition, the style grew up as a response to the pilsners flooding the market via immigrant brewers from Central Europe. Cream ales were generally made with adjuncts such as corn and rice to lighten the body of what would otherwise end up as a thicker ale; brewers also fermented and aged them at temperatures cooler than normal for ales.
Here, then, was the middle ground Clarence Geminn might be able to play in.
His father and grandfather, a German immigrant, had been brewers in Belleville, Illinois, about 15 miles southeast of St. Louis. Bootleggers had approached his father, in fact, about brewing during Prohibition, but he demurred. Clarence Geminn himself was completely dedicated to the craft, according to his son, a fourth-generation brewer.
“Saturday and Sunday he would go into check on things,” Gary Geminn told AAB from his home in Naples, New York. “Summer picnics had to wait until the afternoon; any outing had to wait.”
As for the exact formula behind his father’s most enduring beer, no one’s talking—obviously not the brewery itself, nor did the beer’s progenitor.
“As my father always said,” Geminn explained of the recipe, “keep it under your hat. It’s just a unique process to give it that ale flavor and still have it smooth.”
The success of the beer after 1960 surprised Clarence Geminn and Genesee. They liked it. But given the predominance of American pilsners, who knew so many others would? Those 1 million barrels came to account for nearly one-third of Genesee’s annual output, the brand and the brewery becoming virtually synonymous.
Sales, of course, would waver from that peak as those pilsners from larger national players, particularly the light ones, washed most styles almost entirely out of the marketplace, cream ale included.
But Genesee, through its various ownerships, kept Geminn’s winning recipe in constant rotation, its popularity enduring into a second half-century now. Perhaps it is because the beer was originally such a hit with younger drinkers, who saw the new offering in 1960 as just that: new and therefore cool, a point the Genesee sales team drove home in its marketing campaign.
Geminn’s son, Gary, was in the perfect position to see this perception. He graduated high school in 1961, his 18-year-old buddies knowing perfectly well that his dad was a brewer. “I was kind of popular,” he said with a laugh, “because I had access to beer.”
Tom Acitelli is the author of The Audacity of Hops: The History of America’s Craft Beer Revolution. His new book, American Wine: A Coming-of-Age Story, is available for pre-order. Reach him on Twitter @tomacitelli.