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Despite its name, there is no lactose in a cream ale. What it does have is a smooth mouthfeel and endless refreshment. The style was created as an ale to compete with lagers, with the aim being an easy drinking beer that delivers on crispness but shows a creamy character.
Often, classic examples are called “lawnmower beers” because of how good they taste after a long day doing hard work in the hot sun.
Visually, the ale should be clear and ranging from straw in color to golden, with a minimal head but robust carbonation on the mouthfeel. The grainbill is dominant in flavor and aroma, often with simple cereal grain and corn coming through.
Simplicity is a calling card of this style, with the ingredients working in harmony and not competing for attention. More traditional varieties of hops are used, resulting in herbal or floral aromas. Heavy citrus, dank or tropical hops would be out of place in classic examples of the style. Sometimes, a fruitiness will be present and it can be a tad sweet on the finish.
Some brewers, notably Lee Lord the head brewer of Narragansett Brewery, have been on a social media crusade to make cream ale the official beer style of summer. The initiative makes sense because cream ale is one that lends itself to relaxation.
Because of its simple base, there are some brewers that use the style to play around with different flavors—like fruit or herb adjuncts. Others will go heavy on hops to showcase lupulin flavors. Those options can be enjoyable in their own way, but a simple, well-made cream ale with no fuss is one that delivers the most solid drinking experience.