Cream ale is an old-school mutt beer.

The ale-lager hybrid’s popularity dipped in the 1970s, but it’s making a comeback despite lacking the firepower contemporary hop heads crave.

Cream ales “get overlooked because people in this craft beer culture think they’ve got to drink something with the most amount of hops or the most amount of alcohol,” said Mark Opdahl, co-organizer of Saturday’s Northern Lights Rare Beer Fest at the Minnesota History Center in downtown St. Paul. “It’s an outstanding style that I wish a couple more breweries would do.”

Brothers Andy and David Johnson gave two thumbs up to CowBell Cream Ale, which was among the beers they sampled last weekend at Urban Growler Brewing Co. in St. Paul. CowBell might not become their “go-to,” but these thirty-somethings from generation hops said it’s a refreshing break from the higher octane ales they favor.

“Sometimes you’re drinking something heavier all day, and the cream ale here would be a good changeup beer,” said Andy Johnson of Minneapolis. “It would be a crowd-pleaser if you wanted to get some growlers for your barbecue.”

With a light-bite finish and tongue-caressing corn flavor, CowBell has become brewer/co-owner Deb Loch’s de facto flagship since opening last summer. She points to her ale and New Glarus Spotted Cow, a cream ale ubiquitous in Wisconsin, as evidence that the style is making a comeback.

“It definitely is gaining popularity,” Loch said. “I call it a transitional beer, so folks who aren’t used to craft beer who might be a light lager drinker, they’re very willing to try this, and it’s a gateway to other beers.”

An increasing number of Minnesota breweries — including Third Street and Castle Danger — are making cream ales to diversify their lineups and lure macro lager devotees.

As American as John Deere, this “lawn mower beer” is one of the few styles indigenous to the United States. Cream ales are neither as pristine as pilsners nor as hops-forward as popular pale ales. The lower alcohol-by-volume brew offers more flavor (from grainy to faintly fruity) and a rounder mouthfeel than macro light lagers, while corn is often used to lighten its body.

Although IPAs outpace cream ales by a bazillion to one, Enki Brewing’s Victoria’s Gold is the hottest seller in its Victoria, Minn., taproom. What began as a golden ale has evolved into brewer Jason Davis’ oats-laced cream ale interpretation. Davis admits he’s surprised it’s such a hit, but rebuffed the notion that the style is underappreciated in the age of the IPA and burly imperial stout.

“It’s got a different audience,” he said.

Maybe so. But it hasn’t stopped brewers from beefing up their cream ales. This year Dangerous Man released an intriguing imperial version of its subtly toasty cream ale aged in tequila barrels. Amid the glut of barleywines and barrel-aged whatevers at last year’s Northern Lights — where lighter beers are apologetically listed as “palate cleansers” — a jalapeño cream ale from Utah’s Wasatch Brewery fared well in the best-in-fest fan vote.

St. Paul newcomer Wabasha Brewing Co. offers a similar brew with jalapeños lending a vegetal freshness and hint of spice.

“The cream ale’s kind of a transparent beer in the sense that it’s really good by itself, but you can do a lot of things with it and it’s still absolutely delicious,” brewer Brett Erickson said.

And no apologies are necessary for these sunny-day thirst-quenchers.

“I would, on a nice warm spring day,” Andy Johnson said, “sip that sitting on a patio somewhere [or] take a growler out in the canoe.”

 

Michael Rietmulder, of Minneapolis, writes about nightlife.