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The Canadian Cream Ale Puzzle

TAPS Magazine | Spring 2011

The cream ale is a defined historical style of beer. A cursory research on its character will point to a golden-coloured, light-flavoured, malty and refreshing ale. Historical notes will explain that ale breweries in the U.S. developed cream ales sometime in the 19th century in order to compete with the increasing popularity of lagers. The cream ale style is still quite popular in North America.

Perhaps the best-known Canadian example is Sleeman Cream Ale, whose recipe can actually be traced back to the late 1800s, when George Sleeman was brewing in Guelph. The original Sleeman brewery was shut down during the U.S. prohibition. In 1988, John Sleeman decided to revive his great-great grandfather’s brands, and the first beer that he released was the cream ale. The cream ale is still on of Sleeman’s top brands. Just last year, it won a gold medal at the Canadian Brewing Awards in the Cream Ale category, because it was deemed to be an exceptional example of the cream ale style.

Although the Sleeman Cream Ale is widely distributed in Canada, beer lovers travelling to Québec or B.C. might have come across entirely different cream ales on the craft beer circuit. These beers are labeled as cream ales, but they do not fit the historical description of the cream ale. Instead, they have their own distinct regional character…

The Montréal-Style Cream Ale

A craft-brewed cream ale in La Belle Province is likely to have a lot more bitterness than the historical North American style and will be amber in colour. It is only found on draught and it is nitro-dispensed, meaning that the beer is brewed and served with a mix of nitrogen and carbon dioxide (most beers just use CO2) and is pushed through a specialized spout that forces carbonation out of the beer as it is being poured. The end result is a lightly carbonated beer with a rich thick head. This is the same dispensation method that is now commonly used for stouts.

This style of cream ale can be found at a range of brewpubs including Le Réservoir in Montréal, Le Gambrinus in Trois-Rivières and Archibald, just north of Québec City. When brewers at these various establishments share the influences that helped shape this unusual incarnation of the cream ale, the one beer that will invariably come up is the St. Ambroise Cream Ale. St. Ambroise Cream Ale was first released in the early nineties. Peter McAuslan, president of McAuslan Brewing (the brewery behind the St. Ambroise brand) was inspired by the rising popularity of nitro-dispensed beers in Europe and the technology surrounding this method of dispensation. He started nitro-dispensing the St. Ambroise oatmeal stout and decided to try adding nitrogen to the St. Ambroise Pale Ale as well.

McAuslan was surprised by how much the flavour and character of the Pale Ale was affected by the addition of nitrogen. So much so, in fact, that he decided to keep it as a separate draught product. McAuslan explains, “From my point of view, they are two very different beers. Stop for a moment and think about the difference between the taste of un-carbonated table water compared to carbonated table water. In carbonated water, there is a sharpness, an acidity, it rinses the mouth.” Since beer is made from over 90% water, logically it entails that the level of carbonation in the water used to brew a beer will affect the flavour of the final product.  McAuslan elaborates: “The cream ale is rounder. This comes from the lack of acidity so you don’t have the prickliness, you don’t have the washing. The malt flavours are a bit more pronounced.” On the other hand, the carbonation in the Pale Ale will lift a lot of aromatics out of the beer, bringing then to the nose. As a result, there is a lot more hop character in the aroma of the Pale Ale. In addition to this, the acidity of the CO2 in that beer will accent its hop bitterness.

When asked about the choice of the term cream ale as a name for this product, Peter McAuslan explains very simply: “The character of the liquid is creamy. The head of the product is creamy. It had a round malty character on the palate.” He knew that there were different beers on the market labeled as cream ale and that these beers were not nitro-dispensed but he decided to go ahead and use the name cream ale to describe the his nitro-dispensed beer. “I still think if you want a creamy beer, you’re not going to find a creamier one than ours. Hence: Cream Ale.”

Like a number of other Québec brewers, Nathan McNutt from Le Réservoir also makes a Montréal style cream ale.  He admits that he was a bit confused the first time he came across the McAuslan Cream Ale. Because he was familiar with the historical style, he had been expecting a different flavour and thought to himself “that’s not a cream ale”. Still, in 2006, the Réservoir team decided to release a nitro-dispensed Pale Ale and call it cream ale. Nathan concedes that a number of the customers were familiar with the McAuslan brand and that there was no confusion with regards to customers expecting to receive a more traditional rendition of the style. In the end, he concludes: “If it tastes good, brew it!”

The Vancouver Style Cream Ale

In British Columbia, one might be surprised to receive a deep amber or brown, richly-flavoured ale when ordering cream ale. In fact, a number of the cream ales in B.C. including the R&B Raven Cream Ale and the Russell Brewing Cream Ale are brewed in the style of an English Mild. These beers are not nitro-dispensed but just like their Montréal counterparts, these West Coast interpretation of the cream ale can be traced back to one brand. In this case, the beer in question is Shaftebury Cream Ale. Shaftebury Brewing Company is now owned by Sleeman (Sapporo) but when it started, it was a small craft brewery located on the east side of Vancouver.

Tim Wittig was the co-founder & co-owner of Shaftebury along with Paul Beaton from 1987 until 1999, when the brewery was sold to Sleeman. When these two men were starting the brewery, they enlisted the help of John Mitchell, the brewer who had set up Spinnakers and developed all of the recipes there. The Shaftebury team had gone around and tasted a number of beers in order to zero in on the flavour that they would like to have in the Shaftebury brands. They were particularly drawn to one of Mitchell’s beers: and English Mild, which was called Mount Tolmie dark. They therefore decided to model the Shaftebury beer recipe after this English Mild. Wittig explains that the original Shaftebury Cream Ale was dark brown: “At the time when we made it, it had a completely different flavour. It was 4.8 alcohol by volume and it got its dark colour from the chocolate and crystal malt that we imported from England.

As it turns out, the choice to call this beer a cream ale was an entirely arbitrary one. Wittig had heard the term cream ale before. The Genesee Cream Ale, brewed in Rochester, NY was quite popular when he was a young boy. He doesn’t recall associating the term cream ale with a style, though: “We didn’t even know a lot about beer, honestly.” he explains. “It was just strictly a name that we had had exposure to and we thought sounded cool. It did just come straight out of the blue. It was not based on a style at all which probably drives people crazy.” In fact, the Shaftebury version did so well in Vancouver that, for most beer drinkers, it was the brand most closely associated with the term cream ale.

Rick Dellow, one of the owners at R&B Brewing tells an interesting story about the R&B Raven Cream Ale: “When we first launched it, we just called it Raven Ale and although it tasted great, it didn’t sell very well. It’s only when we changed the name to Raven Cream Ale that people connected with what it was going to taste like because Shaftebury already had what they called their cream ale, which was a dark mild. The sales just took off.” It’s particularly interesting to note that both the Shaftebury Cream Ale and the Raven Cream Ale have won awards at the World Beer Cup in the English Dark Mild category.

Iain Hill, who is now the head brewer at Yaletown brewpub, in Vancouver, was brewing at Shaftebury in the early days. He’s since brewed a number of cream ales in the historical style at Yaletown and he does admit that his authentic cream ales did confuse customers somewhat in the early days: “I don’t know if we had Sleeman Cream Ale out here back then. People wouldn’t really have known. They would say: this is light for a cream ale.”

Nowadays, both in Québec and British Columbia, the historical versions and local interpretations of cream ale exist side by side. As an increasing number of consumers become more familiar with historical beer styles, like McNutt in Montréal and Hill in Vancouver, they are raising questions about inconsistencies in style. Considering that both regional cream ale interpretations have survived over fifteen years and are brewed in a number of local establishments, perhaps it’s time to embrace and celebrate the Montréal-style cream ale and the Vancouver-style cream ale for what they are: recognized regional styles of their own!

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