Every week in The Man Who Invented Beer, Adam Cowden runs down the latest in craft beer, usually with a little history lesson for flavor.
Confession: even I get sick of craft beer sometimes. It doesn’t happen often, but every now and then, I come down with a fever, and the only prescription is good ol’ watered-down American macro beer. So now, just one week after my rant about why real Americans drink craft beer, I’m going to have to bite my tongue and recommend a recently-discovered American macro beer that exceeded my expectations: Genesee Cream Ale.
What’s the story?
I already gave you the scoop on The Genesee Brewing Company back in my review of Dundee Porter, but here’s a quick recap: founded in 1878, The Genesee Brewery in Rochester , NY is one of the oldest continually operating breweries in the country. Brewmaster Lewis A Wehle helped the brewery survive prohibition by investing in baking, and afterwards, the Genesee brand became successful enough to compete with names such as Budweiser and Miller in its home territory of the Northeastern U.S. In the early 1990s, “Genny” began to expand into the Midwest, and shortly after began to introduce a few “craft style” beers, most notably J.W. Dundee’s Honey Brown Lager (today simply known as Honey Brown Lager). Today, they are part of North American Breweries, a company that owns the Dundee, Seagram’s Escapes, Magic Hat, Portland Brewing, and Labatt brands in addition to Genesee.
The success of the Genesee brand in the latter half of the 20th century can be largely attributed to Genesee Cream Ale, which they first released in 1960. As the name suggests, Genesee is a “cream ale,” an American beer style that actually has more in common with light lagers than it does with any sort of ale. According to Genesee:
In the old days, there were ales and there were lagers. Ales were flavorful. Lagers were smooth. And never the twain did meet. Until Genesee Cream Ale. And then the twain met head on to form an American Original with the flavor of an ale and the smoothness of a lager.
Genesee also makes the bold claim: “There are only two original American beer styles. We perfected one of them.” I’m not sure that this is completely accurate, but it is certainly true that Genesee pioneered and helped set the standard for the cream ale style.
Why should I drink it?
It’s cheap. Very cheap. And as I’m about to tell you, it’s really not bad at all. In terms of quality per cent, this might be one to of the best beers in America. In fact, it’s actually been honored with two gold medals in the American Lager/Cream Ale category in the World Beer Cup.
Aside from that, the beer has a very sentimental/nostalgic value for some people. It was originally marketed as “the male ale,” and came to be very popular with the blue collar crowd around its home state of NY. A quick brose through the beer’s reviews on its ratebeer page will review more than a few references to the late 70s, early 80s, college, and memories of Dad. Much of the beer’s modern marketing hinges on this nostalgia, and the website admits that “a whole bunch of us first experienced Cream Ale when Dad left the fridge in the garage unguarded.”
What does it taste like?
At first quaff, it tastes almost like nothing. Seriously, after the first sip I had to do a double take to check and make sure I hadn’t just inhaled a gulp of cold air. Yes, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but the beer has almost no discernible nose, and only the tiniest, faintest bit of an aftertaste. The strange part, though, was that I didn’t totally mind this blandness. The lack complete lack of aromas, esters, or other taste subtleties allowed the beer’s faint, malty sweetness to shine through in a very pleasant way. You’d never guess that the beer is an ale; in fact, it’s actually clearer and smoother than most lagers out there. The maltiness was very much the light, adjunct-y kind that I associate with Bud, Miller, and the other light American lager vanguards, but without any of the bitterness or acrid after bite. I really think that this has to be the smoothest cheap beer on the market. Mine came in a tallboy pint can, but it went down the hatch quicker than most 12oz cans.
The mouthfeel is where the name can be deceiving. My only other experience with cream ale was with “Wexford’s Irish Cream Ale,” which was nitro-carbonated to achieve the same velvety, silky quality as a Guinness. Genesee Cream Ale is actually carbonated through a process known as krausening, which involves adding actively fermenting malt wort to the already-fermented beer to provide sugars necessary for carbonation during additional fermentation. Though this does make for a slightly smoother beer than those that are force-carbonated, I still thought that Genesee Cream’s mouthfeel had more in common with light lagers that I was used to than with the “creamy” nitro-carbonated beers that I’m familiar with. The beer is actually very well carbonated and a bit fizzy, and comes topped with a nice fluffy white head when poured.
Should I try it?
Yes. There’s really no good reason not to. It’s a dirt cheap beer that goes down very easy, and is much smoother and better than any other cheap American “macro” beer. In terms of beers you can buy and consume in large quantities, I’m not sure there’s a better choice out there.