NOTE: In the 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines, Cream Ale has moved to Style 1C in Category 1 Standard American Beer which describes everyday American beers that have a wide public appeal. Containing both ales and lagers, the beers of this category are not typically complex, and have smooth, accessible flavors. The ales tend to have lager-like qualities, or are designed to appeal to mass-market lager drinkers as crossover beers. Mass-market beers with a more international appeal or origin are described in the International Lager category.
Cream ale is sometimes called American Sparkling Ale and is one of only a few styles which originated in America. The style was developed after more than 5 million German immigrants arrived bringing their thirst for the lagers of their homeland with them. Among the many German immigrants were brewers with the skills to produce these lagers with American ingredients. The remaining ale brewers were losing tremendous market share to the big breweries and the new golden lager style that took the country by storm in the 1800s. They needed a beer that could compete. The answer was an ale that tasted and looked like a lager. Cream ales were brewed at near lager temperatures and sometimes cold conditioned. There is a debate on whether the style should be brewed at ale temperatures and then cold conditioned (lagered) for a long period of time, finished with a lager yeast in a long cold conditioning period, or brewed with an ale yeast at near lager temperatures. I believe you'd end up with a very similar beer no matter which method you tried.
Many times the beers are krausened for natural carbonation. Historically, these beers may have been blended with lager beer to dilute the ale characteristics. Some brewers even finished the beer with a lager yeast at cold temperatures to mellow the beer and produce a nice crisp finish. The use of adjuncts such as corn or rice to lighten the body is typical for the style but is not required. A great many craft brewers make an excellent all malt example.
To determine the characteristics of the beer you want to brew, you must decide if you want to brew a modern version or a pre-prohibition version. Pre-prohibition versions, like the pre-prohibition pilseners, will be stronger, hoppier, and have more bitterness. Since these characteristics throw the beer outside the style guidelines for modern Cream-ale, they would be considered specialty or experimental beers and should be entered into competitions in that category. This beer may be made with up to 20% adjuncts and 20% glucose to lighten the beer. It should be like a Standard American Lager with more malt presence. Homebrewers can use either ale or lager yeast, or both, and adjust the temperature accordingly. Under no circumstances should you add vanilla to make a cream soda, this is just a misunderstanding of the term by many homebrewers.
References: Information for this page was adapted from the 2008 and 2015 BJCP Style Guidelines and Brewing Classic Styles, 80 Winning Recipes Anyone Can Brew, by Jamil Zainasheff and John J. Palmer.
If you find this site helpful, please link to us!