Jason Bell is the first to admit that Powder Run Vanilla Cream Ale isn’t truly a cream ale. But that’s okay with him because his version, which is made with milk sugar and vanilla, actually lives up to the descriptive name of this old but strange American style — and it’s his best-selling beer.
In fact, the beer has done so well for Living the Dream Brewing, which Bell co-founded in 2014, that the Littleton brewery is hoping to drive some distribution growth this year by adding some Powder Run variations to its lineup of canned beers. Bell debuted a pair of them in late 2020 — Mocha and Tangerine — and 2021 begins with Horchata Power Run, which will release on Friday at the brewery and appear in liquor stores after that.
“It’s such a great canvas to play off of,” Bell says. “The variants give us the ability to continue to work with the theme.”
True cream ales are basically the same as standard American light lagers — golden in color, lower in alcohol, not too malty and not too hoppy — but they are brewed with ale yeast instead of lager yeast. And , despite the name, hey aren’t creamy on the palate at all. In fact, they have a crisp effervescence, corn-like aroma and somewhat boring flavor that regular light lagers do. Created in the late 1800s by U.S. ale brewers to compete with German-style lagers, which were taking over as America’s favorite beer at the time, the first brewers of cream ales used the word “cream” simply for marketing purposes.
Genesee is perhaps the most famous brewer of traditional cream ales, but three Colorado breweries have won GABF medals for their version in recent years: Cannonball Creek Brewing in Golden last year; New Belgium Brewing in 2018; and Station 26 Brewing in 2014.
Powder Run also won a GABF medal last October, but not in the American Cream Ale category; rather it took home hardware in the Herb and Spice Beer category.
To create the Powder Run, Bell says the brewery actually worked backwards. “We wanted something that would have mass appeal in the craft market,” and vanilla was the ingredient he wanted to work with. So Bell and his brewing staff tried it in a variety of lighter beer styles and decided that it worked best — and could be brewed more quickly — in a cream ale. Then they added the lactose to play off of the vanilla and to give the beer a richer, creamier mouthfeel.
“The goal was to brew a beer that even people who don’t like beer that much would still enjoy,” he explains, “but also that people who do like beer would enjoy as well. It’s not a wide strip. But that has been a lot of why it has done well, I think, and been so successful.”
It also occupies a niche that doesn’t have much competition in Colorado. Station 26 Brewing makes what is probably the state’s best known cream ale, Tangerine Cream Ale, which is widely distributed in cans. The beer isn’t made with lactose, but it does have vanilla and tangerine. Platt Park Brewing also makes a well-known version of the style with its Madagascar Vanilla Bean Cream Ale. This one is often available on nitro and in nitro cans to make it creamy.
Beyond that, there aren’t too many others, aside from occasional one-offs (both The Empourium Brewing and FlyteCo Brewing have had cream ales on tap recently, while Coal Mine Avenue Brewing brewed up Funplex Cream Ale last month in honor of the long-running former entertainment complex that was nearby.
Bell says the Horchata Powder Run came out well, and that he plans to follow up with more flavors throughout the year, possibly including key lime pie and Mexican mole. And aside from the vanilla extract, Living the Dream has a rule that it doesn’t use flavorings for any of its beers, preferring to stick with real fruits and spices or other ingredients.
Living the Dream recently upgraded its brewhouse from a seven-barrel system to a fifteen-barrel system and is adding more fermenters with the goal of increasing its production by as much as 40 percent in 2021. Most of that will be in canned sales, Bell says, which will also include the brewery’s 7-Speed IPA and Backcountry Wilderness Wheat Ale.
“I want to grow as much as demand lets us,” he says. “I’m not naive enough to think we will be in every store in eight states, but. I want us to get bigger, and we are hoping to use Powder Run as a springboard.”
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