"Do you have any cream ales on tap?"
I often get this question while pouring pints. "Cream Ale" is a very confusingly named style of beer. It does NOT technically refer to beers such as Boddingtons Pub Ale and Tetley's English Ale. These beers are both in the style of English bitter. They usually served through a high-pressure nitrogen gas line with a de-gassing tap (the same odd tap extension that can be seen on Guinness taps). This gives the beers a creamy head and a flat body that lacks the bubbly carbonation of most beers (it is often replicated with canned beers containing a nitrogen "widget"). It's only logical that most people would term these light-colored, creamy beers as "cream ales". As such, I usually simply ask if they are inquiring about "beers similar to Boddingtons".
Actual "cream ale" beers are quite different. This style of beer was created by ale brewers to mimic the characteristics of popular light lager styles of beer (more on ales vs lagers here). These beers are also light in color, however are often strongly carbonated and lack the creamy flatness of nitro-tap bitters. These ales are very thirst-quenching and often have bodies that are lightened through the use of adjuncts such as corn. One of the most beloved examples of the style is New Glarus' "Spotted Cow", a beer only distributed in Wisconsin that is becoming very popular in the region. For a better idea of what a cream ale is, I turn to the BJCP style guidelines which define it better than I ever could:
6. LIGHT HYBRID BEER
6A. Cream Ale
Aroma: Faint malt notes. A sweet, corn-like aroma and low levels of
DMS are commonly found. Hop aroma low to none. Any variety of
hops may be used, but neither hops nor malt dominate. Faint esters
may be present in some examples, but are not required. No diacetyl.
Appearance: Pale straw to moderate gold color, although usually on
the pale side. Low to medium head with medium to high carbonation.
Head retention may be no better than fair due to adjunct use. Brilliant,
Flavor: Low to medium-low hop bitterness. Low to moderate
maltiness and sweetness, varying with gravity and attenuation. Usually
well attenuated. Neither malt nor hops prevail in the taste. A low to
moderate corny flavor from corn adjuncts is commonly found, as is
some DMS. Finish can vary from somewhat dry to faintly sweet from
the corn, malt, and sugar. Faint fruity esters are optional. No diacetyl.
Mouthfeel: Generally light and crisp, although body can reach
medium. Smooth mouthfeel with medium to high attenuation; higher
attenuation levels can lend a “thirst quenching” finish. High
carbonation. Higher gravity examples may exhibit a slight alcohol
Overall Impression: A clean, well-attenuated, flavorful American
History: An ale version of the American lager style. Produced by ale
brewers to compete with lager brewers in the Northeast and Mid-
Atlantic States. Originally known as sparkling or present use ales,
lager strains were (and sometimes still are) used by some brewers, but
were not historically mixed with ale strains. Many examples are
kräusened to achieve carbonation. Cold conditioning isn’t traditional,
although modern brewers sometimes use it.
Comments: Classic American (i.e. pre-prohibition) Cream Ales were
slightly stronger, hoppier (including some dry hopping) and more bitter
(25-30+ IBUs). These versions should be entered in the
Ingredients: American ingredients most commonly used. A grain bill
of six-row malt, or a combination of six-row and North American tworow,
is common. Adjuncts can include up to 20% flaked maize in the
mash, and up to 20% glucose or other sugars in the boil. Soft water
preferred. Any variety of hops can be used for bittering and finishing.
Vital Statistics: OG: 1.042 – 1.055 (1.050–1.053
is most common)
IBUs: 15 – 20 (rarely to 25) FG: 1.006 – 1.012
SRM: 2.5 – 5 ABV: 4.2– 5.6%
Commercial Examples: Genesee Cream Ale, Little Kings Cream Ale
(Hudepohl), Sleeman Cream Ale, Liebotschaner Cream Ale (Lion
Brewery), Dave’s Original Cream Ale (Molson), New Glarus Spotted
Cow Farmhouse Ale, Wisconsin Brewing Whitetail Cream Ale