Cream Of Tartar: the Link Between Cream Ale, Cream Soda, Cream Nectar and Egg Cream?

Alan McLeod over at has done some original, in-depth work on Albany ale and cream ale. See e.g. this recent post in which he collects his thoughts and identifies an early “cream beer” that may be of German origin. He raises the question whether cream beer and cream ale may have different roots.

I think his cream beer could be separate in development but the drinks listed in my title above might be linked, as discussed below.

In my recent post on 1890s brewing practices in New York City, I noted that a Sun journalist who visited a brewery stated that it put carbonate of soda in the kegs before dispatch. He was told it was to keep the beer “mild” (retard sourness) and reduce the bitterness.

I stated the concern with sourness could come (my interpretation) from two sources: normal degradation of unpasteurized beer, and the fact that the beer probably had some acidity from inception. Isinglass finings, commonly used in the period to clarify beer, were dissolved in a weak acid solution.

Cream of tartar was often used in the area to prepare the isinglass according to a City of Brooklyn investigation in 1884-1885. The study also confirmed soda carbonate was added to counteract the cream of tartar and make the beer “drinkable”. The study was looking at whether soda carbonate might be harmful in large amounts.

In this collection of documents from the State Assembly of New York in 1886, it was said brewers try to shorten 8-12 weeks of aging time by artificially clarifying and carbonating the beer. This was done by adding bicarbonate of soda and if the acidity in the beer was not high enough, cream of tartar or another acid was added. It was not just to mix with isinglass: some brewers added cream of tartar to help carbonate the beer faster.

When an alkali such as a carbonate reacts with an acid, the sour taste is reduced and CO2 is developed, which also helps the foam or head of the beer. Bubbles might tend also to reduce the effect of hop bitterness.

Cream of tartar, or potassium tartrate, is a weak acid derived from wine fermentation. When combined with soda carbonate, this becomes essentially commercial baking powder. The reaction it causes in the presence of moisture is leavening, the bubbles in bread or pastry make it rise.

Cream of tartar was used before the days of carbonation stones or cylinders as an alternate to yeast fermentation to make liquid fizz. It is a common ingredient in early ginger beer, root beer, cream soda, “cream nectar”, and other soft drinks. It was used with soda to impart carbonation to all manner of soft drinks, as shown in this modern book on traditional methods by Abigail Gehring.

See the mid-1800s cream soda recipes here, for example. Cream of tartar or tartaric acid combined soda carbonate made drinks fizzy. Cream of tartar I should add is also used to stabilize sugar in soft drinks by inverting it, but I am referring here to the many recipes that combine it with an alkali to make carbonation.

In the 1758 Every Man His Own Brewer, the author clearly states cream of tartar will make flat beer brisk provided it is genuine in origin. Indeed, modern home brewers sometimes use cream of tartar to raise a head. Where they do this, I infer enough carbonate is already in the water, and many brewing waters contain it especially for pale ale, a frequently brewed style.

True, there are other ways to carbonate beer, but in the early 1800s, adding sugar would have been expensive and krausening or the British equivalent may not have been practical. It was a time when nostrums for beer were frequently resorted to.

It appears, too, Albany-area water is hard in nature (alkaline) and many regional springs have a high mineral content as well, e.g. at Saratoga.

And if the water was not hard enough, maybe cream ale brewers also added a piece of bicarbonate, that is what lager brewers were doing in New York and Brooklyn in the 1880s and 90s.

I believe the word cream in, i) cream ale, ii) cream beer at least of the non-alcohol type (there was one, it seems clear per this 1887 ad in the Catskill Recorder), iii) cream soda, iv) cream nectar/Imperial cream nectar, and v) possibly the New York City egg cream, may derive from cream of tartar. The common elements to all are fizziness and no real cream. Egg cream in New York does use milk though, a potential question mark in this regard.

In Wahl & Henius’ brewing text c. 1900, they bracket cream ale with “lively” and “present use” beer, which clearly denotes fizziness as an attribute, vs. “still” beer which was like modern cask ale.  As Alan noted, present-use is English terminology. Cream ale seems associated initially too with ale (top-fermentation) not lager brewers.

Certainly there were some cream lagers, so-called I mean. Alan gave the example of a Brading cream lager in Ottawa, ON. But Pennsylvania cream beer possibly apart, “cream” in beer terminology seems to have been mostly Anglo-American. Once cream ale became a thing, it makes sense a few lager makers would follow but I don’t think there were that many. I incline that cream ale is not German but at the same time lager brewers were adding cream of tartar to lager in the 1880s-90s even if most lagers were never termed cream lager as such.

Now, assuming cream beer as known in Pennsylvania in the early 1800s was German in inspiration, could cream ale have been a take-off in turn, to this one must say yes. But I incline against it. I think cream ale derived from Anglo-American roots and the practice, vs. the name, migrated to lager in later in the 1800s.

Maybe Albany’s ale brewers began the naming practice and it spread to some adjoining states and provinces. Maybe it was called Cream Tartar Ale within the brewery at first, then shortened with the pleasing connotation to the public of a creamy head. Bonded bourbon had a double-association, bonded meant stored in bond (tax unpaid) but later acquired the sense of guaranteed quality. Maybe something similar happened to cream ale.

I readily acknowledge that, to my knowledge, no New York State or other recipe for cream ale mentions cream of tartar and carbonate in water or another form. The public inquiry into brewing practices in Albany in the 1830s makes no reference to these that I can see.

But this doesn’t mean cream of tartar was not used by some to make a fizzy ale. It may have been, but was not attested to, either because of trade reticence or the brewers felt the substance was harmless. I think it is actually, at least for normal quantities of beer consumed. Certainly no law prohibited it then.

A cream of tartar link is attractive. It provides a unifying element to cream ale, the later cream lager, and the various cream soft drinks. It also accounts for the fact that none of these contain dairy cream. Viz. the New York egg cream, while that has its own fascinating history, it is possible that originally it contained no dairy. Later, as a retrospective interpretation, some people may have added milk or cream believing this was authentic.


2 thoughts on “Cream Of Tartar: the Link Between Cream Ale, Cream Soda, Cream Nectar and Egg Cream?

  1. A follow-up point: in looking at egg cream history, a tangled tale unto itself, it seems the New York drink, at least as now known, emerged in the early 1900s. People argue about who made it first.

    Drink historians who have looked at it are aware that a drink called egg cream is listed in cocktail manuals from c. 1900 and uses eggs, cream, syrups. I found one recipe, called “egg cream” in a later 1800s New York newspaper which is similar except that brandy is used as well. These were rich mixtures sometimes added to a seltzer base which itself originally was probably made with soda and cream of tartar, but my point being, real cream entered the original egg cream.

    I believe the New York egg cream was a simplified and non-alcohol version of this older one even though according to the Oxford Companion To Food egg cream historians apparently mostly disregard its influence.

    There has to be a connection IMO between two drinks just a few years apart and which use the same name. And if so, the cream word in the New York egg cream clearly is inherited from the older drink to which indeed it still bears a resemblance via the milk used.

    In other words, I don’t think egg cream’s name is probably connected to cream of tartar, but I remain convinced there may well be etymological and functional connections between cream of tartar and the other drinks listed in the title of this post.


  2. Alan raised a fair point on Twitter: what about cream sherry?

    And of course there’s that old fave, Teacher’s Highland Cream. We can go back too to the expression cream of the crop although interestingly it seems to post-date 1850. Of course, he may be right, that one can push a unified theory too far.

    Still, it is salutary to point out that the cream ale, cream lager, indeed maybe-in-maybe-out cream beer, share with all the cream soft drinks one thing: carbonation, produced (in the instances discussed) precisely with the effect of cream of tartar. So the sherry and whisky may be cases apart.


Leave a Comment