I think I had my first cream ale in 1991, on a road trip my senior year roommate Morgan and I made down the West Coast the summer after graduating college. It left a bad impression on me—why would anyone want milk in their beer?
It wasn’t until my HLH beer explorations that I discovered that cream ale doesn’t have any cream in it. I think there are some jackasses who put something creamy in there and I probably ran into one of those, compounding my misconceptions over the course of thirty years.
It seems nobody has been able to pinpoint the origin of the term “cream ale”. The actual secret ingredient is corn—including a significant amount in the grain bill alongside the barley makes this style pale-colored, light of body, and crisp-tasting. The corn doesn’t need to assert itself, but is a source of fermentable sugar that dries the drink out a bit more.
This is probably a 19th-century American stab at making a German Pilsner when there wasn’t access to the appropriate tools (cold bottom-fermenting yeast, extended lagering). The name smacks of American snake-oil marketing techniques as well.
Whatever the origin, cream ales are pretty delicious, so it was a good next project for HLH. I wanted to keep it simple, with hops that felt true to style and no weird additions, but find a few variables to tweak.
I upped the corn in the bill to 25% (traditionally it’s maybe 10%), to see if I could get it to really pop.
More radically, I decided to make this an Imperial cream ale. “Imperial” is just a word brewers toss around irresponsibly to mean they’re going balls-out on the ABV. We don’t usually associate light-colored beers with high ABV—the delicious Belgian trippels comes to mind, but they get there by adding sugar syrup. Wouldn’t it be fun to get there with just grain?
With 16 pounds of grain and a few ounces of hops, I got to work. I got good efficiency out of the mash and we went into the boil. Then I had an errand to run – specifically, to pick up some earthquake straps. Turns out Lowe’s wasn’t stocking them anymore. Nor was Home Depot. Eventually this became a 2-hour errand. And the boil went on and on. Added the hops when I returned with the damn straps and finished it out.
But…. I’m pretty sure that long boil was exactly what the Imperial cream ale needed. The ale remains light in color but the boil concentrated it and deepened the flavor. After fermentation, it winds up squarely on the thick and rich side of crisp, with more than a hint of alcohol warming. It’s really delicious!
The name of this one was carefully considered. My beer names have been getting pretty baroque so it was time for a nice short one. “Mu” is of course a cute play on the cream ale misconception.
Mu also has a sense that comes out of Zen Buddhism—at least as translated to American audiences by books like Gödel, Escher, Bach, which was loaned to me by my beloved high school physics teacher John Garrett. A “Mu” response signals that the question being asked can be answered adequately with neither “yes” nor “no”—the context of the question is incorrect to begin with. It is to effectively unask the question.
You may recall that Unanswered Question is a lager that’s masquerading as a strong dark ale. This is a strong ale masquerading as a pale lager—so it should have a correspondingly inverted name: hence, “Mu”.
The cherry on the sundae was of course the happy correspondence of “Mu HLH”.
The label imagery leans into the historic cream ale confusion: there’s corn, there’s a cow, there’s a whole lot of beer. The scene felt like it needed an 1800’s style treatment, so Indonesian artist Kevgusar came back with his lovely engraving-influenced approach.
When the massive Pink Floyd box set The Early Years 1965-1972 was released, the only reasonable question was “Who the hell would spend $500 on a box the size of a small dog that features 13 renditions of ‘Careful With That Axe, Eugene’?”
I am not a reasonable man.
Like most music freaks of my generation, my introduction to Floyd was The Wall, followed by Dark Side of the Moon. However, a Christmas gift of a Japanese pressing of Ummagumma—complete with a curiously mistranslated lyric sheet—dragged me into the soupy quagmire of their early stuff and had a huge impact on the way I hear music.
British psychedelia came from a different place than the American variety—it was usually less political, frequently more childlike, and often more unhinged. These streams meet in Syd Barrett and The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.
It’s widely known that the album gets its title from a chapter in The Wind in the Willows. It generally goes unmentioned that this is the most truly messed-up chapter of the book, featuring the kidnapping of Otter’s son by the god Pan, some mostly harmless pagan rituals, animal brainwashing, and absolutely no forward narrative momentum. This vividly illustrates the knife-edge on which early Floyd balanced.
“Interstellar Overdrive” owes more to free jazz than the blues and birthed the entire genre of space rock, while “The Gnome” and—below—”The Scarecrow” are acid tabs of zen profundity printed on squares cut from Beatrix Potter books.
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