A look at Shandys and Radlers for summer

Used to be talking about Shandy meant sticking your neck out. Beer nerds didn’t care much for having their brew diluted with lemonade or soda. That’s the pathway to Mike’s Hard Lemonade, we’d say. At least that’s how I saw it.

But as we continue to embrace more beer styles, we’ve come to admit finding these beverages can be just the right thing on a hot summer day like, oh, right now. More brewers have been working with the style, adding their own variations to the mix. Some brewpubs have reserved a tap for one of their own beers blended with lemonade. The House of Shandy, based in Vermont, apparently will be a shandy-only company, with its first product, Curious Traveler, being contract brewed by Boston Beer Co. (Sam Adams).

The term “Shandy” is verily loosely applied, and has referred to any “cocktail” mixing beer with soda, lemonade, ginger beer, or cider. In several areas, a beer mixed with cola is called a “Diesel.” Some are made with non-alcoholic beer. But here, “Shandy” is nearly always expected to be a beer-lemonade mix.

Like so much beer history, the true origin of Radler, the German term for the beer, is confusing. Even my You Tube video above repeats the standard legend. But the German Wikipedia page for Radler (translation here) says the claim that Franz Xavier Kuger mixed a short supply of beer with lemon soda in 1922 to meet an expected demand from a bicycle rally going past his Munich restaurant are false. Instead, it’s suggested that German cyclists were drinking the mix, based on the English Shandy, as early as 1900. Thus the German word “Radler,” meaning “Cyclist” was applied to the beer.

Shandys can be fun to experiment with on your own, with your choice of mixer. In the blurry video above, I tried to mix one with “True Lemon” drink mix, but found the Stevia sweetener detracted from the taste. Oh, yes: sorry about the blurry video. I set myself up with the shtick of doing beer reviews in just one take, which almost everyone does anyway, and I had to stick to it.

But now let’s take a look at some of the Shandys I have found lately, all of which are available on most store shelves:

Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy 4.2% abv. Rating: C

The color out of the bottle is a lot like lemonade, except the the beery foam on top. A strong lemony smell, but if you’ve a fancy for it, you’ll catch some wheat malt in the nose. Turns out to be a decent summer refresher.

Sand Creek Hard Lemonade (abv unknown)  C

A few bottles from this Wisconsin brewer will pop up on shelves here. Certainly smells like a radler, with a lot of lemon flavor. But plenty of malts, so it stays out of the Mike's Hard alcopop ghetto. Taste is mostly lemony, but no sourness, seems to be balanced by malts. Very cloudy yellow in appearance. Smell focuses on lemons more than the taste, which focuses the attention on the main attraction. If you’re going to Great Taste of the Midwest, or another Wisconsin beer festival, you just might find them serving a version infused with other fruits like pomegranate or cranberry.

Shiner Ruby Redbird  4.2% B

The label copy notes the use of ginger, which might be said to bring this closer to the original usage of the term “shandy.” The rest of the added fruit is sweet Texas Rio Red Grapefruit.  Under the cap, I get just a whiff of grapefruit that could’ve come from the hop bill of some American Pale Ale (I had a taster of Sixpoint Resin for comparison, but they’re nothing alike). Beer is slightly muddy, with a brown complexion, but pretty cleanly filtered. Grapefruit taste is a bit stronger than in the nose. Mild beer base lets the slight tartness stand out. Still, by blending with a fruit that’s similar to certain hop profiles, we get something better than the standard lemonade-weakened shandy.

Shock Top Lemon Shandy 4.2% B

Yes, part of Shock Top’s “stealth” line of unfiltered craft-style Belgian Wheat beers. First off, by way of disclosure, I was sent a six-pack by the Shock Top brand manager for review. I’ve also been picking up some cash doing in-store samplings of Goose Island beer, which is, like Shock Top, owned by InBev-AB. But second off, I kind of surprised myself by liking it. Take that with a grain of salt if you want. Pours a very fizzy head over a pale, hazy beer body. Lemon smell is not as pronounced, in fact there’s more of the wit spiciness in the nose than I would have expected. No Lemon Pledge flavor, just a lemony backbone. I wish they would stop dancing around label requirements for the vague ingredient "Natural Lemonade Flavor," but I’m going to say this stands out pretty well against all the other lemonade-diluted Summer Shandys.

Stiegl Gaudi Radler Zitrone  2.5% C

One of the few Radlers sold here that’s actually blended with “Lemon-Soda.”. Which, you’ll notice, makes the alcohol count half that of the beers with “lemonade flavors added.” They also have a raspberry (Himbeere), grapefruit and an elderflower (Holunderblüte) version back in Austria. But back to the lemon: It’s Sprite with beer in it. The lemon soda flavor pretty much overwhelmed any substantial beer flavor. There is definitely beer in the aroma, though, but it's hard to tell just what kind. It also has a bit of a saccharine taste that’s off putting. Mixing in soda would make this a low-alcohol brew, I suppose, so it certainly does the job as advertised.

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    Mark McDermott

    Writer, trivia maven, fan of many things. I thought to learn all there is to know about beer as a way to stay interested in learning. It is my pleasure to bring Chicago's craft beer scene to you.

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