It's no coincidence that radlers, the refreshing drink that combines lager beer and lemon soda, has the same name as the German word for cyclist.
Legend has it that innkeeper Franz Xaver Kugler owned a beer garden outside of Munich along a popular bike trail. One summer day in 1922, a large group of thirsty cyclists — some versions of the story claim as many as 30,000 — descended on his establishment, causing him to run low on beer. The resourceful host responded by mixing beer with a carbonated lemon soda he happened to have on hand. The sweaty cyclists loved the thirst-quenching quaff so much that the radler — named after the cyclists — was born.
Whatever the origin, the radler remains a popular summer drink in Germany and goes by many names, depending on the region. (In the north it's called Alsterwasser, a reference to the water of the Alster River that joins the Elbe River in Hamburg.) Radlers are typically a nearly even blend of lager beer and tart, carbonated fruit soda like those from Pellegrino. Light, sweet-tart and with alcohol usually in the 2% range, they make for a great summertime refreshment.
Of the examples currently available, Sam Adams' Porch Rocker lemon radler best matches my recollections of the radlers I enjoyed during a long sojourn in Germany. Porch Rocker is a perfect blend of beer and soda. You taste the sweet, grainy malt of the Helles lager. You taste the subtle herbal/spicy hops. The sweet-tart lemon soda just balances the beer, but the two merge without one covering up the other. At 4% alcohol, it's stronger than most.
At 2% alcohol, Zitrone from the Stiegl Brewery in Salzburg, Austria, is more typical of the style. It's a bit sweeter than Porch Rocker, but not enough to interfere with the refreshment. The profile is mostly lemon, with just enough lager character to remind you that it's there. This is a light, bright, slightly tart and slightly bitter lemon soda that will quench your thirst on a hot summer day.
Lemon isn't the only fruit going into radler these days. Stiegl offers two other versions — himbeere (raspberry) and grapefruit.
Himbeere Stiegl Radler is mostly raspberry with little presence of the underlying lager beer. There is a bit of raspberry tartness there, but it's nearly overwhelmed by sugary sweetness. Too sweet, I feel, to take on the summer heat.
The Grapefruit Stiegel Radler is the brewery's best-known and best-tasting radler. This one is all about the grapefruit. Like sweetened grapefruit juice, the sugar is well-balanced by acidity and pithy bitterness. The acid tartness and lingering bitterness make it fresher and less soda-like than Stiegl's other radlers.
Paulaner's Grapefruit Radler has a better balance between beer and grapefruit, but is also a little sweeter. Grapefruit flavor leads, but you still get a sense of the Münchner Lager's malt and hops as bread and spice peek through. It's still quite refreshing, but I would like a little more of the biting bitterness associated with grapefruit.
Schöfferhofer Hefeweizen Grapefruit puts an original spin on the grapefruit radler by substituting the German-style wheat ale for the lager. This beer is a cornucopia of fruit and spice. The tart, sweet and bitter grapefruit melds wonderfully with the banana flavors of the underlying wheat beer. Fermentation-derived clove notes add spicy intrigue. It's not overly sweet, but also not overly acidic. This is one of my favorites.
Schöfferhofer Hefeweizen Passion Fruit has a similarly delicious fruit-spice balance. The tartness is surprisingly high, given the level of sweetness typically found in beers with passion fruit.
What about shandies?
The English version of this beer-soda mixture is called shandy. The name is a shortening of shandygaff, a word that according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary first appeared in the 19th century. It was originally a specific mixture of ale with ginger beer or ginger ale. But as early as the late 1800s drinkers began substituting effervescent lemonade, orange and grapefruit juice or cider. Charles Dickens once called shandy the perfect "alliance between beer and pop."
There are precious few beers available in the Twin Cities that call themselves shandy.
The best known is Summer Shandy from Wisconsin's Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing Co. This is a beer that I once loved to hate until a blind tasting revealed it as a hands-down favorite. (Blind tasting is always humbling.) The smell of fresh-cut lemons greets your nose as you raise the glass. The taste follows suit, presenting fresh-squeezed lemon juice with a touch of woody bitterness as if you bit into a seed. The crisp, wheat-beer base brings a bit of sharp-edged sweetness.
Another delicious example is Goose Island's 312 Lemonade Shandy. This Chicago-based lemon-blended version of 312 Urban Wheat Ale delivers an aroma that is all about lemons and wheat. The flavor follows suit. It's very balanced. You can taste the bready malt of the underlying wheat beer and the sweet and sour lemon without either one getting in the way of the other. A touch of lemon-peel bitterness finishes it off. It reminded me of lemon drops candy.
Short Pants Lemon Shandy from Bauhaus Brew Labs in Minneapolis showcases the beer, leaving the lemon to play a supporting role. Lightly toasted grain is a prominent note. The lemon tastes like freshly squeezed lemon juice — zesty, tart and very lemony. The result is a surprisingly natural-tasting shandy that lacks the artificial sweetness of many examples. It's a summer must-try.
For those who are gluten-free, Burning Brothers Brewing in St. Paul's Midway neighborhood serves an assortment of shandy options in their taproom. Parched lime shandy is a regular offering. A recent check of the brewery's website showed an orange-mango shandy, but these beers change frequently. The selection may be different when you visit.
Michael Agnew is a certified cicerone (beer-world version of sommelier) and owner of A Perfect Pint. He conducts private and corporate beer tasting events in the Twin Cities, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.