I had my first radler in the early ’80s, on an August afternoon at a co-worker’s deck party in Germany. I was a 19-year-old reveling in the plentitude of German beers. Having grown up with American beers of the ’70s, the experience seemed miraculous. What I recall most vividly was how refreshing that radler was on that hot, sunny day.
The original radler dates back to 1920s Germany, when an innkeeper, overwhelmed by a large group of touring cyclists, had to water down his brew with lemonade in order to make it last. (Radler is German for cyclist.) Evidently, rather than feeling like they were being ripped off, the cyclists were ecstatic with this thirst-quenching beer that enabled them to ride off without too much wobbling.
Typically a 50/50 mix of beer and lemonade, it’s ironic that radlers took root in the country with the strictest laws regulating beer ingredients (look up the German Beer Purity Law, or Reinheitsgebot, for a taste of what I mean). Here in the U.S., the terms radler and shandy seem to be used interchangeably. I use radler to refer to the beer-and-fruit-juice concoctions created at breweries, and shandy for the cocktail made with similar ingredients and mixed at a bar. I found the following sampling of radlers at Bow Street Beverage, The Bier Cellar, and Shaw’s, all in Portland.
The most accessible German radlers imported to Maine are by Stiegl, which makes Zitrone (lemon) and grapefruit varieties, both at 3.2% ABV. If you’re expecting characteristic beer flavors, you may be disappointed. These radlers are 60 percent juice combined with a Pilsner-style beer, and wouldn’t pass the smell test among today’s craft-brew aficionados, accustomed as most are to strong hops flavors. Both are remarkably smooth and drinkable beers, and if you pause between swigs to contemplate their subtleties, you might catch a hint of the elusive lightness of noble hops.
Schöfferhofer Hefeweizen Grapefruit Bier wanders even further afield from familiar beer territory. If I were to draw a line where a radler ceases to be beer, this would be it. At 2.5% ABV, it’s barely an alcoholic beverage, and the candy-like sweetness gets a bit cloying by the time you near the bottom of a 16 oz. can. This is beer for folks who don’t like beer.
The UFO Big Squeeze Shandy is part of Harpoon Brewery’s UnFiltered Offering project (get it?) dedicated to unfiltered beers. The UFO line of fruit-flavored beers includes varieties made with peach, raspberry, pineapple, and blueberry lemonade, but I stuck with their original offering, Big Squeeze. Expecting a strong jolt of citrus, I was happy that the grapefruit flavor was added with a light hand. And unlike the previous two products, Big Squeeze still tastes like beer, with a slightly hoppy flavor that lingers. I’m guessing this is because the beer-to-juice ratio is closer to 1:1, and the 4.5% ABV is another clue.
Jack’s Abby Blood Orange Wheat (4% ABV) calls itself a radler, but I think they missed the memo about radlers being characteristically refreshing. This is a drinkable beer with a beautiful ruby-amber color, and the orange flavor is understated, but I think they’d be wiser to market this as a smooth wheat beer and ditch the radler label, which would also widen its commercial appeal.
Samuel Adams Porch Rocker (4.5% ABV) is The Boston Beer Company’s attempt to make a more beery radler than the classic German concoction. That makes sense when you consider that they’re already heavily invested in the alcoholic fruit-drink business, having launched Angry Orchard hard ciders seven years ago. Porch Rocker isn’t as thirst-quenching as Stiegel’s radlers, but it definitely outdoes Jack’s Abby in that department. And like the Big Squeeze, its higher ABV is capable of delivering a buzz.