Not Near Enough: In Search of the Elusive, Authentic German Radler

September 2, 2009

in Beery Scribblings

After more than a year of purposefully drinking — as well as thinking, reading, researching, talking, and blogging about — beer, you’d figure I would have seen it all. I mean, I must’ve encountered several dozen styles and varieties by now, some exotic and unexpected, like handcrafted brews from Italy or beers made from centuries-old recipes, and some that were fairly commonplace but no less extraordinary, like craft-brewed ales in a can.

And yet I am constantly amazed at how many new species of beer keep popping up, as well as the multitudes of traditional styles I continue to uncover that I haven’t tried or even heard of.

All the ingredients for a DIY Radler.

All the ingredients for a DIY Radler.

Case in point: I recently came across an article in Beer Connoisseur magazine about a beer style called a Radler, a concoction reportedly developed in southern Germany to provide a low-alcohol (2%-3%) yet refreshing brew for cyclists (or “Radlers,” in German) pedaling up and down the Bavarian mountains. Leave it to the Germans, who love their bicycles and are notoriously pragmatic and utilitarian (they seem to have a word for everything), only they would brew a beer for a single activity.

This intrigued me not a little, so I did what I always do when I find something new: I looked it up on the Internet (because I know, if it’s there it must be true). As it turns out, the Radler style was purportedly invented on a hot summer day early last century by Franz Xaver Kugler, the owner of a Munich Gasthaus, or tavern, who, realizing he didn’t have enough beer for his patrons (mainly bikers and hikers), diluted his remaining supply of pilsner with lemon-lime soda and named it after his guests. The resulting beverage, a 50/50 mixture of soft drink and malt liquor, soon grew popular among the locals, whose lifestyle often centers around fitness, outdoor sports, and socializing and would thus say “Ja!” to a novel thirst-quencher that won’t cause them to ride their Schwinns down alpine slopes like a toboggan.

Further intrigued (and feeling parched), I went out in search of a bottle or two of authentic Radler. According to one article I read, this style is commercially available from more than a hundred breweries in Europe. So, I figured, I should be able to find a variety of Radler varietals standing shoulder to shoulder on the shelf with their countrymen, the altbiers and bockbiers, dunkelweizens, eisbiers and festbiers, helles and kolsch, maibocks and marzens, rauschbiers, schwarzbiers, urbocks, and weiss. No such luck. I couldn’t find a single bottle of the stuff anywhere in my area. Worse, the few retailers I spoke with could do nothing more than shake their heads.

Finally, I contacted a crafty fellow craftbeer blogger, the estimable Peter Estaniel, and he suggested I make my own. “It’s just like shandy,” he wrote. I remembered having a shandy or two many years ago, while in London. Although available for purchase in a bottle or can, shandy is typically (and best) served by the bartender at the tap, usually by mixing half lager and half ginger ale or a citrusy soda. As I recall, an occasional shandy proved to be a lighter, slightly more refreshing (and cheaper) alternative to the standard draught offerings.

So, being a little bit German and thus a little utilitarian, I called off my search and decided to try making my own. Also, being more than a little stubborn (that’s the “Oirish” in me), I decided the only way to create an authentic homemade Radler was to use only German ingredients. I bought a few bottles of my favorite Bavarians, including Bitburger and Becks, but unfortunately (and not surprising) I couldn’t immediately locate a bottle of Zitronenlimonade, a German lemon-lime soda, so I substituted Sprite (apparently 7-Up works too). I also picked up a six pack of Saranac’s Summer Brew (aka “Lemonade and Lager”), just for comparison’s sake. Then, with the help of two very trusting tasting partners (thanks, Amy and Amy), we sampled several different concoctions.

How did things turn out? Let’s just say I have mixed feelings. For starters, I felt more like a cocktail waitress than a brewmeister, standing in the kitchen, pouring equal amounts of beer and soda into a pitcher. I had much more fun years ago home-brewing hefeweizen or somesuch other confection. Even if the results were a little uneven (and dangerously explosive), the payoff had panache. Frankly, pouring a gin and tonic is more satisfying than making a Radler.

Also, although the typical “recipe” calls for a 50/50 split between the beer and soda, I’m not so sure it should be non-negotiable. For instance, we all liked Radlers made with Becks better than with Bitburger, which surprised me since the latter is my preferred pilsner. For some reason, the Sprite seemed to sweeten the flavor of the Becks, which usually has a harsh, bitter taste, and created the reverse effect on the Bit. I suspect changing the amount of Sprite in each glass would tip the scale in the other direction.

Because the Beer Connoisseur article recommended several Radlers made with beers other than pilsner, I tried making a few using a schwarzbier, a dunkelweizen, and a helles. I also experimented with lemon-lime-flavored club soda instead of Sprite, to see if a low sugar content would affect the taste. Sadly, with the possible exception of the dunkelweizen-soda combo, which only slightly enhanced the natural banana-citrus aromas in the beer, the best I could cook up was a watery, slightly sweet, not quite refreshing beer-like drink. Nothing to yodel across the Alps about, that’s for sure.

For what it’s worth, we all thought the Saranac beer was the most drinkable, but I question the wisdom of that conclusion. As a commercially brewed beverage (with a precisely calculated flavor balance), it was a ringer on amateur night.

And I don’t know whether I could vouch for a lower alcohol content, as a result of the admixture. Technically speaking, diluting the beer with soda should lessen the buzz-inducing effects (even the Saranac proclaims a 3.5% abv, about half the normal amount). Yet, after only a few small glassfuls, I still felt light-headed.

Suffice it to say that, after the tasting, none of us was eager to don tight bike shorts and ride off, Lance Armstrong-like, straight up a mountain. Unless I luck into a bottle of professionally brewed liquor, while strolling the aisles of my favorite watering hole, my quest for the elusive, authentic German Radler is, as they say, “kaput!”

Moreover, I don’t think I’ll be adopting beer as my sports drink of choice any time soon. I once tried riding a skateboard after having a few beers and let’s just say the result was not well balanced. And this was long before the days when no one cared what you looked like in a pointy, pin-striped helmet. No, drinking beer — even homemade near-beer — while riding a bicycle could lead to thoughts of even greater invincibility.

As always, let us know what you think. Have you ever had a true Radler beer or tried to make your own? Is there a another beer concoction that you like? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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A Triple Trifecta of Trivial Treats
October 9, 2011 at 8:38 pm

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Aaron September 2, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Ditch the Sprite and try San Pelligrino’s Limonata. Not as sweet, very tart, its mixes well with American lagers and their German progenitors. I’ve never had authentic (i.e. in the country of origin) radler or shandy, but this combo has been my family’s staple for ever. Well, at least since the Italian food distributor opened up near my parents house. I think Leinenkugel’s also has a pre-mixed shandy available, if you can put up with commercial equivalents.

Norman F September 3, 2009 at 9:01 am

Definitely ditch the Sprite as it is too sweet and try something else – my dad used to mix it with ginger ale and there should be more beer than mixer. I haven’t had a shandy in 20 years and so I’ll have to try one again soon. I also tried Saranac Summer Brew for the first time this year. For very hot days, it’s a refreshing alternative, although I find I can only drink one as it becomes less interesting as you consume it.

Mike McCormick September 3, 2009 at 10:02 am

While I like the Shandy with Ginger ale and a lemon twist…I was told by a bar-keep in Malahide (just north of Dublin, Ireland) that the Shandy was fancied more by the ladies. (circa, August 1983 with Villanova Soccer Team on a journey through Dublin…played a bit of soccer…followed in the evenings with lots of Harp and Stout – what a summer training trip that was….I have many vague memories of that trip!
I think the bar-keep was trying to tell me that if I kept drinking Shandies, I might be sending out the wrong signals to the other ‘shandy drinking men’…many of whom could have well been German Cyclists on a Holiday Tour de Dublin just looking for a good time!

Joe October 19, 2009 at 8:11 am

This is coming quite late, but I have had Radler (a lot of it , in fact, went on a road trip throughout Europe with at least five cases of Radler in the back of a VW bus), and upon my return to the States, knowing there was no such thing as Radler here, I set out to make my own. Truth is, it’s next to impossible. German sodas aren’t as sweet as their American siblings, so you can’t replicate it precisely. While in Germany, however, many people just poured Sprite into their Pils, as well as Coke and other sodas. Another sort of popular combination was beer and coffee, as well as grapefruit juice and hefeweizen. There is also a drink, Neuwein (though I think we called it something different), which is a wine that is only a day old and has a bit of natural carbonation to it. It was very good, but alas something that is very much a part of the German culture that doesn’t quite exist in America. Funny thing is, I’m pretty sure I was enjoying Neuwein and Radler the day you posted this blog.

Henry Mortimer October 19, 2009 at 9:28 am

Thanks for the great, informative comments, Joe. It’s nice to know that a) my failed attempt was not an isolated incident and b) real, good Radler is not mythology. Thanks, too, for the tips about the other concoctions. I think I’d like to try the grapefruit and hefeweizen combo — but not until next spring or summer. Now, as the cold weather begins to seep in, it’s time to eschew the fruit for more bracing beverages that are readily available, like a big, treacly imperial pumpkin stout. Happy drinking!

Nate November 6, 2009 at 12:45 am

I had the chance to enjoy a great Radler in Munich this summer. Unfortunately, I discovered the beverage on my last day in Germany! I was thinking of trying to make my own, but it sounds like it may be futile.

Henry Mortimer November 6, 2009 at 9:35 am

Thanks for the note, Nate. Not necessarily futile to attempt one. In fact, I suspect that since you actually got to taste the real thing, you may have a better idea of what to expect and how to perfect it. Better to try and fail…, eh? Besides, it’s just beer. Have fun!

Andrew June 2, 2011 at 6:35 pm

an old article, but I was wondering if you had ever tried a Stiegl Radler? I have only had the lemon, but its readily available at BevMo. http://www.stiegl.at/en/stieglat/enjoy-stiegl/stiegl-products/stiegl-radler-158/

Henry Mortimer June 3, 2011 at 1:04 pm

Thanks for reading and for the tip, Andrew. I have not tried the Stiegel, nor (sadly) do we have BevMo out this way — I hear they have a great selection of micros. I will check with my local new-brew go-to guy, though, to see if he can order me some. Cheers!

Kristoff von Markgraf February 17, 2013 at 6:07 pm

As a German American, I can tell you that the closest thing to Zitronenlimonade made here in the US is a product called Fresca also Squirt would work.. Those products with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and a great German Lager will make a spot on Radler that any of us folks from Munchen would be proud of…

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