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.
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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