The first time someone offered me a shandy — and explained the ingredients — I thought it sounded disgusting.
I ordered one anyway, because what's the point of walking into a pub in London if you aren't at least a little curious about what the locals are drinking?
The combination, described to me as beer and lemonade, was surprisingly drinkable. Refreshing. Crisp. Interesting.
Summer is the perfect time to explore shandies and radlers, which have both morphed into names for a blend of beer and something vaguely citrus. Lemonade? Grapefruit juice? 7-Up? Ginger ale? They have found their way into someone's radler or shandy recipe.
The shandy originated in England and if you order one in a British pub today, they're still likely to tell you it's beer and lemonade. It's not. Remember, these are the people who call a sweater a jumper, a flashlight a torch and an eraser a rubber.
My London lawyer friend explains: "Lemonade for us is what you call Sprite/7-Up — most British pubs have a mainline soda stream that does Coke, Diet Coke, Lemonade (as we call it) and tonic water."
In London, pubs generally blend this lemon-limey soda about half and half with either a lager or a bitter (your choice). That's unless you ask for a "lager top," which is mostly lager, filled out with a splash of soda on top.
The order of the pour matters.
"You can tell a brand new (or badly trained) bartender because they put the alcohol in first," my lawyer friend says. "Far better to put the lemonade in first (its foam collapses quickly), so the beer from your taps aren't hitting an empty glass, producing foamy waste and losing you time waiting for it to subside."
The radler originated in Germany and, depending on who you ask, it originally combined beer with either a sparkling lemon soda or something more like American lemonade. Radler lore says it was blended up for thirsty bicyclists who wanted to stay relatively sober; the name means cyclist. Like the shandy, it was originally mixed by the server, not the brewer.
Brewers didn't sit back and take that for long.
Today you can find plenty of ready-made shandies and radlers, neatly tucked into cans or bottles. New ones emerge every summer, some very much in the spirit of their low-alcohol origins. Others are beer with a bit of fruit flavoring and a name marketers think you'll relate to as light and fruity. For a sense of which is which, check the alcohol content. Anything over 3 percent — yes, just 3 percent — isn't really capturing the soul of the thing. It may be tasty, but it's lost the heart of what gives these low-voltage drinks their quiet hum.
If you've never tasted a shandy or radler, try one next time you're hot and thirsty. But hold this thought in mind: This is not beer. It's not going to taste like beer or hit you like beer. That is part of the point.
"I am personally a fan of radlers," says Matt Vivatson, brewer and operations manager at Eel River Brewing. He likes to think of beer blends not as degrading an otherwise good brew, but as a drink all their own, to be judged in their own category.
Locally, The Siren's Song Tavern in Eureka usually has radler available on tap or in cans or bottles, and you can trust them to pick good ones. When I visited in late June, they were pouring Pfungstader's Lemon Weissen Radler, a clear, sweet thirst-quencher at 2.7 percent alcohol.
Often, "we have to kind of introduce people to it," says Siren Song co-owner Phyllis Barba. "People who try it typically like it." Barba has been thinking about experimenting with her own blended shandy, probably starting with fresh squeezed lemon juice and honey. She was kind enough to let me lug a bottle of lemonade (American style) into her place on a slow Wednesday afternoon to see what went well with some of the beers on tap. My favorite was Pfungstader's, but the blends we made with SeaQuake Pilsner and Eel River Australian Summer Sparkling Ale had their moments.
The Logger Bar in Blue Lake is planning to feature its own shandy blend, still under development, later in July and throughout August. Or you can stick with the Logger's longer-standing beer blend: its homemade bloody Mary mix paired with Coors.
Once you're willing to begin with beer and turn it into notbeer, the possibilities go on and on: red beer, with either tomato juice or bloody Mary mix; beer mimosas; and seriously boozy beer cocktails by the bar full.
If you want to dive deeper, Six Rivers Brewery in McKinleyville is the place to start. It's the only brewery in Humboldt with a full bar, ideally positioned to mix good beer with good booze. Brewer Carlos Sanchez recommends his lighter beers if you're interested in blending up a shandy: either Weatherman Wheat or Hammond Trail Cream Ale.
For mixing your own shandy or radler at home, Eel River's Vivatson echoes the "stay light" advice, suggesting his Blonde Ale and or perhaps the Acai Berry Wheat. Some bartenders swear blends go best with a "junk" beer, like Pabst Blue Ribbon or Coors.
For science, I lined up an Eel River Blonde and a Costco's Kirkland brand light beer at home, and blended each with lemonade and 7-Up in two different ratios: two-thirds beer to one-third mixer, and 50-50.
My verdict? The beer with less character wins it: Kirkland and lemonade, 50-50.
I poured another. My husband tasted it, looked at me, and asked, "Why do you do that?"
A Date with Beer
Tuesday, July 25 – Sample from two San Diego area breweries in one easy Arcata stop during Dead Reckoning's tap takeover by Alpine Beer Co. and Green Flash Brewing Co. Expect at least six taps full of SoCal classics, some — but not all — seriously hopped.
Thursday, Aug. 3 – It's National IPA day. Drink one at a brewery near you.
Thursday, Aug. 3 – If you've always wanted to homebrew, check out the monthly Humboldt Homebrewers meeting, starting at 7 p.m., at Humboldt Beer Works in Eureka. Meeting is free; club membership $25 annually.
Saturday, Aug. 19 – Beer shares the spotlight in Arcata's Creamery District with cider, kombucha, kimchi, pickles, cheese and other fermented feast-ables at Fervor Fest, a celebration of foods and drinks with lives of their own. 1 to 5 p.m. $35 advance, $40 door, benefitting the Arcata Playhouse and Humboldt Made.
Saturday, Aug. 26 – Save the date for Hops in Humboldt, where you can sample dozens – or even hundreds, if you can handle it – of new-to-you beers in one spot. So far it's looking like more than 200 brews from 40-plus breweries and cideries, all packed into Fortuna's Rohner Park from 1-5 p.m. $35 advance, $45 gate, with limited VIP tickets for $75.
Carrie Peyton Dahlberg is still thinking of more blends to try. Email her your favorite at firstname.lastname@example.org.