The Radler. A mixture of lemonade and lager. With temperatures hitting 95° F today, I couldn't resist the appeal of this misunderstood and much maligned beverage. That, and I also can't resist the urge to foil Eric Asimov who recently argued against lemon and beer combinations.
Many beer aficionados disparge any combination of lemon and beer on the grounds that it de-elevates the beer into the realm of swill. I believe my father responded to the idea of a Radler by saying, "There's nothing I'd rather less do with a good beer." After all, serving beer with a lemon or a lime is strictly for Coronas and similar beers in the US. I used to agree with this opinion until I was eating out one night and the bartender stuck a lime in my Spotted Cow. Now I like Spotted Cow; it's a good, solid beer. Nevertheless, I squeezed the juice into my beer. The result was a revelation to me. It didn't ruin the beer, it just took it to a different culinary destination. It added some bright citrus taste and seemed to bring out the hop flavor a bit.
While it would be relatively easy to dismiss by opinion as heresy or an appeal to beer anarchy, I believe I can claim the support of two unimpeachable sources. First, Garrett Oliver notes that lemon can be a welcome partner to a witbeer. And second, no less of an authority than the Belgians and Germans are practically mixmasters. Even at traditional Belgian cafes serving lambic brews, small dishes of sugar sit out so that diners can sweeten their framboise. And back in olden times when beer quality wasn't as high or as dependable as it is today, Germans traditionally mixed fruit syrups into their weizens to make them more palatable. Heck, even the British have their shandies and their black and tans.
Interesting, there are some histories of the Radler circulating around on the internet. The most common is that it was invented in 1922 by Franz Xaver Kugler, the owner of a Bavarian Gasthaus (an inn with a restaurant), who mixed lemon-lime soda with beer in order to accomodate the number of cyclists staying at his establishment. And indeed, the word "Radler" does mean cyclist in German. I have no idea of whether this story is true or not, but I'll just say that I'm generally highly skeptical of creation myths. The beverage is also known as an Altsterwasser in northern Germany, leading to curious double sided cans that identify the contents for both regions. The Radler is, to the best of my knowledge, the only exception to the German Reinheitsgebot. That is, all German made beers come from only malt/wheat, hops, water, and yeast. Except for the Radler, which is permitted to be sold as a finished product despite the addition of lemonade. Perhaps because many Americans would reject a Radler as somehow unmanly or a perversion of taste, the Radler isn't imported into the United States.
To make a good Radler, I figured that I needed to start with good lemonade. Originally, I planned on using Escoffier's very own citronade recipe but I was stumped by what unit of volume a "syphon" is (such as "add one syphon of sparkling water"). After having done some research online, I decided upon the juice of six lemons, 1/2 cup fined sugar, and four cups of sparkling water. To maximize carbonation, I recommend juicing the lemons and dissolving the sugar in the lemon juice. Then add the sparkling water (I used San Pallegrino), and whisk gently to mix. This lemonade is somewhat stronger and more sour than what you're probably accustomed to from the supermarket, but I swear this lemonade is darn close to perfect. The spritzy carbonation adds a nice touch to the still lemonades that are common in this country.
Having made my lemonade, I picked up my local helles variety from the Capital Brewery (Middleton, WI). It's called Bavarian Lager and is, I think, a good expression of the style. I plan to review it in the future.
Traditional Radlers are 50-50 mixtures of lemonade and beer. So I measured out a cup of helles and poured it into my pint glass and topped it off with a cup of lemonade. If you mix it the other way, you'll get less foaming.
The resulting beverage was extraordinary.
The aroma was alive with bright citrus notes accented by two kinds of sourness, one from the lemons and the other from the beer. The beverage appeared bright gold in the glass and was graced by spritzy carbonation. But the flavor is where the mixture really took off. The flavor is very interesting, and unlike anything I had ever tried before. It's basically a sweet-and-sour experience where you taste an initial burst of sweetness and malt flavors. After a brief moment, the flavor shifts to lemonade and hops. I was surprised to detect hopping in the Radler, because I couldn't taste any in the beer by itself.
But best of all, the Radler was very easy to drink and extremely satisfying. It lacks any ethanol flavor or the warming effects associated with drinking.
Next time it's hot out and you're tempted to mix up a margarita, have a Radler instead. You won't be disappointed.