The Beer Cocktail Stealing American Hearts

The recent cult success of Stiegl's grapefruit radler has inspired countless riffs, a website and even a Twitter rally cry. Roger Kamholz on how this shandy-like blend of citrus soda and beer is paving the way for a new category of beer and beer cocktails.

radler cocktail at the radler chicago

Do you even Radler, Bro?

This is the question that stares you in the face upon arrival at teamradler.org. There’s no About page, no Contact Us. Just the question, all bristle and butchered syntax, followed by a #teamradler Twitter feed. Teamradler.org is scarcely a website; it’s more like internet graffiti. Though in its weird way, through naked insistence, the site rather acutely articulates the moment at hand: the radler is ready to go viral. 

I was passed the link by Jeremy Danner, ambassador brewer at Kansas City, Missouri’s Boulevard Brewing Company and a self-professed “huge fan of radlers.” Danner is one of a “small, but very vocal” group of beer geeks who’ve taken to social media to spread the radler gospel, using #teamradler as their rallying cry. This past spring the brewery added a ginger-lemon radler to its product line, selling it in 12-pack samplers and, later, as a summer seasonal draft. (According to Danner, he’d been pestering Boulevard’s brewmaster, Steven Pauwels, to release a radler for at least a couple of years.) With it, Boulevard joined a growing number of domestic breweries that have recently begun dabbling with the radler as a springboard toward new innovation.

In the taxonomy of booze, a radler is a sister to the shandy, falling between a beer, a highball (and, sometimes, a boilermaker), and borrows traits from both. There’s no strict definition; any mixed drink combining beer (usually, but not exclusively, a pilsner) and citrus soda could be considered a radler. But the category has evolved far beyond these parameters. Stiegl, the Austrian brewer, is largely responsible for bringing radlers to the attention of American drinkers. In 2004, they began exporting a lemon-flavored radler to the U.S., but it wasn’t until after the arrival of its grapefruit radler, in 2012, that U.S. consumers really took notice.

“The growth of this brand has been primarily by word of mouth from the consumers,” says Jennifer Glunz Falk of Louis Glunz Beer, Stiegl’s U.S. importer. “The grapefruit radler started as a cult favorite and quickly began gaining popularity across the country as more and more customers asked for it.” According to Falk, the grapefruit radler will be available in all 50 states by 2015. “The style undoubtedly spikes during the summer months,” Falk says, “but we are seeing the demand continuing now year-round.”

Other U.S. brewers and fellow members of #teamradler are having even more fun pushing the radler’s boundaries. “Another, more esoteric radler that I enjoyed was brewed by my friend John Laffler at Off Color Brewing,” Danner recalls. The Chicago-based Laffler “lovingly brewed a gin-barrel-aged radler dubbed ‘Screw You, Jeremy Danner’ as a jab to our friendship and mutual love of radlers. It’s very cool to see how the gin barrel flavors marry with the citrus flavors of the radler.”

While Stiegl is of Austrian origin, the heritage of the radler lies in Germany. Legend has it one Franz Xaver Kugler invented the concoction. Kugler owned an inn and watering hole outside Munich called Kugleralm Biergarten. A bicycle path linking the city to the countryside was under construction, and the enterprising innkeeper (or was it his grandfather?) arranged for the route to pass right by the family business. The story goes, on a sunny Saturday in 1922, more than 13,000 thirsty cyclists showed up at Kugleralm. Overwhelmed by the sudden demand, Kugler saw his beer supplies start to run dangerously low. Then he had an idea: he’d serve his remaining beer mixed with some lemon soda that he had struggled selling alone. According to the German Beer Institute, Kugler claimed the invention was intentional: the cyclists could pound these low-alcohol beer spritzers all day and still manage to pedal their way home. He named the new drink Radlermass—literally, the “cyclist’s liter”—and it quickly caught on throughout Germany and elsewhere in Europe.

The process for making radlers—not to mention the appeal—isn’t all that different today. To make Boulevard’s ginger-lemon radler, Danner says, “After the base beer”—an unfiltered wheat brew—”has finished, we mix in lemon juice concentrate and freshly juiced ginger.” At the same time they introduce carbonated water. “In effect, we’re making a ginger-lemon soda as we mix these ingredients with the base beer.” The inclusion of ginger, on the other hand, represents a departure from Old World tradition.

Other U.S. brewers and fellow members of #teamradler are having even more fun pushing the radler’s boundaries. “Another, more esoteric radler that I enjoyed was brewed by my friend John Laffler at Off Color Brewing,” Danner recalls. The Chicago-based Laffler “lovingly brewed a gin-barrel-aged radler dubbed ‘Screw You, Jeremy Danner’ as a jab to our friendship and mutual love of radlers. It’s very cool to see how the gin barrel flavors marry with the citrus flavors of the radler.”

The radler gospel has likewise reached bartenders’ ears, and some have begun offering inventive radler-style mixed drinks as part of their house cocktail menus. At The Radler, a nearly year-old beer hall and restaurant in Chicago’s bike-centric Logan Square neighborhood, customers have their pick of several made-to-order radlers, including an exclusive house hefeweizen paired with blood orange soda. Plus, they can choose to have their radler spiked with a shot of spirits, such as German-made Schlichte Steinhaeger gin or Jeppson’s Malört. For Adam Hebert, a managing partner at The Radler, serving fresh-made radlers was important. “When you go to Germany and get a radler there, unless you’re buying the canned ones, typically they’re making it fresh for you,” he says. “If we’re going to offer it, we’re going to offer it the right way.”

At newly opened 151, a laid-back cocktail bar in New York’s Lower East Side, radlers are also made to order. Bartender and co-owner Alex Day says customers can choose to have them spiked with a variety of spirits, or served over ice. “There’s a level of customization that makes it a more special experience,” Day says. The 151 menu recommends shots of either Campari, citrus vodka or tequila, to which the bartenders add a touch of lemon juice and then top with a pull of draft grapefruit radler from the Austrian Schöfferhofer brewery. Everything goes in a frosty mug. “My preferred way is with Campari,” he adds. “The temperature is all correct, and it’s a thing of beauty.”

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  • Stein Petersen

    Great article and awesome news. But Stiegl
    Is spelled Stiegl not steigl.. please.