Britain’s Messy Habit of Messing with Beer

From the Snakebite and the Purple Nasty to the Light and Bitter and Lager and Lime, a close look at the very British art of adulterating beer.

In Germany it’s a radler, in France a panaché, in Spain a clara. You probably know it as a shandy—that exquisitely refreshing fifty-fifty combination of lager and sparkling lemonade whose low alcohol content is almost entirely offset by its sheer drinkability.

It’s perhaps the most popular way to use beer as a mixer, but far from the only one: Mexico has its chelada (typically made with a light beer like Pacífico or Sol served over ice with lime juice and salt) and Chile its Fanshop (made with orange Fanta). Mixing lager, weissbier or Kölsch with cola in Germany will result (respectively) in a Diesel, an Aviator or a Dirtbag; ask for a mazout in Flanders and you’ll get a local pilsner and cola—unless your barman is French, in which case he might serve you a pastis and Coke instead. Peek beneath the surface, and the world of beer mixers is a knotty one—testament to the fact that humankind has probably been messing around with its beer for about as long as there has been beer to drink.

Britain may not have been the first country to adulterate its beer, but—with the possible exception of the Germans, who coined the word biermischgetränke to describe a whole discrete category of drinks—we have historically been the most prolific in our experimentation with it. We have the lemonade shandy, of course—and before that, we had the shandygaff (beer mixed with ginger ale). Drinkers more focused on expeditious inebriation than flavorsome refreshment (university students, mostly) have been known to mix equal parts beer and cider, a combination most commonly called a Snakebite (unless a dash of blackcurrant cordial is added, when the resulting beverage becomes a Purple Nasty). There are numerous combinations that make use of the storied Irish stout Guinness, too—perhaps most famously, the Black Velvet, a combination of equal parts Guinness and Champagne, served straight up in a beer tankard, which takes its name (and mournful hue) from the death of Prince Albert in 1861.

But if these drinks are still relatively mainstream, there are a whole host of others that increasingly seem to be falling by the wayside. Until recently, almost as ubiquitous as the shandy were the Lager Top and the Lager and Lime: in the case of the former, a pint filled up almost to the brim and then topped off with lemonade; in the latter, a pint poured on top of a small measure (to my taste, just less than a shot) of Rose’s Lime Juice.

According to beer sommelier Ed Hughes, many of these drinks trace their origins back to the pub culture of the 1960s and ’70s, when the first imported lagers began making their way onto British shelves. Continental beers like Beck’s, Heineken and Peroni had a lighter, fizzier character that was unfamiliar to the majority of drinkers accustomed to local ales and stouts; a dash of lemonade or lime cordial became a perfectly acceptable way of adding some much-needed flavor.

But there was also a pragmatic reason for this sort of adulteration, which explains the Light and Bitter—a once-popular combination served most frequently in pubs, comprising a half pint of bitter ale served with a bottle of light ale alongside. In the hands of less than scrupulous pub landlords, cask ales could sometimes lie dormant for so long that they lost any semblance of vigor. The chilled, fizzy ale would help pep it up and mask any “off” odors associated with poor conditioning—just as lemonade or lime cordial could help rescue a lager that had not survived the trip over from Europe unscathed.

Tastes, of course, have changed. Refrigeration and the introduction of better bottles, cans and kegs improved quality control, and the UK has subsequently had its own craft beer boom to rival anything seen in the United States. As a result, the Light and Bitter, in particular, has basically disappeared from mainstream drinking culture, although from time to time, you’ll still see the odd Lager Top or Lager and Lime out in the wild—even if to order one is to mark yourself out as a certain type of barfly. (One publican I spoke to labeled the Lager and Lime, with typical frankness, “a wanker’s drink.”)

But it’s also worth noting that most of these drinks were the product of a very specific time and place. The golden age of the beer mixer was the golden age of the British pub, too: However poorly beer was conditioned, however shoddily it was refrigerated, people came to pubs because they were genuine community hubs. Increasingly, this is no longer the case: There were more than 64,000 pubs in the UK in 1990; this year, that figure had dropped to just over 40,000, and the decline looks set to continue further as Brits continue to purchase more of their alcohol in supermarkets, and tastes shift to craft gin and sparkling wine.

It would be a shame if such notable testaments to thirsty ingenuity should be allowed to disappear entirely from drinking culture. Not just because they are valuable snapshots from a very different era of British history, but because—to borrow a slogan used to market Heineken when it first hit these shores—they really do “refresh the parts that other drinks cannot reach.”

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Tagged: lager, shandy

George Reynolds lives in London. He writes for The Sunday Times Style, Eater London and Noble Rot, and is working on a book about Britain’s complicated relationship with food.