When Ryan Huff tries to guide an out-of-towner to his brewery’s taproom, the directions go: “There’s a dirt road that leads to a dirt road; you take a right on a dirt road, cross the cattle guard, go down another dirt road, and you’re there.”
There is Huff Brewing, a 15-barrel brewhouse with a taproom—open only on Friday nights and Saturdays “by appointment”—in Bellville, Texas. Huff’s father’s goats roam the property surrounding the steel barn-style building while cows low not far off. Huff tells people who aren’t from Texas that he’s from the Houston area, but clarifies that his hometown of Bellville is actually 60-some miles west of Houston between the city and Austin. Its population was 4,097 as of the 2010 census; Huff calls it “very scenic country.”
The town is also, perhaps because its lone brewery lacks air-conditioning, a paragon of radler-making.
“The fact that we’re hard to find and buried out in rural, small-town Texas is actually what led us to make radlers in the first place,” Huff says. “It was supposed to be a fun testament to the versatility and approachability of craft beer and now our taproom sells more shandies and radlers than it does the other beers.”
Huff uses shandy and radler interchangeably; they’re both combinations of beer (traditionally lager or a light wheat beer) and fruit juice (usually something citrusy like lemonade or grapefruit juice). Radlers originated in Bavaria as a refreshing quencher for bicyclists—cyclists are called radlers there—but beer-and-juice-or-soda concoctions exist in multiple forms across Western Europe.
The pitch for radlers is that they’re refreshing and dilute the ABV of the base beer, meaning a few pints won’t set you and your bicycle crashing into a curb. They’ve recently become more popular in America, especially as premade, imported versions hit the market and craft breweries debut their own canned versions.
Some brewery taprooms, though, still make them to order. That might be a key basis upon which you either like or dislike radlers: Have you ever had one fresh? As with cocktails that use fruit juices, “fresh-squeezed” is the lynchpin. (See a bottle of sour mix behind a bar? Maybe skip the daiquiri.)
Huff Brewing creates its standard radler with Huffmeister’s Helles lager and made-that-day lemonade. The lemonade is deliberately rather tart to stand up to the beer; Huff says a ratio of 60:40 beer to lemonade is his ideal, but adjusts it for individual customers’ preferences.
“It’s always a good conversation starter,” Huff says. “We have craft beer people here but I think because we’re so far [geographically] removed, we still get to be that taproom where people walk in and are like ‘What’s a radler?’ It’s the most fun conversation we could have at the brewery because it buries the pretense and the notions that people have about craft beer when they come in, that it has to be bitter or it has to be dark. There’s a freedom you get from adding lemonade to beer … then the walls just come down.”
The barriers also come down in terms of what constitutes a radler. Huff has served radlers made with the brewery’s orange blossom saison plus mint from the garden behind the brewery muddled with grapefruit simple syrup; the brewery also regularly mixes up cheladas (Huffmeister lager plus lime juice in a salt-rimmed glass) and Micheladas (Huffmeister lager plus housemade Bloody Mary mix). That’s right, Micheladas are technically radlers, if you think of Bloody Mary mix as primarily tomato juice.
Radlers get even more esoteric at Dovetail Brewery in Chicago, where co-owners and brewers Hagen Dost and Bill Wesselink specialize in continental European beers. The taproom devotes two handles to “pop” from Filbert’s, a 91-year-old soda company also based in Chicago. With these, Dovetail creates everything from a classic radler (Dovetail Lager and citrus soda) to a Rowerzyści, or Polish radler (Dovetail Grodziskie—a traditional Polish style of lightly smoky, sour beer—and citrus soda) to a Russ’n (Dovetail Hefeweizen and lemon-lime pop).
But there’s an even more out-there radler at Dovetail than one made with grodziskie.
“We have one which we called R&R, it’s a rauchbier, which is a dark smoked lager, and root beer. Root beer was hanging out lonely on tap with all this radlering going on and the rauchbier was too; they were both wallflowers,” says Wesselink. “They’re both strong flavors, so that’s an 80/20 mix [of beer to soda] because we wanted to promote more of that smokey flavor.”
Hagen chimes in: “We’ve created the only radler in existence that isn’t refreshing!”
Maybe. He has some competition from the strange—but delicious, it’s promised—radlers concocted for Radler Fest, a one-time event that took place in August 2014 at Eugene, Oregon’s 16 Tons Taphouse & Bottleshop. On the menu: Orange Double Latte Radler (85 percent Sierra Nevada/Ninkasi Double Latte Stout and 15 percent Orange Crush soda) and Gratzer Grape Radler (85 percent New Belgium/3 Floyds Gratzer and 15 percent grape soda), among others. The list proves the breadth of the radler umbrella: gose and cola, hefeweizen and cream soda, habanero IPA and raspberry soda.
All of these, from the unique to the ubiquitous, will cease to thrill if you’re of the camp that believes beer is best served as-is. No adulteration, no juice, no muddling or meddling.
Ryan Huff says he used to be a stickler about beer in that way, until he visited Germany and experienced the phenomenon of biermischgetränke, literally “beer mixed drinks.” He found himself in the beer capital of the world, and here were people throwing everything from cola to juice to syrup in their lagers. And it didn’t taste half bad.
“It’s a testament to the youth of American beer, or the youth of anything, really. I think back to when I was ten years younger, how adamant I was about everything. Then you grow up, something tastes good, why can’t we just let it taste good?”