The Weird Rise of Shandy, a Drink You Really Need to Give a Second Chance

I’m standing in line at the liquor store. In one hand, I have a six-pack of Leinenkugel’s Summer Shandy. In the other, I have Short Pants Shandy from Bauhaus. The guy in front of me looks me up and down like a cartoon wolf.

He doesn’t seem to like what he sees.

I didn’t ask what he took issue with, but let’s assume it was the beer and not a natural aversion to dad bods. It’s not an uncommon reaction to shandy in the US. Like other sweet beers and cocktails, it’s looked down on or dismissively feminized by men. (By the way, that’s a ridiculously dumb reason to avoid something delicious.) Others give it short shrift because they view it as less than beer because it’s a mix of beer and lemonade added after the brewing process.

The beer occupies a strange place in the beer world. Ask a stranger at a bar to explain what makes a lager a lager, and you’ll probably get a blank stare. Ask someone to explain shandy and you might get a scoff, but they’ll have the answer. There are relatively few commercially available shandies in the United States, yet there’s no confusion about what you’re ordering.

The great shandy explosion

The emergence of shandy in the United States -- it was already popular in parts of Europe -- over the last decade is in no small part due to the success of Summer Shandy. Or, in a roundabout way, the success of the 151-year-old brewery’s Berry Weiss.

“We had a summer seasonal beer called Leinenkugel’s Berry Weiss,” said Dick Leinenkugel, president of Leinenkugel’s and the sixth generation of the family to run the brewery now owned by MillerCoors. “It had been our summer seasonal beer for over ten years, since 1996. We actually put it out to a vote of our Leinie Lodge members. Seventy-five percent of them said they’d like to see Berry Weiss remain year-round.”

The decision to make Berry Weiss a year-round offering left a gap in the brewery’s portfolio. “Our team was forced to come up with a new idea for a summer seasonal,” Leinenkugel recounts. “I said let’s go back to our roots. Let’s see what Germans do in the summer. We discovered they certainly drink a lot more of their lighter style beers, the Berliner Weisse, the kölsch style from Cologne. We also discovered mixing beer with lemonade. They mix it with cola over there as well, but the lemonade thing was interesting to us because lemonade is such a nice summer refresher.”

Now, shandy accounts for 70% of all the beer Leinenkugel's makes.

The brewery secretly tested a shandy and a Kölsch at a handful of bars in Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago, and Minneapolis. “By far, the Summer Shandy was the most intriguing beer people had ever tried,” Leinenkugel said. “I think I knew very early on that we had a beer our drinkers were going to enjoy.” In retrospect, it makes sense. The shandy is a perfect summer drink. It’s light, strikes the right note on a hot day, and most varieties arrive with a sessionable ABV around 2-5%.

The 10th oldest brewery in America, known throughout the Upper Midwest for its Original Lager and Honey Weiss, was transformed by the beer over the next decade. Now, shandy accounts for 70% of all the beer Leinenkugel’s makes.

Where it all started

Since the release of Leinenkugel’s lemon brew, shandy has become a familiar style. It’s a summer staple for breweries like Narragansett or the Traveler Beer Company, which only makes variations on the shandy. It’s a fast ascension for a beer that is a relatively new creation, especially for a beer concocted in Germany.

Franz Kugler introduced the beer at his Deisenhofen tavern just outside Munich. At the end of a race in 1922, his establishment was set upon by thousands of thirsty cyclists. When he realized he might not have enough beer to sate the masses, he began cutting the beer with a clear lemonade soda he had trouble selling. And the radler, which translates to “cyclist,” was born.

Today, radler and shandy are used almost interchangeably in the United States, even though the differences between them once held some importance.

The beer didn’t sweep across the US as a summer BBQ must-have until the arrival of Summer Shandy. Now, it would seem, life has handed every US brewery lemons and they’re making lemonade shandy. However, Summer Shandy remains the gold standard. Leinenkugel says nine of 10 shandies consumed in the US have Leinenkugel’s on the label.

It wouldn't have taken hold in Germany if it wasn't good.

It makes sense that an increasing number of craft breweries are taking a ride on the shandy train. Not only has it become a popular option for a summer seasonal, the opportunity to attract new drinkers is significant. “We found that one-third of shandy drinkers are new to beer,” Leinenkugel said of a 2012 study the brewery conducted. “In other words, they didn’t drink beer outside of shandy.”

Bauhaus Brew Labs is one craft brewery giving the style a try. “Some might turn up their nose to it,” Matt Schwandt, head brewer and COO of Bauhaus, said. “But you can do it really well and make it great tasting. It wouldn’t have taken hold in Germany if it wasn’t good.”

It may have been novel at one point, but there are lots of shandies and radlers capable of proving, even to a bearded barrel-aged drinking beer snob, that shandy can be a solid go-to. Here are a few beers that can convert the staunchest anti-shandite.

Narragansett Del's Shandy

Narragansett hooked up with Del’s Frozen Lemonade in 2014 to create this refreshing carnival in a can. Del’s is on the sweet side, but it doesn’t have that artificial lemon taste that veers toward Pine-Sol. It’s not malty, so if you’re looking for a shandy that retains strong beer flavors, this isn’t for you. If the sweetness is too much, Curious Traveler Shandy has similar characteristics in a much subtler beer.

Susquehanna Shady Spot

Shady Spot doesn’t exude a fresh-squeezed lemon vibe, but it has a nice balance. It still tastes like beer without giving up its refreshing qualities. It’s a nice entry-level shandy if you’re unsure about whether you want to be seen drinking one in public. The same can be said of Susquehanna’s Sunny Spot, which is the grapefruit version of Shady Spot.
Others: Bauhaus Short Pants Shandy, Sam Adams Porch Rocker.

Hoppin' Frog Grapefruit Turbo Shandy

If you prefer a little grapefruit in your shandy, you’re in luck. There are lots. You probably won’t find one better than Hoppin’ Frog’s Grapefruit Turbo Shandy. It’s malty so you don’t feel like you’re drinking soda, and it has the taste of real grapefruit, slightly bitter, and not too sweet. Unlike its sugary brethren, you can put a few of these back without feeling like you’re going to pay for it tomorrow.

Lancaster Blue Trail

You can find shandy flavors veering off in strange, fruity directions. Traveler offers pineapple and strawberry varieties. You’ll find pumpkin shandy in the fall. However, Lancaster’s Blue Trail -- a blueberry shandy -- is genuinely a great summer beer. It retains some great malty characteristics with a tartness that almost drinks like a sour.

Boulevard Lemon Ginger Radler

Boulevard gets credit for making a radler that stands out as something unique and delicious. It retains the refreshing summery vibe of a shandy while adding the surprising kick of fresh ginger.

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Dustin Nelson is a News Writer with Thrillist. He holds a Guinness World Record but has never met the fingernail lady. Follow him @dlukenelson.