Taste-Testing America's Most Popular Shandies

By Danya Henninger  |  July 30, 2014
Credit: Danya Henninger

Do you know what a shandy is? How about a radler? A clara? A panache?

If you don’t, you will soon. Long a summer staple in Europe, the mix of lager and lemon soda known by all the above names is taking the U.S by storm. Sales of bottled or canned shandies surged more than 200% in 2013, and it looks like 2014 will grow even more, with several new breweries launching shandy or radler labels into the fray.

There’s a reason these beer-mixers are so popular during warm weather: they’re extremely, exceptionally, extraordinarily refreshing. Think of that mythical “ice cold” feeling Coors is always touting, and add the sparkling pop of a swig of just-above-freezing Sprite. Plus, since they’re traditionally only part beer, shandies are relatively low in alcohol, making them perfect for day-drinking your way through a trip to the beach, picnic or backyard BBQ.

Varying techniques are used to achieve the pick-me-up sip of these brew blends. Some, especially the newer offerings from craft operations, use real juice or soda as ingredients to mix with the base of ale or lager — mostly lemon, but grapefruit is also common. Others rely on “natural flavoring” for their citrus kick.

Which one should you seek out? We tried nine shandy/radler variations from breweries of all different sizes and locations, and ranked them according to how flavorful, drinkable and generally delicious they were. Flip through to see the results, listed in order of our least to most favorite, and then pick up a six-pack for your next bout of summer fun.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Shock Top Lemon Shandy

    One of the fastest-growing divisions of beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev is this sunglass-labeled brand, and the shandy, introduced in 2012, is one of its biggest summer sellers. Hazy and colored exactly like the hay on the bottle, the beer infusion is decidedly unobtrusive, with a very subtle citrus scent and just a hint of beer flavor. Not much carbonation or noticeable finish makes this as easy to drink as a glass of cold Kool-Aid, albeit one that brings along a boozy punch.

    ABV: 4.2% 
    In the Mix: Belgian-style wheat beer brewed with citrus and coriander plus natural lemonade flavor and sugar
    Drink This If: You like to chug and aren’t worried about tipsiness sneaking up on you.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Sam Adams Porch Rocker Radler

    A crystal-clear golden glass with a tight head pours from the bottle of this Boston Beer Company seasonal, which first landed on the scene in 2012. While the nose gives off an aroma that is spot-on exactly like Sprite, the lemon-lime doesn’t carry through to the taste, nor is there a lot of “beer” for the flavor to fall back on. What you do get is lots of tiny bubbles that tickle your tongue, and the malt finally showing up in the finish, which also leaves you with a slight metallic tang.

    ABV: 4.5%
    In the Mix: Helles lager with real lemon flavor
    Drink This If: You want to kick back in your rocking chair without a lot of complexity interfering with your sipping.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Leinenkugel Summer Shandy 

    This hazy yellow brew has been one of the best-sellers for this MillerCoors-owned, family-run brewery since 2007, but last year distribution went national and Leinie “shandymonium” hit new heights. Poured from either a bottle or 16-oz. can, there’s an intense head that disappears almost immediately, revealing a very lemon-y scent. “Is this actually beer?” you might find yourself thinking, until you take a sip, when a sharp brew flavor takes over. Carbonation is very mild, and after you swallow, you might as well have sipped a glass of water — the flavor disappears.

    ABV: 4.2%
    In the Mix: Wheat beer with natural lemonade flavor
    Drink This If: You’re more into “lemon scent” than “lemon juice,” or you might have to kiss someone during your drinking session.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Narragansett Del’s Shandy

    This summer, Rhode Island’s beloved native beer label teamed up with another Ocean State icon, dessert slush purveyor Del's Lemonade, to introduce a throwback splash hit. Longtime acolytes of Del's tart-sweet ice will appreciate the clear, pale-gold brew’s aroma — it mirrors the frozen lemonade nearly exactly (though without any hint of sugar). You’ll have to also be a lager fan to enjoy the taste, which is mostly malty, with an acerbic edge and finish. The “beeriness” of the creation is actually apparent when you first pour from the 16-oz. can, since the head is long-lasting and leaves lacing on the glass, a rarity for this style.

    ABV: 5%
    In the Mix: Lager and Del’s lemon concentrate
    Drink This If: You don’t want too much fruit flavor getting in the way of your brew (or you’re from Rhode Island).

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Saranac Shandy 

    The F.X. Matt Brewing Co. has been fermenting and bottling in Utica, NY, for over 100 years, but it was only in 2012 that the family-run biz finally released a shandy. The clear, rich yellow liquid comes in both bottles and cans, from which it pours with a large, fluffy head that dissipates quickly, leaving a distinctly malty scent. When you sip, the taste is round and full, more balanced than the nose, and even though there’s barely any carbonation, the drink finishes almost like a cider: tart and crisp.

    ABV: 4.2%
    In the Mix: Lager and lemonade
    Drink This If: You’re a cider fan who wants to say you enjoy beer too.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Traveler Beer Illusive Traveler

    Launched this spring, the newest year-round offering by this Vermont-based, all-shandies label (part of Boston Beer’s “craft-beer incubator” Alchemy & Science) has a very strong aroma. The scent coming off the large-bubble head of the cloudy gold-beige beer is somewhere between grapefruit and lemon, and is much more intense than that of Curious Traveler, the lemon-only original in the series. Wheat flavors do come through when you sip, and balance the citrus on finish, keeping the brew from tasting too much like juice.

    ABV: 4.4%
    In the Mix: Wheat ale brewed with lemon peel, plus grapefruit juice
    Drink This If: You'd never eat a slice of grapefruit, but its tart flavor does intrigue you.

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Stiegl Radler

    Imported from Austria, this dusky peach-colored liquid pours from the pounder can with a froth that disappears almost immediately. That’s to be expected — unlike many of the U.S. offerings, this longtime favorite Bavarian refresher is more soda than beer, literally. The sharp, bright flavor delivers on the promise of the bursts of citrus that hit your nose when you close in on a sip, and the whole thing is as easy to drink as its low ABV suggests.

    ABV: 2%-2.5% 
    In the Mix: Lager (40%) and grapefruit soda (60%)
    Drink This If: You’re looking to start your morning with something slightly stronger than OJ (and want to be able to keep drinking the same thing all day). 

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    Sixpoint Rad Radler

    Introduced this year, the hazy, tangerine-colored concoction that spills from a 16-oz. pounder with a small, tight layer of foam is the first in a new line of brews from the NYC brewery. Given the quirky moniker “Cycliquids," the common theme of these new offerings is that they all come from a “mad scientists’ laboratory.” In this case, the lab work refers to founder Shane Welch’s intense mix-and-match effort to find the perfect blend of fresh juices to mix with the ale. Whatever he finally hit on carries notes of lemon, grapefruit and even peach, making a very fruity sip, though one that's not sweet and has a clean, dry, slightly sour finish.

    ABV: 3.2%
    In the Mix: Wheat beer and real fruit juices (proprietary blend)
    Drink This If: You want to pretend you’re juicing when you drink your beer ("Studies prove I'm being healthy right now. Swear.").

  • Credit: Danya Henninger

    UFO Big Squeeze Shandy

    Instead of lemon, the tart citrus flavoring this brand-new Harpoon seasonal is grapefruit. It’s added in the form of real juice, and though the signature zingy scent is only slightly apparent in the nose, it takes over when you down a gulp. Though there’s no head when you pour the hazy, ruby-pink liquid, a surprising amount of carbonation makes each sip feel like buzzy seltzer, and the taste and texture both finish slightly sour, leaving a definite impression on your palate — one that makes you want to repeat the whole process over again.

    ABV: 4.5%
    In the Mix: Unfiltered beer and grapefruit juice
    Drink This If: You love tart grapefruit and don’t mind pucker-mouth.