PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- American beer drinkers are going to hear more about shandy and radler this summer than they ever have on these shores, but craft beer won't be behind the citrus-spiked bar banter.
A shandy or radler -- depending on whether you like the British or Central European term better -- is basically a mix of lager and lemon soda. It's refreshing and usually has a fairly low alcohol content, but that splash of soda has always made U.S. craft beer just a bit uncomfortable about embracing it too willingly.
The folks at Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing in Chippewa Falls, Wis., have no such inhibitions. Since launching their Summer Shandy back in 2007, they've watched it become their best-selling brand. It makes up more than half of all the beer Leinenkugel produces in a year and, when it went nationwide in 2012, it was the third best-selling specialty beer brand by dollar amount behind Blue Moon and Anheuser-Busch InBev's (BUD) Shock Top, according to Symphony IRI. It was the No. 2 seasonal brand in the country behind only Boston Beer Company's (SAM) Samuel Adams seasonals and outsold every craft beer brand except Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Sam Seasonal and Sierra Nevada Pale Ale.
Its sales were roughly equivalent to the entire line produced by Bend, Ore.-based Deschutes Brewery and nearly double those of Petaluma, Calif.-based Lagunitas. As Tom Rotunno of CNBC noted in a great piece on the rise of shandy and radler, off-premise sales of major shandy brands in supermarkets, drugstores, Target (TGT) and Walmart (WMT) reached $67 million in 2013, up 227% vs. 2012. There's still plenty of room to grow, mostly because much of the U.S. still doesn't know what a shandy is.
But craft beer is still wary of embracing it. Jeff Wharton, co-founder of Boston-based online publication Drink Craft Beer, was put off shandies by what he'd tasted from brewers, but he changed his mind when his business partner mixed him a shandy of lemonade and Narragansett Summer Ale. He's now setting up a shandy bar at Drink Craft Beer's Summerfest beer event in Boston.
There are definitely a lot of obstacles to overcome in getting the shandy accepted by craft beer folks, the biggest one being that most people seem to see the shandy as a way to "dumb down" beer for the mass market, which is exactly what people were trying to escape with craft beer, he says. Also, for too long, people have correlated big alcohol content and overwhelming flavors with "quality" in craft beer. A shandy is low in alcohol and has a more laid-back flavor ... which is why you can drink a few of them in a row.
Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy, for example, is 4.2% alcohol by volume. With a Budweiser clocking in at 5.2% ABV and a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale packing 5.6% ABV -- both fairly light compared to a 9% ABV Dogfish Head Imperial IPA or a 14.2% ABV Goose Island Bourbon County Stout -- shandies and radlers are definitely lighter summer fare. However, that drop in alcohol is a bit much to take for a U.S. craft beer community that's still wrapping its mind around low-alcohol session beer, cans and the occasional fruit beer.
It's an industry that's already having trouble adjusting to Blue Moon's ownership by MolsonCoors (TAP) and how its accessible witbier style has offered lager drinkers a large point of entry to craft styles that many small brewers haven't or won't. They're similarly reluctant to go after Leinenkugel, which was purchased by Miller in 1983 and viewed by many in the craft community as an extension of Big Beer -- even if the Leinenkugel family and its loyal drinkers feel differently.
However, there are some craft brewers who see the benefits in playing catch-up. Boston Beer's Alchemy & Science subsidiary in Burlington, Vt. -- which handles brand development and acquisition -- developed its own line of Traveler shandies to compete directly with Leinenkugel. The man behind the project, Alan Newman, helped found Magic Hat Brewing and developed its No. 9 apricot-flavored beer that helped launch the brand into national notoriety and erase some of the unwarranted stigma of fruit-flavored beer.
Meanwhile, Sam Adams' New England neighbors Narragansett and Harpoon each launched shandies this year, with the former pairing with Rhode Island lemonade maker Del's to do so. Brooklyn-based SixPoint Brewery also launched its Rad radler this summer, using blended juices instead of soda. Out West, Bend, Ore.-based 10 Barrel Brewing is on its third year of producing its Berliner Weisse-and-soda 4.5% ABV summer seasonal Swill and took a vending machine through various West Coast cities to dispense free beer as part of this summer's launch.
Craft is pouring itself a shandy a little late, but then again all of U.S. brewing is a little late to that party. There's evidence of German radler dating back as far as 1912, but most beer historians credit gastronomer and Kugleralm tavern owner Franz Xaver Kugler with devising the 50% beer/50% lemon soda recipe in 1922. The name comes from radlermass or cyclist's liter. Kugler used the recipe to both quench the thirst of thousands of cyclists on a bike path near his tavern and to conserve his beer supply.
More recently, Austria's Stiegl brewery has been shipping its bottles and cans of 2.5% ABV lemon and grapefruit radler here since 2004. The U.K.'s Bass has been canning and selling its 0.5% ABV Shandy Bass across the pond since 1972 and in specialty shops here at least since the late '90s. If anything, at more than 4% ABV, they're all still doing it wrong.
Nevertheless, by continuing to hold to puritanical beer beliefs that in no way resemble global beer realities, craft beer occasionally finds itself embarrassingly behind the times on styles that could have helped it lead the way. For a crowd that has no trouble adding woodruff syrup to a Berliner Weisse or using a dump truck full of Citra hops to make its IPA taste like grapefruit, craft beer sure gets up in arms about fixing itself a tasty drink on a hot summer's day.
"While I love a good IPA, stout, barleywine, etc...that's not what I want on those days," Wharton says. "I want light, crisp, refreshing and something I can drink all day. A shandy cuts the alcohol in half and crisps the beer up. It's a no- lose situation!"
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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