One great discovery for me when I visited Munich was radler. I saw it listed on the sign at the beer garden at the Chinesischer Turm (“pagoda”) and, not knowing what it was, had to try it. Once I did, I knew what it was: beer mixed half and half with sparkling lemonade. Yum. Great in hot weather especially. And a totally new thing to me.
Except, of course, for having had shandy before. Which is basically the same thing, though if you get a shandy in someplace like Canada it’s more likely to be beer mixed with, say, 7 Up. But it’s the same general concept: beer mixed half with a light sparkling sugary probably citrusy beverage.
As it happens, radlers and shandies are a thing now around where I live. All of a sudden they’re filling up shelves in the Liquor Control Board of Ontario stores. I suspect this is something of a continent-wide thing, since some of them are made by big-name brewers.
I’ve tried some of them. They’re refreshing, though of course a bit sweet. If you were to pour me a glass of one blind and ask me whether it was a radler or shandy, I think I would have about a 50% likelihood of getting it right – which is to say, no better than chance.
So how do you choose which to call it? Well, the words have their own tastes that are rather more different than what they name.
Radler looks like it might be a name for a roadster. It has the rad but also a taste of rattler and riddler. It’s on the red side of the colour sense. It has a Germanic sound to it – echoes of names such as Radner, for one thing. But also, it is a German word. It means ‘bicyclist’. A bicycle is in German ein Fahrrad (literally ‘ridewheel’), or Rad for short. So you get the taste of the German, plus the taste of the sporty bicycle thing. And why is it called that? Because if you’re out bicycling in the summer, you want a nice, refreshing beverage like this – one that won’t disturb your balance too greatly but is better than just lemonade.
Shandy, on the other hand, seems almost Irish, like a sea shanty or a shillelagh. It’s rather handy – years ago a brewery came out with a version they called TwistShandy, which also looked (in all caps) like TwistsHandy, suitable since it had a twist-off cap. German speakers might not like the echo of Schande (‘shame, disgrace’), but comedy lovers may hear a Shandling to put up against the Radner. It can have somewhat shady overtones, as it is sometimes used as a semi-euphemistic term for alcoholic beverages in general: “we had a few shandies” means (in some parts of Britain especially) “we drank quite a lot.”
But where does the word come from? The OED (and other sources) says it’s short for shandygaff, which names a half-and-half mix of beer and ginger beer. OK, but where does shandygaff come from? The dictionaries say “unknown,” which probably means something like “we had a few shandies and no one can remember now.”
Which do I prefer? Well, for me, shandy makes me think of cheap half-pop booze served in third-rate bars in Alberta with elasticated terry-cloth table coverings, places you may go after playing shinny. Radler, on the other hand, makes me think of Munich, and drinking beer by the litre in Europe. Also, radler just seems somehow more sophisticated and less cheap-boozy to me. So…
But taste for yourself and decide.