In Defense of Radler

Beer is good, I’ve been told. I tend to agree, and have always been a fan. It’s really quite an amazing thing, after all: it can refresh, provides useful calories, can be a good source of flavonoids, fuels belching contests, and can be a great post-ride recovery drink. Beer comes in uncountable flavors and colors, ranging from light lagers to braincell-slaughtering barley wines. Pale ales help us while away summer afternoons, and imperial stouts keep winter’s chill at bay. In short, it may well be the perfect beverage. It can be paired with any food, from Lucky Charms to salmon, and because it in itself is a recipe, it can be combined with other, more solid recipes to make the ideal blend of meal and libation.

Ben probably didn’t say this, but we give him credit anyway.

Back in the old days, before GPS on a bike was ubiquitous, my lovely wife and I embarked on our honeymoon and our first trip to Europe. We knew we had a tight budget, and that we wanted to ride our bikes, and we found an affordable tour from Vienna to Venice. We cashed in our airline miles, saved our pennies, and headed to the Continent. The route led us through southeastern Austria, through rolling hills and picturesque vineyards, then across the remnants of the Iron Curtain into Slovenia.

Along the way, I was determined to sample every beer I could get my hands on. I worked my way down the line of taps at our first hotel in Vienna, then once on our tour, I studied the beer list, and with great authority, picked one at random. At no point was I disappointed, but I was also not blown away. I was beginning to realize that despite the reputation of American beers being bland and boring, in fact, they are creative, exuberant, and cover a vast spectrum of flavors.

We crossed into Slovenia over our first real European pass, Seebergsattel. At the top was a small border checkpoint with a bored agent who waved the two of us, clad in lycra and sweat, through. He was somehow able to do this solely with his eyebrows, as the effort to lift his hand to sweep us into what had been the Eastern Bloc was clearly not to be wasted on us.

As we had yet to cross from one country to another on our bicycles, we stopped and requested that he stamp our passports. Heaving a great sigh and glaring at us, he dug inside a drawer for a stamp, went through the motions of welcoming us to Slovenia, then sat back in his chair, and put his feet up on the desk, exhausted from the effort of opening the passports. I was tempted to offer him a gel, as I was worried he might have over-exerted himself.

The descent from Seebergsattel into Jezersko was fun, with a collection of twisty hairpins like we had seen watching races on TV. The empty road offered the chance to pick clean and fast lines in the turns, and by the time we ran out of switchbacks, we were grinning from ear-to-ear and racing towards the hotel to beat the threatening rain.

The hotel offered only one beer, in large brown bottles with red labels: Pivo Union. A tasty lager, I happily drained several in quick succession. It was tasty, but utilitarian, and I don’t remember anything distinctive about it, other than it satisfied me 500ml at a time.

The next day dawned with a  heavy rainstorm, so the ride was canceled and we drove to our destination, Lake Bohinj, stopping in Bled along the way for a bit of touristing. Bled is a beautiful city, and in retrospect, I wish we had more time there. However, the clearing skies and a lakeside table at our hotel made for a lovely evening, and the views of Lake Bohinj and the surrounding Triglav National Park were exceptional. The Julian Alps are a spectacular blend between the Austrian Alps and Dolomites, with rivers flowing in turquoise color below craggy peaks. This area is underrated, and my wife and I are planning to return.

Our server brought menus, and as was my practice, I studied the beer list with great gravity. I decided I’d try a Radler, not having seen that on any menus previously. Within a few minutes, it was delivered in an ice-cold glass, dripping in condensation. It had a pale gold color and a nice 1/2″ or so of fine foam on top. Tiny bubbles glittered in the late afternoon sunlight, and I raised the glass in anticipation of a delicious beer.

And I nearly gagged.

At the time, my German was limited to “zwei grosses Biere, bitte”, so I had no idea that “radler” meant “cyclist”. I was willing to accept “camel drool” as an accurate translation. The lemony flavor didn’t fit what my palate considered to be lemonade, and I certainly wasn’t expecting it. My taste buds rebelled, screaming for hops, barley, and maybe a nice wild yeast. My eyes crossed, I choked down the fist sip, and stared at the glass as if it had tried to assault me.

Let it be said that I have never had a taste for fruit beers, from Belgian raspberry lambics to Pacific Northwest microbrews with local blackberries. They always struck me as sickly sweet interpretations of Bartles and Jaymes, yet somehow more cloying and obnoxious. The very thought of fruit flavors presenting themselves in my beer was abhorrent, and I worked pretty hard to make sure it didn’t happen.

My lovely new bride embraced my dislike for the radler, hiding her concern in paroxysms of laughter. Clearly, we have a special relationship.

Time passed, as it often does. The remainder of the trip included more spectacular cycling, hiking a large cave in search of a Balrog, and vast plates of calamari seared in olive oil and garlic. Years went by, sometimes quickly, other times excruciatingly slowly. We rode in other places, bought and sold bikes, changed jobs, and all the things adults are expected to do post-honeymoon. My grasp of German expanded significantly, to the point where I could order “drei grosses Biere, bitte” with great confidence. In time, I could also ask for schnapps, and with practice, strudel.

On a trip we co-hosted for some friends, two of the riders, Tim & Jenny LegRipper, requested that I pick up a sixer of Leinenkugel Summer Shandies. The rest of us were consuming quantities of PBR post-ride in volumes intended to save the brewery from the demise of hipsterism. I happily obliged them on my daily run to the beer store, and as we sat and watched the sun set over the Colorado rockies (the mountains, not the baseball team. Those guys weren’t invited), I tried a shandy.

It was actually pretty good.

Not being a fan of weisse beer (the unfiltered stuff is sort of like a slightly alcoholic Metamucil, cleaning out my system and not providing much of a buzz), I found the lemony taste to be pleasing after a hot day in the saddle. Not long after, I tried a Ska Brewing Modus Mandarina, a Mandarin-orange tinged version of their spectacular Modus Hoperandi. Despite my dislike of fruit in beer, the crisp citrus and bright hops were working for me. The Lineys became my preferred hydration while watching my son at the BMX track, as their refreshing taste and low alcohol made summer afternoons oh-so-pleasant.

Around this time, my favorite brewery, Roaring Fork Beer Company, started adding fresh grapefruit juice in the glass before filling it with their wonderful Freestone. Watching the pour and mix happen before my eyes, then tasting the combination of the sharpness of the grapefruit and the crisp, cool Freestone made me a convert to adding citrus juice to beer. A caveat though: it has to be good beer.

My friend, Uncle Crusty, recently referred to radler as a “pussy drink”. I offered some to the cat, but he turned up his nose at it, so Crusty is wrong, but at least he’s consistent in that vein.

At a post-ride stop in Ketchum, Idaho, I was surprised to see a 500ml can of Stiegl Grapefruit Radler in the lineup. I ordered it and was handed an ice-cold can. It hit the spot nearly as well as my now-favorite grapefruit Freestone, and a large grin spread across my face. This stuff was perfect: 40% lager, 60% grapefruit soda. It tasted like a Pellegrino soda, but for grown-ups. I later went to the grocery store and bought 12 4-packs, then took them home and put them in the coldest part of the fridge.

Here in my hometown, one store carries the Stiegl Radler. They only have the lemon version, and told me that they can’t get the grapefruit because the alcohol is below the threshold for Colorado liquor stores to carry.

So, if you come to my house, keep your grimy paws off my grapefruit radlers. I’m not sure when I’m heading to Idaho next.

I find the Stiegl radlers to be much smoother and brighter than the Lineys, and I like the lager base more than the weisse beer base. After a bit of experimentation, I’ve found that fresh grapefruit juce and Modelo Especial work very well together. I’ve even used my own bike as a testbed for radler capacity. There are two in the red toptube bag, and then extra cages are earning their keep. adding 2 kg to my bike was never so pleasant, and as the ride tapered to its end, lightening the load was wonderfully refreshing.

Summer rides on hot days call out for icy, crisp, refreshing beer. The radlers fit the bill, offering a tasty recovery drink that doesn’t over-fill you, leaving room for more substantial beer later. It’s well-named, if not marketed, as the ideal beverage for cyclists.