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The History of Shandy and Radler

It all started with a shandygaff in Victorian England.

No one quite knows the etymology of the ‘shandygaff’ but what we do know is that when it was first written about it was a drink that was a mix of ale with ginger beer, and it’s from this that we can trace through to today’s lager and lemonade.

Ale and ginger beer! That’s a curious mixture… It’s a very common beverage, sir; particularly in warm weather… the drink in question was called by the name of “shandygaff.”

This is the earliest mention of shandygaff which I can find in the online British Newspaper Archives and it comes from a report of a magistrate proceedings from 17 April 1842 in the Bell’s New Weekly Messenger.

From this we learn that it’s a mixed drink, and that it needs explaining, so presumably not everyone knew about it (we also learn that four or five pints of it got you drunk). The earliest mentions of shandygaff talk about the ginger beer being poured from bottles but by the turn of the 20th century it was common for London pubs to have in tap and it was used for mixing with the other beers on tap. Martyn Cornell can tell you more about that.

In 1846 a shandygaff is mentioned again, this time in Bentley’s Miscellany (sometimes mis-reported as being edited by Dickens – he did edit this publication but wasn’t editing it in 1846).

Dickens did write about the drink in 1860, saying ‘no honest man drinks anything but shandy-gaff’ in hot weather. Dickens is said to have written about the drink several times although I can’t find any good references.

Through the 1850s the drink seemed to be popular with Etonians and drinkers in Windsor, though like in the Bentley’s Miscellany above it is often mentioned with a wry, curious, derisory tone – in a way there can still be a sense of sarcasm when shandies are talked about today, as if it’s somehow not quite a proper beer.

Shandygaff was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 1855 and the name was shortened over time, with ‘shandy’ entering the dictionary in 1876.

And here’s a drinking song printed in the Weston-super-Mare Gazette, and General Advertiser from Saturday 15 June 1867. It also hints at a social shift in taste towards lighter beers, particularly in the summer.

This next one is especially interesting: it's the first mention for lager and lemonade that I’ve found, and it was from 1870. It comes from the Spanish city of Seville and below is the piece from the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer. It’s interesting to me that there was a lager brewer in Seville in 1870 – that’s early for lager’s spread into Spain. I also like that it was served with a ladle. I'd like a shandy ladle.

Shandygaff was still being written about into the 1900s. In one story in the Gloucester Citizen from 10 June 1902 the ‘cooling compound of ale and ginger-beer’ is called a ‘delightful beverage’ which is also known as ‘poor man’s champagne’ (a few weeks later the Gloucestershire Echo reported that a man had drunk 55 pints of shandygaff in a night). H. G. Wells wrote about it in his 1910 book The History of Mr Polly, explaining it as "two bottles of beer mixed with ginger beer in a round-bellied jug" which was served alongside fried ham and eggs.

As the 20th century progressed, there are fewer mentions and the Nottingham Evening Post of 21 June 1930 reported that ‘we hear very little nowadays of “shandy-gaff”– that fizzing concoction of beer and ginger-beer which youths loved 40 years ago.’

There were then a couple of outlier mentions of shandy, like in a 1935 article titled Good Things for the Tennis Party, it tells us that ‘Shandy-gaff is, of course, just lager beer and ginger beer mixed’ and that ‘the men-folk enjoy a glass of it between sets.’ That’s the first I’ve seen of lager and a mixer drunk in Britain and this comes at a time when lager was under 1% of the British beer market – it’s a curious tone to have the ‘of course’ there, suggesting common knowledge. A couple of years later, the Dundee Evening Telegraph of 23 December 1937 calls shandy-gaff a mix of beer (ale, most likely) and lemonade.

By the 1960s we see lager and lime and beer and lemonade both mentioned more frequently and then comes the emergence of the more-familiar combination of lager and lemonade. It was a summer refresher or a mixer for ladies in that way of gendered drinks from a few decades ago.

Today most British drinkers still see shandy as lager and lemonade (or perhaps a bitter shandy) but there’s an increasing range of pre-made shandies, like some of the ones mentioned above, while there are restaurants and bars creating their own beer mixes, like these from Bundobust.

One final thing on the shandygaff: The Urban Dictionary has a different definition and it is, apparently, an ‘inbetween the legs backwards handjob.’ Shandy has some dubious alternative meanings, too.

The Radlermaß

Where Brits drink shandy, Germans drink radler. And the emerging ranges of American and European craft shandies are also more commonly calling the mix a radler. Today in Germany and Austria, it’s most typically a 50/50 mix of lager and a citrus-based soda, and it’s a common thing to see on menus.

The story of the name ‘radler’, which means ‘cyclist’, is one of those often-repeated beer anecdotes which no-one can really confirm with confidence but also which no one has yet suggested a decent alternative for.

The story says that it was a Franz Xaver Kugler (that guy on the right with the jazzy hat) who invented the ‘Radlermaß’ or the ‘cyclists’ measure’ in 1922. He owned a tavern, the Kugler Alm, in the Perlacher Forest around 20km south of central Munich. He was an enterprising inn keeper and wanted to draw large crowds, so he arranged different entertainment, like sack races and horse races, and even supposedly cut a cycle route through the forest to arrive at his tavern. The legend says that on one particular day 13,000 people showed up, which sounds somewhat ridiculous, and Kugler didn’t have enough beer so he cut it with lemonade and sold it as the cyclists’ beer. This may well have happened but it’s unlikely that Kugler invented the name or the beer as it’s believed the radler was mentioned as a mixed drink as early as 1900. What I don't know, and have never read about, is when Germans started drinking beer and soda mixes.

Anyway, the important part is that Radler is a popular drink and a natural choice in the beer garden – much more so in Germany than in British pubs, for example. And there’s an increasing range of pre-mixed Radlers available in cans and bottles.

In Germany they have several other established mixes and the regular Radler is joined by a Diesel, a mix of lager and cola (it’s called mazout in Belgium); a Russn is a mix of Hefeweizen and lemonade; apparently they mix cola and Kolsch in Cologne and it’s called Drecksack, which means dirtbag. I’ve never had any of those other mixes and I don’t think I want to, either…


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