"I thought I was through with beer," confessed Alan Newman.
The flamboyant founder of Vermont's Magic Hat Brewing, known for his floral-print shirts, op-art labels and enigmatic brand names such as Humble Patience and Fat Angel, decided to walk out on the business in 2010 when his partners sold out to North American Breweries.
He was about to buy into what he describes as "a Willy Wonka-esque potato chip company" in Burlington, Vt., when Jim Koch of Boston Beer called. Koch offered to let Newman run an independently operating, fully funded subsidiary of Boston Beer to explore new business ventures. And since last year, Newman's Traveler Beer has been trying to hook craft beer drinkers on shandy.
Shandy has traditionally been a cocktail of beer and lemonade. (In Europe, where the drink is most popular, "lemonade" is a carbonated soft drink similar to 7-Up or Sprite, not the sweetened citrus juice that kids sell at roadside stands in the summer.) Newman says he enjoyed the drink while visiting England and tried to make his own version at Magic Hat, "but we could never get it right. It's not easy to get the perfect blend."
Newman's flagship brand, Curious Traveler, isn't a blend, actually. It starts with an American wheat beer, a style with a citrusy edge to begin with, and adds lemon and lime puree at the tail end of fermentation. The recipe also calls for a little crushed lemon peel. Curious Traveler has a tart, bracing lemon meringue flavor and a bready aftertaste. It's light on the palate, but it's beer, not pop.
Newman has spun off two other labels from his original recipe. Tenacious Traveler is flavored with ginger and honey; the recently introduced Time Traveler adds strawberry to the base "to give people a different take on what people think a shandy is."
Newman's shandies are available in 10 states. Traveler shares the market with some much larger players, including Newman's parent corporation.
As part of its summer variety pack, Sam Adams has reintroduced Porch Rocker, a Bavarian-style golden lager spiked with a lemon extract. The Germans call such a beverage a Radlermass (literally, "cyclist's liter") or Radler. According to the website of the German Beer Institute, the style traces its origin to 1922, to a country inn outside Munich called the Kugler Alm. Owner Franz Xaver Kugler, to boost sales, had a bike trail constructed that led straight to his door. On one balmy Saturday afternoon, "some 13,000 cyclists descended upon the Kugleralm and demanded beer." To stretch his stock, the besieged innkeeper mixed lemon soda into the beer at a 1-to-1 ratio. His story was that he wanted to concoct a less potent beverage to keep the cyclists sober enough to stay on their bikes for the journey home.
The tale is colorful but a little doubtful. Beer and soft-drink blends were popular in England by the mid-19th century and probably crossed the channel before World War I, although Germany's purity law would have prevented brewers from pre-mixing them.
"It's the same concept," says Newman, but otherwise he offers no opinion on Porch Rocker. He keeps his affairs separate from the rest of Boston Beer: "I pay no attention to what they do!"
Perhaps the most widely available example of this style is Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy, from Jacob Leinenkugel Brewing in Chippewa Falls, Wis., a subsidiary of MillerCoors. Like Curious Traveler, it uses a wheat beer for a base and adds honey and "natural lemonade flavor." (The company declines to be specific about what that is.) It yields a sweeter, more subdued fruit flavor that's more Country Time than lemon meringue. The shandy was the brewery's first brand to go national, notes company president Jake Leinenkugel, who says "it is now the largest seasonal beer in the U.S. in terms of volume."
Anheuser-Busch also has an entry: Shock Top Lemon Shandy, a Belgian-style witbier with "natural lemonade flavor and a touch of sugar" added, according to Jill Vaughn, head brew master for Shock Top.
Why are commercial examples made with lemonade flavor rather than lemonade itself? "Juice and beer don't package well," she explains. "The juice component starts to denature, producing off-flavors."
An exception is Mike's Shandy, a blend of Mike's Hard Lemonade and a proprietary golden lager brewed at the City Brewery in LaCrosse, Wis. Packaged in bottles and cans (no draft), it's aimed at drinkers who prefer a more beerlike taste than what the company's alcoholic lemonade can provide, says Kevin Kotecki, president of Mike's Hard Beverage. He calls it a "more traditional shandy" than the Leinenkugel or Shock Top versions, which he describes as "wheat beers flavored with lemon."
Coastal Brewing in Dover, Del., brewer of the Dominion and Fordham lines, offered a one-off called the Real Slim Shandy at its recent R2Hop2 beer and music fest. Brewer Chris Gordon blended his Beach House Pilsner with a store-bought lemonade in a 60:40 ratio, according to Casey Hollingsworth, vice president for sales and marketing. Coastal also offered a variant with a raspberry-flavored lemonade. The shandies were the first two kegs to run dry, said Hollingsworth. "Maybe a sign of the times," he adds.
Indeed, the growing popularity of shandies might be part of a trend away from high-octane imperial beers and toward the lighter but flavorful session beers that won't make you fall off your bike (or bar stool). The Traveler shandies measure a non-punishing 4.2 percent alcohol by volume. Most of the brands mentioned here clock in under 5 percent.
This potentially lucrative market has lured another craft beer expatriate out of retirement: Pete Slosberg, whose Pete's Wicked Ale was once the second-leading craft brand after Sam Adams. Slosberg is working with a California brewpub called Half Moon Bay Brewing to formulate a Mavericks line of low-alcohol (under 4 percent) beers that eventually will be canned and offered to outdoors-oriented drinkers. So far he has a witbier, a rye pale ale and a chocolate porter in the works.
Newman says he'd like to branch out into other low-alcohol styles, which is one reason he changed the name of his company from House of Shandy to Traveler Beer. He says "the consumer will decide" how far he takes his venture, but he says he firmly believes there is a market for beers that will allow you "to sit at the bar all night and not get stupid."
• Kitsock is the editor of Mid-Atlantic Brewing News.