‘Soft southern shandy-drinking bastard.’ That’s the traditional cry from northerners, but even those on the other side of the Watford Gap take it at face value. Shandy is for lightweights, right? For those who can’t cope with proper beer? I used to agree – but recently I’ve been converted. Shandy has become my friend.
On a summer’s day I was in the pub, knowing that soon I’d have to get behind the wheel. Shandy had occurred to me as a solution to this before, but I’d always shunned it, put off by the stigma. On this occasion, though, I thought ‘why not?’ The weather was too hot for bitter, so I’d be drinking lager anyway – and suddenly the idea of throwing lemonade into the mix made the pint seem all the more attractive. So I went for it, and the reality lived up to the dream. Lager can be harsh on the tastebuds: the sweetness of the soft drink alleviates that. After all, lemonade is acceptable when you have it with Pimm’s, so why not with beer?
It has to be a strong lager, obviously: Foster’s shandy would be slightly less alcoholic than water. But – should you still suffer from shandy-shame – the beauty of different lagers having different shades is that no one will know your shandy isn’t just a light-coloured beer.
It isn’t only when you’re driving that shandy can be useful. It’s good even if you simply want to keep your wits about you. The other day I was having a couple of pints with someone just before giving a talk. The ‘proper’ stuff would have put me (I know from experience) just the wrong side of ‘on the ball’, but shandy let me have those two pints while in reality only having one.
They know about these things in Germany – their word for shandy is ‘radler’, which also means ‘cyclist’. The story goes that in 1922 a Munich innkeeper ran low on beer, so diluted it with lemonade. Some cyclists who were regular customers liked the result: the benefits obviously worked on two wheels as they do on four.
I’ve even come round to the idea of bitter shandy. At first this was a step too far: lager is nothing more than a thirst-quencher, but bitter is about taste. How could I condone the sin of adulterating that taste with fizzy pop? But soon I realised it’s menus for venues. If you’re savouring a pint of Adnams on your own with a good book, it has to be the real deal. But if you’re chatting with friends, the beer isn’t getting your attention in the same way, so it doesn’t matter if it’s shandy. You get the general somewhere-at-the-back-of-the-mind awareness of tasting bitter, but can still drive away without fearing the flashing blue lights in the mirror.
The first time I ordered a shandy was almost as nerve-racking as the first time I ordered a drink in a pub underage. But instead of laughing, pointing at me and yelling ‘lightweight, everyone!’, the guy behind the bar simply nodded and made me a shandy. Bar staff of all people know how unclever drunkenness is, so probably appreciate shandy-drinkers for not being the ones who will shout at and/or attempt to flirt with them come ten o’clock. In fact it’s a sign of how recognised a drink shandy is that bar staff take great care over making it. Sometimes they swirl the lemonade with a stirrer to flatten it down, so the beer won’t foam up when it’s added. They can achieve the same result by pouring the lemonade between two glasses half a dozen times. I’ve even known them pour the bitter into another glass first rather than add it straight from the pump – again, to avoid frothiness. No one wants an overly-perky pint.
So call me soft if you like, but from now on I’m proud to be the dandy with the shandy.