Shiner Still Brewing After a Century

Only a handful of independant brewers remain

By MICHELLE ROBERTS
|  Sunday, Jul 5, 2009  |  Updated 11:01 PM CDT
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Shiner Still Brewing After a Century

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At 100 years old, Shiner beers are more popular than ever, the oldest and largest craft beers in a state where people cling fiercely to their beer and to all things Texan.

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By all accounts, Shiner beer shouldn't have made it this long. The Spoetzl Brewery ferments its brew in a one-stoplight town that's not on the way to anywhere, and much larger regional brewers long ago succumbed to consolidation and the muscle of national brewers.

For years, Spoetzl limped along with cast-off parts from other breweries and lingered on the brink of shutting down. But today, at 100 years old, Shiner beers are more popular than ever, the oldest and largest craft beers in a state where people cling fiercely to their beer and to all things Texan.

"It's the classic little guy story," said Mike Renfro, author of "Shine On," a book about the brewery's history. "They managed to overcome some pretty incredible odds."

Before Prohibition and easy interstate travel, the nation was dotted with small regional brewers, but only a handful have survived and remained independent for a century or more. Yuengling Beer Co. and Matt Brewing Co., maker of Saranac beers, sell mostly on the East Coast, while August Schell Brewing Co. and Stevens Point Brewery, maker of Point beers, sell primarily in the Midwest.

In Texas, there's just Shiner now, and it's growing. The brewery now produces 400,000 barrels a year, 10 times what it did 20 years ago, and distributes to 39 states, selling particularly well with ex-Texans and Texas-themed restaurants, company officials say.

The German and Czech immigrants who settled and farmed around this town, an outpost roughly halfway between San Antonio and Houston, formed the Shiner Brewing Association in 1909. In June that year, they bore a well and at just 55 feet, water bubbled to the surface, providing a water source that the brewery still uses.

The first few years were a struggle until the association found Kosmos Spoetzl, a German immigrant with a secret recipe. He bought the brewery in 1915 and marketed his brew by loading up his Model T with kegs and ice. He drove the dirt roads along the region's cotton fields, offering thirsty laborers what today is basically Shiner Blonde.

But just five years after Spoetzl bought the brewery, Prohibition began and the brewery could only make ice and non-alcoholic "near beer" -- officially, anyway.

Most folks around Shiner have heard tales of the real stuff being secretly brewed.

"From what I understand, it was nearer to beer than near beer," said brewmaster Jimmy Mauric, 49, who grew up in Shiner and has been working at Spoetzl since he was a teenager.

Whatever Spoetzl was making, his brewery survived long enough to begin openly brewing beer again in 1933.

He ran the brewery until his death in 1950, when his daughter Cecelie took over. She ran it for nearly 16 years, one of the few female brewery owners in the country.

But time pretty much stood still in Shiner -- a town that even today consists of the brewery, a wire works plant and a few streets of well-kept historic homes. Descendants of the original German and Czech families would take their kids to Spoetzl's hospitality room without thinking anything of it, "sampling" Shiner from 10 a.m. to noon, go home for lunch and be back from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., when the hospitality room closed, Mauric said.

Meanwhile, the beer industry was going through a series of consolidations. The big Texas regional brands, Pearl and Lone Star, were both acquired by Illinois-based Pabst Brewing Co. Their historic breweries in San Antonio closed.

Spoetzl stayed independent, surviving mostly because of a loyal following among Austin drinkers who embraced the dark Shiner Bock and the beer's Texas roots.

The brewery was so ramshackle and remote that big companies weren't really interested in it. Mauric said by the late 1980s, the brewery was probably on the verge of last call.

He and other employees kept Spoetzl going with spare parts scoured from closed down breweries and were still climbing three flights of stairs to turn hand valves on the gravity fed brewing tanks in 1989. "I used to say we were holding the place together with baling wire," Mauric said.

They produced just 40,000 barrels a year, distributing no farther than Austin, 80 miles north.

Salvation, and modernization, for Shiner-brand beers came in 1989 with the arrival of Carlos Alvarez, a beer marketing executive who first encountered Shiner Bock while building a U.S. market for Grupo Modelo's Corona brands in the early 1980s.

"I saw the customers' enthusiasm for the brand," said Alvarez, whose Gambrinus Co. bought the Shiner brewery hoping to take advantage of its loyal customer base.

Just about everything at the brewery needed to be rebuilt and replaced, but Alvarez said he wanted to keep it in the town of Shiner, which still has a population of just around 2,000 people today. He liked the authenticity it gave the brand and the people who made the beer.

"They are really hands-on individuals. They are farmers. They work in the fields. They are extremely handy," he said. "It makes a huge difference to be able to be from a real town, from real people who are not the creation" of marketers.

The brewery, which offers tours five days a week, is often filled with out-of-state visitors who got acquainted with it through some Texas connection.

Susie Pelc, a native of Shiner who long ago moved away, can now buy Shiner Bock at home in Aiken, S.C.

"But it's in the 'import' section," she smiled.

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