Quick, off the top of your head—can you name the five largest craft brewing companies in the U.S.? Set aside for a moment the inherent problems with the Brewers Association’s ever-evolving term for what a “craft brewer” entails, and just think of which brands come to mind.
Perhaps you thought first of Boston Beer Co., which somehow retains the “craft brewer” title despite the majority of their business now being seltzer, cider, alcoholic tea, and practically anything other than beer. Sierra Nevada likely occurs to you as well—they remain one of the few U.S. craft powerhouses whose reputation in the eyes of beer geeks has never been tarnished. But how about the Spoetzl Brewery? Does that name ring an immediate bell? You’d be forgiven for a moment of confusion, especially if you live outside of Texas—they’re the folks who produce the Shiner brand of beers, and as part of the family owned Gambrinus Co. (which has only one other small brewery, Trumer in California), they’re one of the biggest craft brewing powerhouses in the country. And yet, Shiner has a curious way of flying under the national radar all the same, largely eschewing hype-laden beer styles while producing a more modest, traditional lineup of brews.
Truly, it’s odd to think that in the year 2022, the makers of Shiner Bock have retained a greater degree of bonafide “craft” status than the likes of New Belgium, Bell’s or Cigar City, breweries that once commanded beer geek hype and eventually sold themselves to multinational beverage conglomerates. And yet, the independent spirit of Shiner is undeniable, as a visit to the small town of Shiner, Texas (population 2,069) will attest. This is a brewery deeply and inextricably rooted in its small-town culture, beloved locally in a way that most any brand would envy, but simultaneously far larger and more complex an operation than even most of the locals realize. It’s a massive brand, situated in a single spacious facility, far off the beaten path in rural Texas, but one that bears the standard of Texan pride as bottles of Shiner Bock traverse the length of the world. As it turns out, that Shiner vibe is a culture all its own.
A Century of Small Town Brewing
One can only imagine that life in the small town of Shiner, which began as a trading post called Half Moon in 1885, may have been a little bit dull before the area’s tight-knit community of German and Czech immigrants decided to begin a brewing operation in the year 1909. Pining for the beers of their native lands, and no doubt needing to wash down the omnipresent specter of brisket and Texas BBQ the locals formed The Shiner Brewing Association that year, but the fledgling brewery clearly needed the guiding hand of a well-trained professional brewmaster if it was going to grow and thrive. This, the people of Shiner found in a well-traveled, gregarious man by the name of Kosmos Spoetzl, who purchased the brewery outright in 1914 and proceeded to serve as its brewmaster, figurehead and patron saint for the next 36 years.
It’s hard to overstate the reverence with which the character of Kosmos Spoetzl is treated within the walls of his self-named brewery, as immediately evidenced by the glorious, portly bronze statue that greets visitors at the beginning of the Shiner Beer brewery tour. His creation became the business that has employed countless residents of the small city over the course of the last century, to the point that the figure of Spoetzl feels almost mythic in stature. It helps that his personal story is so interesting—a Bavarian by birth, Spoetzl was classically trained in the German brewing tradition but hopped around the world plying his trade on different continents, including a seven year stretch as the brewmaster of the Pyramids Brewery in Cairo, Egypt. He then traveled to Canada, before ultimately settling in the U.S., where he searched for a brewery he could make his own. He finally found it in the middle of Southern Texas, adopted by a community of German and Czech immigrants roughly 90 minutes from the modern hubs of Austin and San Antonio. In thanks, perhaps, for the welcome he received, Spoetzl famously was known to leave out bottles of cold Shiner on fence posts in the years that followed, to be collected by the thirsty farm hands as they ended their shifts. That image—a beer perched on a splintered fence post, waiting to be discovered by some rancher—is perhaps the most enduring symbol of the symbiosis between the brewery and its hometown.
Kosmos Spoetzl, who according to local legend kept the recipe for his beer tucked under his ever-present hat.
Spoetzl guided the brewery through its next three and a half decades of growth, through the rocky waters of Prohibition (locals wink as they imply he never truly stopped making beer) and out the other side. After his passing in 1950, his daughter Cecile—universally known to locals and brewery employees as “Miss Celie”—took over the reins, running the brewery for the next 16 years as the only documented brewery proprietress in the United States. Consider that, for a moment: From the years 1950-1966, the only female brewery owner in the country was overseeing Shiner Beer as the brand expanded from local favorite to iconic Texas staple.
Other employees are similarly long-tenured—in the brewhouse, a wall full of blue caps represent every employee who has worked for the company for a decade or more, and a separate wall of caps represent all those employees who retired after a full career at Shiner. In the center, a row of seven hats has special prominence—the symbols representing every Shiner brewmaster since the days of Kosmos Spoetzl, right up to current brewmaster Jimmy Mauric, who has worked within the walls of the brewery since he was 17. The jovial, mustachioed Mauric is currently around 45 years of service at Shiner … and he’s still not the current longest-tenured employee at the brewery. This is the kind of devotion that Shiner inspires, especially among the locals, of which Mauric is one. Together, they’ve watched the company grow from a cramped, largely manual brewhouse that was in service until the 1990s (where Mauric trained), to a gleaming, modern temple of beer production, with a bottling line capable of filling 1,200 bottles of Shiner Bock per minute.
A tribute to every Shiner retiree.
Today, long gone are the days when a cup of Shiner would only set back a drinker a few dimes at a Willie Nelson set in Austin, but much else remains the same. The lifeblood of the beer, for instance, is still the same artesian well water from beneath the brewery, first tapped by the Shiner Brewing Association in 1909. It’s been carefully safeguarded ever since, and is used exclusively for brewing—Shiner isn’t about to waste their most precious commodity on cleaning tanks or flushing toilets. The environmental mindset has likewise expanded in recent years to various redesigns and improvements of the brewery, from the copious skylights that make the facility less dependent on electric lighting, to the planned solar panel project that the company hopes will soon provide up to a third of its power. Not bad for a facility that first housed its brewhouse inside a sweltering tin shed, where Kosmos Spoetzl worked his magic. If only the old Bavarian could see it today, one wonders what he might exclaim.
The Beer Identity of Spoetzl Brewery
But what of the beer itself? Beyond the ubiquitous bock, how does the broader Shiner brand style itself, and where does it intend to take its beer in the future? What brands will carry Shiner into its next era?
Make no mistake, of course, it’s Shiner Bock that built the company into a national powerhouse, although this actually wasn’t always the case. Prior to 1973, the bock was simply a popular seasonal release, as was common for bock-style beer in Germany, where bock and doppelbock are frequently associated with the spring season, having been lagered through the cold winter months. Starting that year, though, the delicately sweet and malty lager became a full-time fixture of the Shiner rotation, rapidly growing into its signature product. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find an Austin bar that doesn’t serve it, and Shiner Bock has grown to such huge proportions as a symbol of the small city that to many consumers, the beer and the brewery are completely synonymous. This is, perhaps unsurprisingly, both a blessing and a hurdle to other Shiner brands, particularly on the national stage—Bock is so popular and well recognized that it has at times made it difficult for other Shiner brands to gain equal attention.
In the one stoplight town of Shiner, though? Bock actually doesn’t reign supreme here. Rather, it’s the glory that is Shiner Premium, the brand’s original flagship lager, and my favorite discovery of visiting the brewery. Crisp, delicately sweet and grainy, with just a hint of floral hop balance, it’s one of the best and most full-flavored American-style lagers I’ve had in recent memory, which makes it all the more sad that Shiner Premium can only be found within the state of Texas. It complements a slab of smoked brisket like nothing else in the lineup—in fact, this is the beer that brewmaster Jimmy Mauric grew up drinking, and still arguably his favorite today, half a century later. He physically bristles at the idea of a local resident ordering a Bud Light at a local hangout such as Howard’s, a combination gas station/beer patio/watering hole where friendly stray cats and chickens strut through the revelers as they have for decades. After all, Shiner Premium is right there, made a few minutes away from the town’s own artesian water. The choice, in Mauric’s mind, seems pretty obvious. Are you really going to come into the man’s town and order an AB InBev product?
And yet, the Spoetzl Brewery must also keep its eye on the future, as it seeks to tap niches of the beer market where the Shiner brand has never been a dominant player. One of those areas is IPA, which dominates the national craft beer landscape but significantly under-indexes in the state of Texas, where lighter styles have typically prevailed. The company has recently introduced a new, Texas-driven line of IPAs titled TexHex in an effort to court this very market, starting with flagship IPA Bruja’s Brew, which can boast cactus water in its ingredient list. Purported to grant the beer a silkier texture, the cactus water supports a bright, citrus and floral-forward hop profile, with a dry finish and moderate bitterness that overall make Bruja’s Brew a well-balanced, modern IPA designed to appeal to a wide variety of palates. The company believes it represents a major area of opportunity for the Shiner brand, with hopes of a Shiner-branded IPA being embraced by the Texas consumer as enduringly as Bock has been.
Likewise, the brewery is making increased effort to tap into its Spanish-speaking customer demographic with the release of a beer that more authentically speaks to Mexican drinkers in particular, ¡Órale! Mexican-Style Cerveza. Brewed with agave, and featuring a slighter rounder and fuller texture than the likes of Shiner Premium, it reads like the original flagship beer’s bilingual cousin, and hits shelves nationwide in May.
Taken together, Shiner’s lineup of beer brands paints a picture of a company that is thankful to be able to do two things at once. On one hand, they’re able to continue being the beloved small-town staple they’ve always been, with Bock paying the bills and the likes of Shiner Premium enjoyed at the weathered watering holes of one-stoplight burgs throughout the state, as locals commiserate over high school football results and life continues much as it has for the last century. And on the other hand, Shiner simultaneously plays the scrappy upstart craft brewery in markets outside of Texas, angling its new creations such as Bruja’s Brew and ¡Órale! as Lone Star State innovations that have captured the spirit of their unique culture in a can, ready for export to the furthest corners of the United States and beyond. Somehow, Shiner is both these things at once, and then some. From the era of Kosmos Spoetzl to today, they’ve been an enduring Texas symbol—which is why when you’re in Shiner, you’re best off doing as the locals do.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.