by Mark Tichenor
Unless you’re from Texas, you’ve likely never heard of the Spoetzl Brewery. It’s small, with only 120 employees. They never affiliated with any of the big boys, and the name sounds like a type of Swabian dumpling.
Chances are, however, that you have heard of Spoetzl’s claim to fame: Shiner Bock. It’s through this iconic Texas brew that one gains an appreciation of the resilience and old-school tenacity of this classic brewery.
Not so long ago, the American brewing industry was a shambles. Prohibition drove most of the small breweries out of business, and many more were killed by the megabreweries, whose preferred method of friendly competition was aquiusition and liquidation of regional brewers with the temerity to stand in their way. By the late 1970s, only a few independent breweries remained.
Spoetzl was one such survivor, and its history intertwines richly with that of the German Americans whose descendents settled the Lone Star State in the second half of the 19th century.
Founded as the Shiner brewing Association in Shiner, Texas in 1909, the brewery was able, after a couple of years, to get ahold of a Bavarian-born and trained brewmaster by the name of Kosmos Spoetzl, who implemented the techniques and formulations of Munich breweries. He first brewed Shiner Bock in 1917, and the beer has been with us ever since.
Well, mostly ever since. In 1920 a bunch of zealous people did a really dumb thing and enacted prohibition, which pretty much killed all legal brewing enterprise. Shiner soldiered through it by selling Ice (which must have come with its own challenges in Texas), and near-beer, which was very likely nearly delicious.
Spoetzl was one of five independent breweries remaining in Texas after repeal, and managed to hold onto a sliver of the market as the major national brewers moved in. The craft beer movement breathed new life into the brewery, transforming Shiner Bock into a symbol of state pride and ultimately catapulting the brewery to becoming the 4th largest craft brewer in the country.
Following the movement, the brewery branched out, making interpretations of Belgian witbier, Hefeweizen, seasonal beers, and a gamut of other styles in a move that changed the Spoetzl’s direction from a plainclothes regional beer producer to a true craft brewer. Now that they’re rolling into Upstate New York, I gave three Spoetzl beers a taste.
Shiner Bock, the classic, does not strictly adhere to the German style. Rather it’s a bock filtered through the American experience over time. Pleasantly sweet and lightly grainy, Shiner Bock veers away from an expected thick mouthfeel and remains quenching, yet substantial.
It’s hearty, but not overbearing beer that deserves a premium status while remaining appealing to a broad spectrum of beer drinkers. With this as the brewery’s flagship product, it’s easy to see how Spoezl was able to carve out a strong market among superpremium and craft beer lovers.
Belgian white ale (witbier) relies on sensual clashes for effect, and Shiner White Wing pulls them off with aplomb. An alluring golden hue is countered by near-opacity as the yeast floats in suspension. A sweet aroma devolves into strong notes of coriander and clove, and those spice notes reprise themselves on the palate, with an unapologetic allspice finish and the tiniest hint of hops as you swallow. It’s pleasantly prickly, and refreshing as hell.
Most holiday beers tend to club the imbiber over the head with spices and hamfisted hop flavor. This is not the case with Shiner Cheer. Unexpectedly soft on the palate, this beer, is a big, fragrant whirl of blackcurrant, molasses and…peach? The low notes of dark fruit and toffee get nicely offset by sharper tree fruit character that mostly reveals itself on the exhale after the swallow. I’ve never been a big fan of holiday ales, but this is a beer I would not only order, but look forward to in the following year.
Disclaimer: I started this column expecting to be underwhelmed by Spoetzl, based on a predetermined image of staid regional-size American brewery stereotypes of name-coasting and success through geographic favoritism. Instead, I discovered three skillfully brewed beers, all of which brought something interesting to the table. Based on what I tasted today, Shiner beers are a more than welcome addition to the Western New York beer scene, and while they may not prove that everything is better in Texas, they certainly make a compelling argument that those German American cowboys know a thing or two about making very good beer.
Mark owns a laptop and likes beer. For more on beer, check out the beercraft blog, updated regularly, at beercraft.wordpress.com. Find him on Twitter @beercraft. Send your questions, suggestions, or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.