Letter from Texas, July 16, 2016

The Spoetzl Brewery, hidden away in Central Texas, is attracting a nationwide following.

Patricia Garner/Last Best News

The Spoetzl Brewery, hidden away in Central Texas, is attracting a nationwide following.

We’re off to Texas to settle my mother-in-law’s estate and to catch up with family. Anyone who has ever visited South Texas in July would understand why we wound up in Montana: Here we have relentless summer heat—a daily hundred degrees of heat, with humidity to match.

The country house in which I grew up is surrounded by flat coastal plain as far as the eye can see, broken by patches of thorny huisache and murky creeks. The Guadalupe River, where we used to canoe, balks and starts, its green surface unruffled as it limps its way to the Gulf of Mexico.

But this is abundant land, too. As I write this, from my brother’s home near Austin, a doe and her fawn nibble at his richly landscaped lawn. We have seen armadillos, squirrels and a nearly infinite array of birds making a living off land that chokes with undergrowth, moss-burdened trees, thorns and flowers.

There are other signs of abundance, too. Yesterday, we toured the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas, where every bottle of Shiner beer is brewed.

If you don’t know Shiner, you should. It’s now available in 49 states (Hawaii excepted) and you can find it on grocery shelves in Billings. That’s despite the fact that, even today, Shiner is a nondescript town of 2,000 people nestled on the southern edge of Central Texas.

Although I grew up less than an hour away, we scarcely ever saw the town. My parents were teetotalers, and outside of the brewery there was really nothing to see in Shiner, nor was it on the way to anywhere else, unless you consider Flatonia somewhere else. Shiner bills itself as the “cleanest town in Texas,” a dubious and largely irrelevant claim.

But the brewery is blossoming, employing some 125 people and selling close to 8 million gallons a year. More than 50 people lined up for the 45-minute tour, and a group of equal size was waiting for the next tour when we left. The four cups of free beer that comes with the free tour is only part of the attraction.

“If you can’t be happy in the brewery,” our cheery tour guide said, “then you are just not a happy person.”

Like most small businesses, the Spoetzl Brewery has survived with luck and pluck. It was founded in 1909 by an association of German immigrants who longed for the beer they left behind. In 1916, Kosmos Spoetzl, a Bavarian who knew his beer, bought them out and ran the place until his death in 1950.

His daughter then became one of the first women in the country to run a commercial brewery. It has been sold since a couple of times to people who appreciated what they had and were willing to invest in it.

Shiner beer hat

Patricia Garner/Last Best News

A woman touring the Spoetzl Brewery shows off her homemade Shiner beer hat.

Shiner survived the Depression by making near beer and ice, and it survived the brewery consolidation of the ’80s by appealing to Texas loyalists and to the counterculture music crowd in Austin. It still attracts a loyal following; a woman on our tour wore a cowboy hat fashioned out of cardboard from Shiner beer packaging.

I was introduced to Shiner in Nacogdoches, Texas, some 40 years ago by my next-door neighbor, who assured me it was brewed with honey. Since the only name we knew him by was “Flash,” I trusted him.

In those days, the original Shiner beer was, I admit, a bit rough around the edges and something of an acquired taste. But after a couple of cases of experiment and persistence, I acquired it.

Then sometime in the 1980s, Shiner Bock was introduced, and my loyalty was rewarded with the best-tasting American beer I had ever encountered. If I had a million bucks, I thought, I would invest it in distributing this beer all over the country. Well, I didn’t, but somebody else did.

These days, the Shiner brewery faces challenges from the craft beer industry, which produces beer as good or better, but Spoetzl remains the largest independent brewery in Texas. Give Shiner a try.

What else? Politics, of course, and good ol’ barbecue and Mexican food. But more on that later.

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