Shiner at 100
By Lee Nichols, Fri., March 13, 2009
Back before there was Samuel Adams, Sierra Nevada, or Real Ale, there was Shiner beer. Back before there was Jim Koch, there was Kosmos Spoetzl. Back before the microbrewery explosion –heck, back before the word "microbrewery" was coined – there was the Shiner Brewing Association.
It has been exactly 100 years since a group of German and Czech immigrants sat down and decided – in a very different brewing landscape than today's glitzy, marketing-driven one – that the townsfolk of tiny Shiner, Texas (population 2,070), needed to satisfy their beer needs with their own hands. They just wanted to immediately gratify their desire for a taste of the Old Country – they didn't realize they were giving birth to history.
Their organization went through a number of changes over the next century, so many that they'd likely not recognize it today. They later hired and eventually sold their Shiner Brewing Association to Bavarian brewmaster Kosmos Spoetzl, who built Spoetzl (pronounced "Schpoetzl") Brewery from 1914 until his death in 1950, even through Prohibition. From there, ownership passed to his daughter for several more decades, and eventually to Carlos Alvarez's Gambrinus Company, which saved Spoetzl from near-bankruptcy and turned it into a regional brewing powerhouse – the largest craft brewer in the South.
It's a history worth telling, a true piece of classic Texana, and in his new book Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer, Dallas author Mike Renfro has done just that. As Spoetzl has approached 100, it has celebrated its heritage with several special, limited-edition Shiner brews. But it also decided to go beyond the bottle and commit that heritage to print. Renfo crafted a finely written and graphically gorgeous coffeetable book that perfectly captures an older Texas that is fading away and a brewery that almost faded with it. It's a story with a lot of Austin in it – if it weren't for our then-hippie/contrarian college town, Shiner might not have made it past the Seventies.
I chatted with Renfro recently to learn how he collected the history of a classic American success story. (This is an extended version of the interview that appeared in the print edition of the Chronicle.) – Lee Nichols
Austin Chronicle: Describe to me the genesis of this book. Did Spoetzl approach you about writing Shine On or vice-versa?
Mike Renfro: They approached me. I've been friends for many, many years with Bryan Jessee, one of the partners at McGarrah/Jessee, which has been their advertising agency for a while. Really the way it came about is Shiner had decided some time ago that they wanted to do some sort of commemorative book, but they knew that they didn't want it to be just a sort of a self-written corporate propaganda piece. They wanted it to stand on its own merits as well. And I think that's why they enlisted Bryan and those guys to help them a little bit. Bryan was familiar with: I had done a little book of Texas short stories some years ago, and I'd also done some commentaries on NPR back in the Nineties. They always called me their "Texas foreign correspondent." It was usually a Texas-centric kind of thing, so I think those made him immediately think of me.
And so we started talking. I think summer of '07 is when they first called me, and would I consider it, and it really scared the heck out of me, because when I did my first book, it was really kind of on my own time, and I just took some things I'd already produced for NPR and sort of put them all together. The whole notion of somebody paying me a sum of money up front and saying, "Okay, you get the rest of the money when you deliver this thing, and you have to deliver by such-and-such date" – well, you live by deadlines every day, but when the deadline includes 10 chapters and a hundred-and-ninety-something pages, it gets pretty scary.
So we really I think officially got started in September '07, made several visits to the brewery that fall, and I guess that fall I immediately came up with a name for the book and got everybody on board with that. And I sort of sketched out, from talking to the folks in Shiner, what my vision of how the chapters would lay out and how I'd break down the chronology and kind of got everybody to nod their heads on that, and then I guess the writing really in earnest happened from November up until March or April. And then there was editing after that and then off to the printers.
AC: Describe to me the process of putting the narrative together: how you got your information and who you interviewed.
MR: It was a combination of sitting down with a number of folks, including the lady who does the tours there at the brewery and serves as their local PR person, and sitting down with people like her or [brewmaster] Jimmy Mauric. And John Hybner, who was the brewmaster from the early Seventies until '05. And those guys were great because both of them were pretty much lifers, had been there since they were 18 or 19. They took me back first-person into the Sixties.
And then there was a lot of digging through ... going over there on a number of occasions and going up into the brewery, up top; on the top floor there was literally just a room with boxes, and they have not been very good about archiving. It was like going into your grandmother's house, up in the attic, and finding little treasures that no one's probably touched in 40 years. We found everything from old promotional signs to hand-written receipts and estimates of things [such as] brewery improvements. But we also found, there was quite a bit of material where people had written stories in the Fifties and the Forties and I was able to take that and expand upon.
AC: You mean news stories?
MR: Yeah. There was a guy from the Houston Chronicle who had done a big article on them back about '53. Sigmund Byrd was the guy's name, and I took a lot out of that. There were just a lot of varying independent accounts. There were also some old reel-to-reel tapes from a film about the brewery back in '76. In the course of doing this film, these guys recorded a bunch of reel-to-reel audio with Miss Celie, Kosmos' daughter and the lady who ran the brewery after he died up until '66. So we actually had her voice telling us some awesome, great stories. They probably had a couple of hours of just her reminiscing in 1976 when she was about 82. And they had some of the other folks on these tapes from the Seventies. Cracker, the delivery driver, was in an extended amount of stuff on there and a few other folks as well. So it was a myriad of stuff like that that I spent the whole fall going through.
We sat down also in a couple of little town-hall-type meetings ... by putting a notice in the paper down there; we invited everybody who had ever had anything to do with the brewery – whether you worked there or your daddy worked there or your husband or whoever. So we had a whole room full of people just giving me anecdotes, and we did some more correspondence with them over the course of things if we thought they had an interesting story to include.
When I built the structure of the thing, it sort of wrote itself, because you could look at the history and it sort of divided itself into some pretty nice, neat little areas: when Kosmos first came on the scene, and then Prohibition was a whole chapter, and then what happened afterwards, and then when Miss Celie took over, and the Austin phenomenon, all that. We also sat down, later-day, with the two guys who were the original Austin distributors in the early, early Seventies, and then the guys who took it over from them afterwards who saw they were the originators of the real Shiner of Austin [distributorship], that saw the explosion of Bock back in the Seventies and Eighties.
AC: The archival stuff – what kind of condition was it in?
MR: Some of it – well, you can tell by looking at some of the photographs. Some of the stuff that made its way in there is in kind of poor condition, so that would tell you there's a whole lot that didn't make it that had been leaked upon from the roof of the attic over there or whatever else. Some of the stuff we got courtesy of people who had stuff in their own attics, or pictures in their own archives, and that included the guys who were the distributors in Austin in the Seventies, and it also included random folks. I think we ran some little ads, probably the Chronicle and maybe the Statesman as well and some other places, asking folks for your Shiner stories or if you've got any memorabilia, old signs, whatever, give us a call, we'd like to photograph it. So literally the guys down there went out and when somebody had something that looked pretty good, we'd go out and take a picture of it. Some of those old pictures from the Armadillo, that was in private collections as well, I think.
AC: So you had to just dig through this stuff. Gambrinus or Spoetzl didn't have this already packaged and ready for you?
MR: No, no, no ... no. [Laughs] That was one of my big concerns going in. I said: "Look guys, I'm not an archaeologist, and I'm certainly not a historian. You guys are really going to have to help me outside of me going down there and getting a feel for the place." So it was really a group effort. I have to give a lot of credit to Ryan Rhodes, the designer of the book. He found a lot of this stuff, spent a lot of hours just poring through these boxes. Not to say anything bad about the folks at Spoetzl, their attitude has always been, "We're focused on making the beer today," and they don't think much about stuff like that, and so the stuff got less than organized. I think the book sort of helped them fix that problem a little bit. It was a way for them to say, "Now that we're 100, we have to do something that gathers this stuff up and tries to organize it some way." And that's kind of what we sought to do, is dig through the attic and make it all something you could package and get something out of. ... Rhodes is also the guy who does all the packages that you've seen for the anniversary brews, back to the '97 or the '98. That's gotten a lot of design and industry awards on a national level.
AC: What was the most surprising thing you learned in researching this book?
MR: I guess how close they came to shutting down in the Eighties. My experience with the brand had been, I was first introduced to it in the late Seventies when I started school in Austin. At that point, it was sort of considered the dregs of the dregs. It was a like a step below Lone Star. It was Shiner Premium at that point – I never even saw Bock, and then Bock kind of exploded in the Seventies into the Eighties, on a more mainstream level in the late Eighties. Right before Gambrinus came in and Carlos [Alvarez] bought the place, they were literally going to go under, and I had no idea it was that close to that.
The thing that instantaneously surprised me was when I went down there and realized there's only 55 people that work there. That shocked me, given their output. That's one of the things I wanted to include in the book – if there's only 55 people, let's make sure we put them all in here, like a yearbook.
And I guess the notion that when you go to this town, I didn't realize how small Shiner was. And it was also just a kick to look in the [Shiner newspaper], and every name in there is German or Czech, even still. The town has remained fairly homogenous in that regard.
AC: Yeah, I remember my first trip to the brewery back in Eighties – we went downtown to that cafe and started talking to one of the locals, and he still had that thick German or Czech accent.
MR: Yeah, that happened to me too, in one of the meetings with the townspeople. There was this old gentleman, he was probably 80 years old, with a cowboy hat, and he had a little bit of a funny accent, but he was telling a story about something his grandfather used to always say, and he just launched into what sounded to me like perfect German. It was sort of weird looking at him in his cowboy hat doing that.
AC: Do you recall your first experience with Shiner?
MR: Uh ... gol-lee. I think it was probably my freshman year in college, and trying to do everything we could to save some money when we'd go out on Friday, and opening up a case. And having grown up in North Texas, Shiner wasn't even distributed up here at that point. I remember buying some just because it was cheaper than Lone Star. And we were a little bit worried – we weren't big fans of how Lone Star tasted necessarily, but we were a little worried, "Oh man, if it's cheaper than Lone Star ...." I remember being pleasantly surprised that the Premium tasted a lot smoother than the Lone Star did.
AC: When did you first encounter Shiner Bock?
MR: Bock ... I gotta think, it was way after I was out of Austin. So I gotta think I started seeing it appearing everywhere up here in the early Nineties, I guess, is really when I started seeing it. I don't remember ever encountering it when I was in school, and I guess that's because it was still seasonal for the most part then. Or else they hadn't really started pushing it yet. I was there fall of '78 to fall of '83.
AC: And you addressed the notion that the recipe of Shiner Bock may have been changed in recent years. Did you ever buy into that belief yourself?
MR: No, I never did, and those people [at Spoetzl] don't strike me as the kind of folks that would tell you a story. Everybody down there is like: "Yeah, we'll tell you the truth. If we changed it, we'll tell you. If we changed it, there was a good reason to do it." That kind of thing. I think a lot of it was, there was obviously a lot more sophistication that occurred in terms of how they marketed themselves and what they did with the labels and the packaging when Carlos and Gambrinus came in. People are always suspicious of that. I think that contributes a lot to it. And justifiably so – in a lot of instances, people are suspicious of stuff like that. I've even had people who confuse, I guess they know that ZiegenBock is an Anheuser-Busch thing, and then they just automatically assume without any information at all that Shiner must be owned by somebody, Miller or whoever.
AC: What is your favorite Shiner beer?
MR: I like the Helles [Shiner 99] a lot. I've always liked Bock, but I'm a little more – probably because of how I grew up here – I like drinking the Blonde, even though I know it's just what Premium was. And maybe that goes back to that's what I first experienced. But I like Blonde a lot more than a lot of people do. They're like, "Well, if you're going to drink Shiner, you ought to be drinking Bock." But I've never been a real heavy-beer kind of guy, a real big-time dark beer kind of guy. But I do like Bock and never had a problem with that.
AC: I've always wondered something. I grew up in a small town, and I know how beer tastes in small towns go – most people are drinking Bud Light or Miller Lite. What do most people who live in Shiner actually drink? And which Shiner do they prefer, if they drink Shiner?
MR: [Laughs] The older ones, I think, probably still drink what they consider Premium, which is now Blonde. That's what they sold the most of up into the Seventies or Eighties until it all flipped around. They were 80/20 Premium to Bock, and I think a lot of the older, older ones, just out of habit, still drink that. I get the impression there are guys that'll look around, and if they need to feel like they're in their Chamber of Commerce mood they'll make sure they're drinking the Shiner, but they may have a case of Bud Light out in the garage when they're mowing the yard. I'm not absolutely sure that's the case. But I think there is a real pride in a lot of the people of: "Hey, I live here. I gotta drink this."
Lee Nichols blogs about beer at www.i-love-beer.blogspot.com.
Shiner 100: CommemoratorIf you're a Texas beer geek, you're surely aware that Spoetzl Brewery celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. For five years now, the makers of Shiner beer have been advertising this coming occasion in the best way possible: by brewing more beer and getting adventurous in their offerings and exploring their German heritage. Beginning in 2005, the brewery's 96th year, it put out the limited-edition Shiner 96, a rich Märzen-style lager. That was followed each year with another limited release: 97 (a schwarzbier, or black lager), 98 (Bavarian amber), and 99 (Munich-style Helles).
Culminating this five-year party is Shiner 100 Commemorator, a hearty "starkbier," or "dopplebock" (double bock). I'm happy to report that, to celebrate such a huge event as 100 years of business, brewmaster Jimmy Mauric has done well. With its thick malt profile typical of this style, this beer practically screams, "Germany!" And yet, it's surprisingly light for the dopplebock style, and thus possibly more accessible to drinkers who never go heavier than a Shiner Bock. Perhaps you could say it has "drinkability." One of my beer-blogging colleagues suggested that Shiner 100 is what Shiner Bock (which is not actually a true bock) ought to be. I'm inclined to agree.
Shiner 97, the black lager, proved to be so popular that it found a place in Shiner's permanent lineup. I hope it won't be the only one from the anniversary series to do so – I'm already missing the beers that have gone out of production and hope they'll return on at least a seasonal basis. And Shiner 100 is as deserving as any of such status.