Tours weekdays only, 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m.; 603 E. Brewery; 361-594-3383; shiner.com (last year’s Bocktober Fest brought nearly 20,000 revelers to the tiny town; don’t say I didn’t warn you).
115 E. Seventh (the sign out front reads Home Place; Jo will explain), 361-275-0999.
ANTIQUES, ART AND BEER:
720 N. Avenue E, 361-594-2337.
OLD KASPER HOUSE BED AND BREAKFAST:
219 N. Avenue C, 361-594-4336, oldkasperhouse.com.
I’D LIKE TO TOAST THOSE thin-lipped Puritans for settling along the East Coast and leaving a swath of Central Texas free for fun-loving Czech and German pioneers, who brought us kolaches, place names without vowels, and beer. If nothing else, it’s the perfect excuse for a road trip to Shiner, where prost is still frequently spoken. And what makes Shiner the unofficial Slavic-Teutonic capital of Texas, rather than, say, neighboring Moravia or Praha? Why, the Spoetzl Brewery, of course.
Now, the last time I’d seen old Spoetzl, thirty years ago, it was held together by baling wire and duct tape, cranking out just enough brew to satisfy locals and the handful of regulars welded to the bar stools in its tiny hospitality room, where samples were free and unlimited. The brewery’s sad state was made even sadder in light of its former tenacity. From 1915 to 1966, Bavaria-born brewmaster Kosmos Spoetzl and his family kept it afloat, weathering Prohibition by churning out ice and near-beer, which requires additional brewing to remove the alcohol—a step Kosmos may have occasionally forgotten. Later Spoetzl even withstood the onslaught of goliaths Anheuser-Busch and Miller. But by the eighties, sales were in a death spiral. Enter one well-heeled buyer: Carlos Alvarez, whose Gambrinus Company is credited with elevating Mexico’s Corona—with dogged marketing and an omnipresent lime wedge—into a trendy brew for beach bunnies. Imagine how excited he must have been to promote a beer that tastes good.
And what can a clever PR campaign—plus a cool 40 million bucks—do? To find out, I joined a garrulous herd from Minnesota, on a day trip from an RV park in Corpus Christi, for a tour. After a shot of Dunkelweizen—a sophisticated dark wheat beer I chose over Spoetzl’s better-known Bock, Blonde, and Hefeweizen—I began to warm to the slick new hospitality room, where the beer still flows free, if not so freely. (Samples are limited to four buzzworthy servings.) Our guide, Pat Schlenker, who was fluent in Spoetzl-ese, led us into the new cathedral-like brew house, where copper tanks gleamed in the sunlight and white-coated technicians fiddled with test tubes in the adjacent laboratory, and then to an observation deck overlooking the animated bottling room, where an army of brown soldiers paraded down the conveyor belt submitting to rinsing, filling, capping, labeling, washing, and pasteurizing without a single Lucy-and-Ethel-at-the-candy-factory hitch. The Minnesotans peppered Pat with questions that she answered with aplomb, not suspecting, as I did, that these white-haired folks were cunning industrial beer spies only faking those singsong accents. Back in the hospitality room, I doused the flames of suspicion with three more Dunkelweizen samples. (Yes, it’s that good.)
I whiled away the rest of the afternoon at Shiner’s more sobering sites: the Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church, which, with its murals and Bavarian stained glass, is dizzyingly impressive even if you’re not tipsy, and the tiny EDB Museum, a history repository fashioned from Shiner’s Louis Ehlers Cigar Factory, makers of the popular Good Company stogie back in 1895. In the half-vacant but still tidy downtown, I stumbled onto Beyond Beyond, a stage-set-as-shop opened by interior stylist Jo Mills, where handcrafted tables and vintage kitchenware cozied up to miles of velvet quilts, gauzy window panels, and beaded satin scarves.
Come the sanctioned toasting hour, I surveyed Shiner’s handful of watering holes, settling on Antiques, Art and Beer, a delightfully schizophrenic newcomer trafficking in the dangerous mix of liquor and shopping. Only by concentrating intensely on a game of dominoes and consuming mountains of free roasted peanuts did I avoid a Dunkelweizen-induced purchase of a print of The Last Supper tarted up with colorful squiggles of paint applied with a squeeze bottle.
When it was time to retire, I strolled to the Old Kasper House Bed and Breakfast (honest, officer, everything is within walking distance), where I sat on the porch and watched the steam rise from the stacks of the dapper white brewery across the highway.
WHILE YOU’RE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD:
Go nine miles north to Moulton and check out Kloesel’s Steakhouse, where a great charbroiled ribeye was no surprise, but haricots verts, fresh apple pie, and free wireless Internet were (101 Moore, 361-596-7323, kloesel.com). Equally surprising was the Ole Moulton Bank, now an intimate live-music venue (101 N. Main, 361-596-7746, olemoultonbank.com).