Until last year, one of the few ways Texans living in New York could get a bottle of Shiner Bock, the popular craft beer from an 105-year-old brewery in Shiner, Texas, was to carry the beer back in their luggage. Or find a New York bar that had smuggled the beer into the city.
Rodeo Bar, a Texas-themed restaurant in Manhattan’s Murray Hill, claims to be the first bar in New York to sell Shiner, and for six years, the bar made regular monthly beer runs in a rented panel van to states that carried Shiner.
“At the beginning, we went down to Maryland,” said the Rodeo Bar owner, Mitch Pollak, a Queens native who first fell in love with the beer while in Austin. “We were going down there once a month for four years. Then Shiner Bock finally started going north. They got as close as New Jersey, and that’s where I was getting it the last couple of years.”
Selling the beer, a dark lager, in New York fell into a legal gray zone, so Pollak did not advertise. But word got around and the secret stock became a local legend among Shiner-starved Texans in New York. Pollak’s monthly Shiner hauls grew to more than eighty cases from ten.
Andrew Fischel, who owned RUB BBQ, in Chelsea, until it closed in 2013, was another early Shiner Bock purveyor. Through what he calls a “special arrangement,” Fischel found an importer and began serving different varieties including Shiner Oktoberfest and Holiday Cheer (the brewery’s fall and winter offerings). “Texpats” and members of the University of Texas’ alumni association, the Texas Exes, flocked to his establishment.
“People would ask me, ‘Is it real? I’ve never seen Shiner Bock in the city before!’ ” Fischel said.
Michael Schott, the president of the New York chapter of the Texas Exes, said he was so desperate for Shiner, he tried to homebrew a version with his roommate in their Gramercy apartment.
“Despite having to remove everything from our sole refrigerator to lager the beer for six weeks, the taste just wasn’t the same,” Schott said.
Shiner’s decision to partner with Manhattan Beer Distributors and enter the New York market in April last year changed all that. The beer that originated in the one-stoplight, 2,000-person town of Shiner is now available in countless delis and restaurants across the five boroughs (with its 12,500 stoplights and more than eight million people). While Shiner can now be bought in 44 states, the company’s expansion to New York was part of a slow and deliberate process.
“We had our first expansion in the early nineties,” said Charlie Paulette, the chief sales and marketing officer for the Gambrinus Company, a craft beer seller and exporter, which acquired Shiner in 1989 and also owns BridgePort and Trumer. “We’re talking about a twenty-year period here that got us to those 43 states. So it wasn’t like what a lot of the new craft breweries are doing where they are expanding wildly state to state. We really took our time and started with the states that were connected directly to Texas.”
Shiner has long been a fixture in country songs, including those by Pat Green and Jason Boland. But in recent years, Shiner’s various varieties have found their way into popular culture. In the movie The Hangover, a scene showing the messy aftermath of a bachelor party features a pyramid of empty Shiner Bock beer bottles. In 2011, Shiner figures as the favorite beer for Hank Schrader, the drug enforcement agent in the AMC television series Breaking Bad. Paulette said that the company has never paid for product placement.
After just a year, Paulette said the introduction of Shiner Bock to New York has been the most successful campaign in Shiner’s history. The company estimated that Manhattan Beer Distributors sold “the equivalent of a hundred thousand cases” in the first year alone, which Paulette said is “a big number for any brewery.”
Even The Brooklyn Inn, in Boerum Hill, one of Brooklyn’s oldest bars, with stained glass panels and a long oak bar that dates back to the 1870s, began serving Shiner last summer. The Bock variety is one of the nine beers on draft. But The Brooklyn Inn did not choose the beer out of nostalgia for Texas or to cater to a Texpat clientele.
“Shiner fits the niche of being a dark beer that isn’t too heavy,” said Kevin Bohl, a longtime bartender. “I point it out to people who want to drink a darker beer that’s not an I.P.A.”
Bohl said that Shiner Bock sales at The Brooklyn Inn have held up against the bar’s local offerings like Kelso and Sixpoint, two craft beers from Brooklyn.
On a recent May evening at The Sackett, a bar in Park Slope with a heavy cocktail list, Travis Rush, a native New Yorker who became acquainted with Shiner in the last year, tilted back a can of Ruby Redbird.
“I like that it’s easy to drink,” Rush said. “It makes the summer arrive faster.”
Joking, he added, “It’s great being exposed to new cultures.”