The very nice coffee table book “Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer” weaves a tale that is straight out of an old black-and-white movie:
The portly Kosmos Spoetzl is born in Bavaria and trained in the ways of beer. He was a soldier and a world traveler. A would-be Renaissance man like Southern Select’s Frantz Hector Brogniez, but on the other end of the spectrum. If Brogniez fit in with Houston’s high society, Spoetzl in Shiner was given to wearing his hat jauntily, passing out nickels to children and leaving cold beers on fenceposts for farmers.
Kosmos (who came to Shiner after stops in Cairo, Canada and San Francisco) drove a Model T through the countryside, talking up his beer with the common folk. At the brewery, which he cobbled into existence and somehow weathered 15 years of Prohibition, he would tell employees to “drink all the beer you want, just don’t get yourself drunk.”
When the beloved brewmaster’s big heart finally gave out, it was his feisty daughter who saw the brewery through the 1950s and 60s, carrying on her father’s work.
It all seems too scripted, but it apparently happened just that way.
As a Historic Texas Beer, Shiner never had the bombast of Lone Star or the flair of Pearl, but … Shiner is still here, still Texas-owned (the San Antonio-based Gambrinus Co.), still produced in its historic brewery and still quietly doing its thing.
(And that thing would be brewing multiple specialty beers to please the connoisseur, Shiner Premium to please the traditionalists and Shiner Bock to be that one beer that everyone can compromise on.)
Getting a relatively late start as the Shiner Brewing Association in 1909, the young brewery struggled until Kosmos Spoetzl came along in 1915 and co-leased the operation along with Oswald Petzold.
Kosmos had attended brewmaster school in Germany (where they apparently have such things) and had worked at the Pyramid Brewery in Egypt. He bought the operation outright not too long before Prohibition made things hard on him. Sources say he got along selling near-beer and ice – but just like every other Texas brewery that didn’t just give up in 1918, the rumors were that he kept on quietly producing beer, too.
Shiner Bock was introduced in 1913, but was a seasonal beer for the next 60 years. Post-Prohibition, Texas Export was the flagship beer, becoming Texas Special by the 1940s.
Mrs. Celie — the feisty Spoetzl daughter who took over in 1950 — finally decided to sell in 1966. It took only two years for former Lone Star brewmaster Bill Bigler to sell it again to a New Braunfels dynamite maker.
In the early 1970s, with the future of the little brewery very much in doubt, the flagship beer was changed from Special Export (I know that doesn’t jive with Texas Special – perhaps the terms were interchangeable? My sources are not clear. We need an expert to weigh in) to Shiner Premium. The change in formula and name didn’t sit well with old-timers and traditionalists who didn’t care for the lighter beer.
A couple of photos in “Shine On” show the Armadillo World Headquarters beer garden with a sign advertising Shiner at 35 cents a cup or $1.50 a pitcher (the cheapest option), as well as another shot of Doug Sahm and Jerry Garcia with most of a six-pack of Shiner cans (empty, I presume) between them.
In a move that probably kept the brewery afloat, Spoetzl started brewing Shiner Bock full-time in 1978. It was Austin’s thirst for the darker beer that prompted the move. How grim were things? The little brewery had plenty of leftover capacity to brew Gilley’s beer by contract for a short time after “Urban Cowboy” made the country Texas-crazy.
Carlos Alvarez and his Gambrinus Co. purchased the brewery in 1989 and made two moves: Shifted production from 75% Premium and 25% Bock to the other way around. And he raised prices. Substantially.
(If you ever wandered into a Texas bar in the early ‘90s and wondered why in the hell Shiner was priced as an “import” – now you know.)
Carlos had a knack for promotion, as well. In the first few years, sales nearly doubled. That’s not a bad turnaround. It was 1993 when the specialty beers started emerging from the overhauled brewery: Kosmos Reserve was first.
Perhaps the surest sign of success came in 1995 when Budweiser decided to invent Ziegenbock — a not-too-subtle stab at Shiner Bock’s market share.
There's no mystery as to Shiner's health today. Walk into any H-E-B or Spec's and you can choose from an impressive array of styles, from the newly relabeled Shiner Premium (which spent the last decade or so as Shiner Blonde) to the brand new Shiner White Wing.
Up next: What does it all mean for the thirsty Texan?
An assortment of historical Shiner bottles.
A Shiner "Texas Special" label from 1951. Taverntrove.com
A Texas Tap label from 1968. Taverntrove.com
Shiner also brewed Gilley's beer after the "Urban Cowboy" craze took hold.
A "Texas Special" stubbie bottle.
Vintage Shiner memorabilia like this is hard to find and expensive. In part, because Shiner just floods the market with all manner of new stuff available at the brewery and online.
A Shiner Premium can.
And an old-school Shiner Bock can.
Here's how Premium is looking these days.
And Bock, too.