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By Eating Our Words
Next, Mauric poured a glass of the blackest beer I have ever seen. "Bohemian Black Lager was our anniversary brew a few years ago," he said. Known as schwarzbier (black beer) in Germany, this style of lager is made by dark-roasting the malt. Shiner's version is made with five different German malts and quite a bit of hops. While it had a hearty flavor, it wasn't nearly as heavy as it looked.
"This is a lot milder than a typical German schwarzbier, isn't it?" I asked diplomatically as I considered the bottom of my glass. Extreme beer geeks criticize Shiner's new craft brews as being watered-down versions of the real thing. Mauric shrugged off the criticism.
"Mild is good. I can live with mild," the brewmaster said.
American mainstream beers are formulated for "session drinking," the consumption of many beers over the course of a few hours. These weak American lagers and light beers differ from the international standard of stronger, more flavorful beers that are consumed in smaller quantities.
Texas craft brewers are aiming at the international style. Shiner and the big American brewers are looking for ways to straddle the fence. They can't afford to lose the session drinkers who still buy the most beer, but they want to get in on the craft beer movement. "We are going for fuller flavors, but we are also going for drinkability," said Mauric. "You could drink a couple of those pretty easily, right?" he asked. I had to agree. And so have a lot of other Shiner customers.
"The Bohemian black is now our No. 2-selling beer after Shiner Bock," Mauric said.
"Who's drinking these new beers?" I asked Mauric.
"My daughter and her friends," he laughed. His 24-year-old daughter loves Shiner's new varieties of beer; she is currently planning a Shiner beer-themed wedding. "It used to be the old German guys that asked all the questions on the beer tours," Jimmy Mauric told me. "Now it's the young kids. They want to know what kind of malt and what kind of hops we are using. These kids know their beer."
But it's not just that. "The American palate has changed," said Mauric. "People want some flavor in their beer. And so here at Shiner, we are getting back to our roots as craft brewers" (see "Texas Wants Beer: My Ten Top Texas Beers").
The first breweries in Texas appeared in German-settled areas around 1840. These tiny operations would be called craft breweries today — they made highly individual beers in small quantities for local markets. Without ice or refrigeration, they could only brew during the colder months.
While the earliest American breweries produced English-style ales and porters with fast-acting yeasts that left lots of residual sugars and malt flavors in the barrel, the German settlers of Texas longed for the cleaner, crisper flavor of traditional German lagers. Lager beers require aging at cool temperatures for a month or more while a secondary fermentation converts residual malt sugars to alcohol.
In 1870, there were some 77 breweries in the state, mostly located in the German areas. Then the king of beers arrived. Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis came to Texas in 1877 with a consistent lager beer. The company advertised heavily and bought up Texas icehouses. Undercapitalized native Texas breweries couldn't compete. By the time Prohibition arrived in 1920, there were only 18 breweries left in Texas.
One of those survivors was Shiner. The brewery was founded in 1909 by the Shiner Brewing Association, a group of German-Texans in the small town of the same name. By 1914, they realized they needed a professional, so they hired a German brewer named Kosmos Spoetzl who had previously set up a brewery in Cairo, Egypt.
In 1915, Kosmos bought the business and changed the name to Spoetzl Brewery. Cigar-chomping Kosmos was a short German man but a larger-than-life character. His earliest marketing strategy was to ride around the countryside with kegs of cold Shiner beer iced down in the back of a horse-drawn carriage. When he saw a farmer plowing his field, a cowboy riding by on a horse, or another wagon driver, he waved them down and poured them an ice-cold Shiner. When he started driving a car, he filled the trunk with ice and beer. No wonder he was so well loved — wherever he went, Kosmos was a party waiting to happen.
When Prohibition closed the brewery, Kosmos Spoetzl survived by continuing to run the ice factory and brewing alcohol-free beer. The near beer is made just like regular beer, and then the alcohol is boiled away. The tour leader who took us around the brewery alleged that sometimes, Kosmos forgot the alcohol-removal step.
When Prohibition ended, Congress was obsessed with preventing monopolies and busting trusts. And so it mandated that the revived liquor industry follow a "three-tier system" of distribution — manufacturers, distributors and retailers were licensed separately. You could only have one kind of license. The three-tier system has its merits — it prevents "tied houses," bars owned by beer companies that only sell one brand. And if you've ever wandered into a Courage pub in England and asked for a Guinness, you understand why beer companies shouldn't own bars.