Company Known for Texas Beer Proves it Can Still Learn New Tricks
Spoetzl Brewing Company is well-known for the Shiner beers named for its Texas hometown, especially Shiner Bock. When people hear “Shiner”, this popular, widely distributed, dark-yet-easygoing lager is probably the first beer that comes to mind, although it could also be Shiner Premium, the company’s flagship golden lager.
Over the past 15 years though, the line of beers has become more interesting and diverse. There’s Shiner Black Lager, for people who don’t think Shiner Bock is dark enough (and yet it’s still only 4.9% ABV). In 2018, the friendly and fruity Shiner Ruby Red joined the line, made with and named for the famed Texas Ruby Red Grapefruit. Two years later came Shiner Sea Salt & Lime — thus saving us the trouble in the summer of shoving our own lime wedges into long-necked bottles or salting glass rims. The latest entry is a non-alcoholic beer called Shiner Rode0 Golden Brew (the “0” indicates its no-alcohol content), debuting just in time for Dry January. There are even more types of beer — including rarely seen limited editions like Shiner Birthday Beer — in the Home For the Holidays variety pack.
In 2010, the limited-edition Shiner Holiday Cheer, a Dunkelweizen (German for a dark, wheat beer) variant brewed with Texas peaches and Texas pecans, was introduced. I received a sample pack, which I failed to actually try before going off to visit my son. I told him we needed to track some more down, and was surprised to hear that he and his roommate were already very familiar — and big fans who usually had some in the fridge during the holidays. When I think “Christmas”, I don’t think of Texas peaches, as by then they are out of season, but along with the pecans, it was a welcome cool-weather flavor, as well as a warm memory of summer. It’s kind of like if you pick peaches in the summer and preserve them so you can enjoy them until the new season arrives.
New Shiner Spirits
In May, Spoetzl Brewing Company — founded in 1905 by Kosmos Spoetzl and now owned by San Antonio-based Gambrinus Company — made its biggest move yet with the introduction of Shiner spirits. Under the name K. Spoetzl Distilling Company, it’s now making vodka (80 proof), gin (86 proof) and moonshine (90 proof; cleverly named “Shiner Shine”) from the same malt used for its beers.
Additionally, the company appears to be doing its part of leveling the playing field for women in the alcoholic beverage industry. The person in charge of the distilling operations is Jessica Michalec, an A&M graduate and fourth-generation native of Shiner. She started at the brewery part-time while still in college and has worked there a total of seven years. She also earned a General Certificate in Distilling from the Institute of Brewing and Distilling. Her additional title of Innovation Manager means that she’s also involved in developing new products.
“The town of Shiner and surrounding areas have a colorful history of distilling that dates back to before Prohibition and ties into Shiner’s rich brewing heritage,” said Tom Fiorenzi, Director of Brewery and Distillery Operations, via a press release. “We believe our brewing experience crafting award-winning beers uniquely positions us to similarly craft the highest quality spirits for the demanding spirits consumer. The entire process – from grain to glass – will all be done by our team right here in Shiner; after all, great beer is the basis for great spirits.”
If you’re interested in the more technical aspects of how the spirits are produced, this article from Cool Material covers some of those details. Here are the basics: Shiner commissioned a distilling system that includes a copper pot still and copper rectifying columns made in Scotland. Part of the process also includes passing the spirits through a copper grant designed by Kosmos Spoetzl in 1947. Why is so much of this system made of copper, you may ask? Well, it’s not only because it’s shiny and pretty — although it certainly is. According to ScotchWhisky.com (which sadly went out of business in 2019, although the website is still online), copper is credited for “removing highly volatile sulphur compounds – chief among them dimethyl trisulphide or DMTS – and helping in the formation of esters”.
I did a taste test of both the vodka and gin, and had a big brand name for a comparative taste test — and I got a big surprise. I am a gin person, and I have vodka at home only for when a neutral spirit is required. Vodka normally bores me — but the Shiner one was far more interesting than I expected. It’s crisp and grassy on the nose, and malty with more green notes on the palate. There’s even a hint of lemon rind.
The Shiner gin is a softer kind, like Hendricks or Roku, not an English dry like my go-to Tanqueray or Beefeater. Roku was, in fact, my comparative gin — but it’s far more complex and citrusy. That said, I appreciated that K. Spoetzl Distilling Company has created an intrinsically Texan gin, with botanicals of Ashe Juniper, which is native to the state, and Texas grapefruit from the Rio Valley. The grapefruit offers a not-unpleasant bitterness on the back of the palate. I didn’t pick up the malt notes as strongly as in the vodka since there are stronger flavors that compete for attention. Other than those, there weren’t many nuances. Shiner gin is fine to sip, but my inclination is to use it in somewhat complex gin-based cocktails, where it will offer sturdiness without clashing with other ingredients. Additionally, its relative simplicity makes it a great starter gin for those still getting to know the spirit.
There is a catch when it comes to Shiner’s spirits — you have to visit the brewery and distillery to put your hands on them. It’s a pleasant enough drive (two hours under normal traffic conditions) that’s mostly down I-10 and not too far out of the way if you are going from Houston to San Antonio or vice versa. (I have fond memories of when my husband and I diverted to the Shiner Brewery after honeymooning in San Antonio. We had a blast.)
One More Reason to Visit Spoetzl Brewing Company
Getting to sample and buy the small-batch spirits is only one incentive for making the trip. You can tour the facilities, try the spirits in cocktails and, of course, sample the beers. In case you need one more incentive, there’s even now a barbecue restaurant onsite. Called K. Spoetzl BBQ Co., you’ll find pitmaster Tommy Schuette’s brisket, ribs, pulled pork and sausage. (Schuette was formerly with Shiner Barbeque Co.) There are brisket, sausage and pulled pork sandwiches, barbecued pork steak and snack packs with summer sausage, cheese and crackers. K Spoetzl BBQ Co. is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. The brewery itself is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.
All of these new offerings demonstrate the importance of a company not sitting on its laurels, no matter how familiar, acclaimed or popular it is. The new spirits and barbecue are great incentives for taking the drive to Shiner, but if you can’t get there, you’ll likely find a Shiner beer you’ve never tried before at your local store. Visit the website to view the currently available offerings.
Phaedra Cook has written about Houston’s restaurant and bar scene since 2010. She was a regular contributor to My Table magazine (now closed) and was the lead restaurant critic for the Houston Press for two years, eventually being promoted to food editor. Cook founded Houston Food Finder in November 2016 and has been its editor and publisher ever since.