BEER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

15 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS 

Yesterday – despite the Texas equivalent of “rain, sleet or snow,” at least before we started having the real things – we spent most of the day touring The Beer Capital of the World. “We” being two chefs with whom I’m writing a cookbook – David Denis from France and Jani Lehtinen from Finland. And that “capital” being the tiny Texas town of Shiner, not far off I-10 about two hours west of Houston. And yes, in case you’re wondering, some beer was consumed in the taking of said tour. 

I was along to capture the thing in words, as usual. And Shannon O’Hara was along to fire off hundreds of images for the book – chefs looking upward, downward or sideways at something, chefs toasting their hosts with open containers bearing liquid gold, chefs sniffing and poking everything set before them. You know how they are. A day like this is always fascinating, with considerable make-believe for the camera. But also intensely real.  Did I mention, for instance, that David and Jani really like beer? 

The tour was given by two good friends of mine: Jaime Jurado, who directs brewing operations for Shiner and several other far-flung breweries under the Gambrinus umbrella from corporate headquarters in San Antonio, and Shiner native Jimmy Mauric, who’s worked at the brewery for 31 years and now serves as its master brewer. Jimmy is Shiner’s version of the real deal, the kind of guy who recently lost 40 pounds via diet and exercise but insists he still drinks a “few” beers each day. Now there’s the guy who ought to be writing a book! 

Jaime, a died-in-the-wool engineering type with undeniable chemist tendencies, was in his element leading the technical side of the tour. I’m not sure there was a vat or a hose in the whole complex we didn’t peruse and fawn over at least briefly, learning what it did and, in some cases, exactly how it did it. For chefs like David (pronounced “Dah-VEED,” whose Le Mistral is in Houston) and Jani (pronounced “YAH-nee,” whose Bucco is in Pori, Finland), the focus of any tour of anything is invariably taste and smell. So we did the mandatory tasting/sniffing of malts and hops throughout the building, all shipped to Shiner from places as diverse as the United States, England and parts of the former Czechoslovakia, beer being a major part of traditional culture in the latter. Just ask Shiner’s master brewer named “Mauric.”    

Everywhere you turn in this brewery, officially named “Spoetzl” after its guiding light but most often just called “Shiner,” as though the town of 2,000 were a subsidiary of the beer, you run into history. The buildings themselves live and breathe the truths and legends (both captured in the centennial book Shine On, published by Bright Sky Press) of one Kosmos Spoetzl. Kosmos, as the townspeople still call him years after his death, was the force behind Shiner – keeping it alive by selling “near beer” through Prohibition and later driving it to the point it was ready to explode far beyond the town after he was gone. 

And that is one of the two or three main ironies concerning Shiner. The old guy clearly had a flair for marketing and promotion, but he didn’t seem to gaze far beyond the town itself – or at least beyond the German and Czech communities of South-Central Texas. After all, other parts of Texas, just like other parts of the less-civilized world, had their own local breweries and would be expected to prefer their own local brews. It was only when Gambrinus took over the faltering operation, having done so much to establish Corona as the “essence of Mexico” at least north of the border, that Shiner beers found themselves embraced as the “essence of Texas.”   

Yes, that’s right – you heard me say “Shiner beers.” In any given year, the Spoetzl brewery makes five, six or seven different beers, counting “seasonals” that hark back to the traditions of beer-guzzling Europe and the now-established “anniversary beer” like this year’s almost-released 101, described as a Czech-style pilsener. Truth be told, for a very long time, Shiner bock was a seasonal beer, offered only in the winter and spring. 

This was the way of the Old World. What happened, though, is that along the way this bock beer got “Shinerized” (which apparently meant smoothed out and made less heavy, so people could drink more than two of them, as we here in Texas oh-so-often do). And before you could pronounce the late visionary’s name – that’s “KOS-mos SPET-zehl” – Shiner bock added up to 90 percent of the brewery’s total sales. In many parts of Texas, and indeed now in better bars and restaurants across America, Shiner bock IS Shiner beer. Even though it’s not, really. 

All you have to do to know the truth is, well, ask anybody who lives in Shiner. In the town, it turns out, the lighter-than-bock beer now marketed as Shiner Blonde accounts for 90 percent of sales. Think about that. Everywhere else, Shiner Bock is 90 percent of all beer from the town of Shiner. But in the town itself, it’s the Blonde that rules, for what strikes me as a simple-enough reason. It’s the beer they all grew up drinking (starting at ages, you’ll hear, as young as 3). It’s the beer old Kosmos used to take around in the trunk of his car, which he regularly (the legend goes) filled to the brim with ice. I wish I’d been around to see that. Starting at, oh, age 3.    

In the course of a nifty lunch at the nearby Shiner Restaurant & Bar (I had local smoked sausage with sauerkraut and tangy yellow-brown mustard – when in Rome!), we knocked back mug after mug of bock, blonde and even a side order of Shiner Light – the only light (or Lite) beer on the face of this earth I will bother raising to my lips. So much flavor, so few calories. I love miracles, don’t you? 

We finished the tour recording a high-energy Grape and Grain segment for my Delicious Mischief radio show on KTRH, with me quizzing Jimmy about the beers themselves (including the still hush-hush 101) and the chefs about their impressions of Shiner and Spoetzl, the two names now linked forever in our minds. And then we were led to the gift shop and invited to pick out parting gifts. Since I’d been freezing in most of the places Jaime had taken us all day to look at vats and hoses, with my usual impeccable timing, I chose a Shiner Beers fleece jacket.

Photos by Shannon O’Hara: (top) David, Jani and Jimmy; (bottom) Jani, Jaime and David.

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3 Responses to “BEER CAPITAL OF THE WORLD”

  1. Jaime January 15, 2010 at 8:26 pm #

    Do Liberty hops make me look fat?

  2. t shirt silk screen printing February 13, 2010 at 6:22 pm #

    This blog is pretty cool and I came across it looking for some ideas for Valentine’s Day gifts. I’m really late on buying my girlfriend a gift.. does anybody have any good ideas on what to get?

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