In the summer of 2003, when the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner was thinking about adding a light beer to its product line, the company didn’t bring in any slick marketing experts. Instead, they invited folks from miles around to a sippin’ social, to see what they thought of the new beverage. After all, most people in this town of some 2,000-plus and the surrounding Lavaca County countryside felt like, well, they sorta owned a little piece of the Spoetzl Brewery.
Kosmos Spoetzl wouldn’t have had it any other way. Born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1873, Kosmos emigrated to the New World in search of a more healthful climate. By 1914, he’d found his way to Shiner, some 90 miles east of San Antonio. There, he found a community of Czech and German immigrants and their descendants.
These were folks who treasured Old World brewing traditions established by their ancestors. In 1909, they established the Shiner Brewing Association to honor that heritage and to make beer the way they liked it. The association only had to drill 55 feet deep to strike fine artesian water ideal for brewing, but no one in town seemed to possess that special magic for mixing barley, hops and yeast into a liquid work of art until Kosmos arrived. A jolly fellow with an ever-present cigar, Kosmos, who bought the brewery in 1915, used a family recipe that had been perfected through generations, adding his own secret ingredient. Folks around Shiner said he wore his hat tilted on his head because he kept the secret ingredient under his hat.
As part of his marketing campaign, Kosmos loaded his Model T with kegs and ice and drove through the countryside, offering refreshment to thirsty cotton farmers toiling under the Texas sun. He started using returnable glass bottles in 1916, and a cold one left on a fence post must have beckoned like an oasis on a hot summer day.
When the 18th Amendment—which had prohibited the manufacture and sale of spirited beverages—was ratified by the Texas Legislature in 1918, the brewery switched to a legal brew with less than 0.5 percent alcohol, and the production of ice. But as noted in author Mike Renfro’s book Shine On: 100 Years of Shiner Beer (Bright Sky Press, 2008), Shinerites joined Americans from coast to coast in winking at the law, as many locals knew that to “get some ice” at Spoetzl’s meant to get some underground brew.
Caps were popped with gusto when Prohibition ended in 1933. The hard times of the Depression persisted through the rest of the decade, but those who found solace in the modest consumption of beer could now do so with full approval of the U.S. Congress.
In the 1940s, the original tin brewery building was replaced by the brick structure with the Alamoesque parapet and the iron lettering that reads K. SPOETZL BREWERY. After Kosmos died in 1950, his daughter Cecile, known in the area as “Miss Celie,” took over operations, reportedly becoming the only woman to head an American brewery at the time.
She sold the business in 1966, and it has changed hands a few times since. But each new owner has held onto what is special about what some call “the last little brewery in Texas.” First, there’s the Old World family formula. As Spoetzl Quality Control Manager Peter Takacs puts it, “Most breweries change recipes to fit their equipment. Here, we changed equipment to fit the recipes.”
Second, and most important, it’s the people, such as the family of former employee Calvin Cosmo “Cracker” Wallace. Cracker’s father worked 59 years for Spoetzl, and his Uncle Joe did for 63 years. After Kosmos’ death, Cracker placed a Christmas tree at his grave each December for many years.
Nonemployees share that loyalty and affection, as well. In the 2004 documentary “Something’s Brewin’ in Shiner,” by Beef & Pie Productions of Austin, now-retired Shiner city secretary Norma Goetz explains, “We tell relatives who don’t live in Shiner that our houses have three faucets. One for hot water, one for cold and one that delivers that wonderful Shiner Beer.”
For information about weekday tours, call (361) 594-3852 or go to www.shiner.com.
Gene Fowler wrote “Bonehead Medicine” in the June 2009 Texas Co-op Power.