For a small-town Texas lad transplanted 1,300 miles to the big city, Jimmy Mauric seems very much at home conducting a beer dinner at Hill Country in bustling Penn Quarter.
And why shouldn’t he? Mauric has spent 34 of his 51 years working for the Spoetzl Brewery in the one-stoplight burg of Shiner, rising from bottle washer to brewmaster. And Hill Country (so says one local distributor) is the largest retailer of Shiner east of the Mississippi, draining about 115 kegs per month.
Founded in 1909, Spoetzl is named after Kosmos Spoetzl, a German immigrant who made his living slaking the thirsts of local cotton farmers. It’s one of a handful of older regional breweries that survived the mass consolidation of the post-World War II era to find a new lease on life once Americans discovered the joys of craft beer.
In this respect, it’s similar to Yuengling. But while Yuengling remains family-owned, Spoetzl was sold in 1989 to Carlos Alvarez of the Gambrinus Company, a marketing and importing firm. “We only did 30,000 barrels that year; we were about to close our doors,” recalls Mauric. He credits Alvarez with coaxing the failing business off the precipice by pumping in money for modernization and expanding the beer’s market to 43 states. “We’re doing over 500,000 barrels a year and growing,” says Mauric.
Technically, the Brewers Association doesn’t consider Spoetzl a craft brewery because of its use of adjuncts in brewing. Shiner Bock, the company’s No. 1 brand (it accounts for about 75 percent of sales), contains one-third corn grits, says Mauric. This is a bock in the American sense of a dark lager, rather than the German meaning of a strong lager. (At 4.4 percent alcohol by volume, it’s less potent than a Budweiser.) It’s got a smooth, sweet, caramely flavor that marries well with the smoked pork belly we’re munching on, and it soothes a palate stung by the accidental swallowing of a guajillo pepper.
For a more assertive flavor, try Shiner Bohemian Black, Mauric’s take on a German-style schwarzbier. An excellent dessert beer, it’s brewed with what Mauric calls a “debittered” dark malt that adds mocha, cocoa and burnt molasses flavors without making the beer astringent.
Shiner Hefeweizen, an unfiltered wheat beer, is a bit misleading. The German name suggests a Bavarian-style wheat with its characteristic clove and banana flavors. But this hazy golden brew takes its inspiration from Belgium. It has a tart, fruity flavor from orange and lemon peel, but a slightly hoppier finish than you’d expect from a witbier.
Shiner Dortmunder, the brewery’s spring seasonal, belongs to a style that relatively few American breweries have tried to copy. Mauric describes it as a “poor man’s pils” with a hop bitterness somewhere between a helles lager and a pilsner. The Dortmunder actually has a little more body and alcohol than either of those styles, weighing in at 5.5 percent by volume.
Confusingly, Shiner Dortmunder is labeled as an ale, even though it’s fermented with a lager yeast and undergoes a leisurely, lagerlike fermentation and conditioning that lasts 26 days. As Mauric explains it, Texas law, until recently, required all beers over 5 percent alcohol by volume to be labeled as ales (even though the difference between lagers and ales has nothing to do with strength). An Austin micro named Jester King Craft Brewery sued the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission, and in December the U.S. District Court for Western Texas struck down the labeling law as a violation of free speech.
But if you already have your labels printed up, you’re not going to trash your existing stock if you don’t have to. “It costs a lot of money to change your packaging,” explains Mauric.
Spoetzl also does some seasonal and specialty beers with a Texas twist. The brewery’s Holiday Cheer winter brew is flavored with pecans and peaches; its Ruby Redbird is a light summer beer made with Texas-grown ginger and grapefruit; and Smokehaus contains a specially made malt smoked over mesquite.
But the big news in Shiner, reports Mauric, is that the brewery is about to release its first-ever beer made with a true, top-fermenting ale yeast. Look for Wild Hare, a pale ale, to debut in May. The introduction of an ale yeast should provide Mauric with plenty of new avenues to explore, and help Spoetzl compete with the herds of microbreweries springing up in Texas — and just about everywhere else