Small-Town Texas Travels
There’s a group of tiny Texas towns spread throughout the state that carries as much of the Texas mythos as the bright lights of Dallas and Houston or the weirdness of Austin. Most people couldn’t tell you where, exactly, Luckenbach is, and Marfa is so far into the vastness of the West Texas desert that it might as well be on Mars.
But without them, Texas might hold no more romance than Pennsylvania. These towns work in service of the vastness of the state, to remind visitors that Texas, while a whole, is made up of myriad histories, traditions and attitudes.
Marfa and Luckenbach are certainly “bucket list” stops for any good Texan, but there is another town that also makes the cut. A town that is as tied to this state as much as the longhorn or the lone star. There is Shiner — arguably the most famous small town in the country, at least among beer drinkers.
If there is a list of places that tried to replace water with beer — and many places have attempted the feat — then Shiner would be high on it.
Although Shiner Bock and its brother beers are made at Spoetzl Brewery, it is the Shiner name that is carried throughout 43 states. It’s an impressive feat for a town of 2,069 people and one stoplight.
But spend a day in Shiner, and it becomes clear that there’s more to this town than the brewery. There’s a slice of uniquely Texas culture situated midway between Houston and San Antonio: a town that’s still deeply connected to its Czech-German heritage, a place where the one grocery store in town is working on becoming the Spoetzl Brewery of sausages, a town where you can order a bottle of hard-to-find craft beer while shopping for antiques.
First, the Beer
There’s a sort of legend about Guinness beer (that happens to be true) that says that a pint of the black stuff might be satisfactory in America, but one truly doesn’t know Guinness until it’s been served in a proper two-pour fashion by an Irish bartender in an Irish pub in Ireland.
Although the distance between Shiner and Dallas is considerably shorter than the trek to Dublin, Ireland, there is something deeply satisfying about drinking Shiner Cheer from the tap, knowing it was brewed less than 100 yards away.
Spoetzl Brewery is already the fourth-largest craft brewery in America, employing 125 workers to help with its 600,000-barrel capacity, but it’s hardly resting on its past successes. For all the expansion of craft brewery throughout Texas, and Shiner Bock into the rest of the country, Spoetzl is planning to be at 1.2 million barrels next year, thanks to nine new 60-barrel tanks it will be installing.
The brewery is also introducing a new beer to the market, a Belgian white named, appropriately, White Wing. Brewed with orange peel and coriander, White Wing will replace Shiner Hefeweizen as a permanent, year-round option and should begin shipping in November.
Then, the Polka and Sausage
Spoetzl isn’t the only company in town trading on the Shiner name these days. The Patek family is as entrenched in Shiner as any.
The Patek brothers are leading Shiner Smokehouse on a journey that they hope emulates Spoetzl Brewery’s success.
From the beginning of the 20th century, the Pateks have created polka music for the Czech-German community. Joe Patek was a platinum recording musician who began in the ’30s and had a career that lasted nearly 50 years. His songs “The Shiner Song” and “Beer Barrel Polka” are Texas polka classics.
Today, his grandsons, Brian, Keith and Paul Jr., are working to create a legacy out of their family grocery store, Patek Food Mart, the only grocery in Shiner. Since 1937, the store has made its own sausage by hand. Today, the Patek brothers are leading Shiner Smokehouse, an extension of the sausage-making tradition, on a journey that they hope emulates Spoetzl Brewery’s success.
After all, what goes together better than sausage and beer? Shiner Smokehouse sausages are available in stores throughout Central Texas (including Kroger in Dallas) in six flavors: a beef and pork original smoked sausage; a jalapeño version and a variation with jalapeño and cheese; longer, skinnier sausages known as Smokies; a traditional Czech bratwurst infused with Shiner Bock and an all-pork Italian sausage.
A small portion of the sausages are still made at the Patek store, but the tiny grocery can’t handle the level of production required for its plans for Texas sausage domination. For that, the Pateks have enlisted a production line in nearby Yoakum — a practical metropolis for the area, with nearly 6,000 residents — to handle the larger load. That doesn’t mean they’re letting the quality slip.
“When we first started with the production in Yoakum, everything had to be our way,” says Keith, Smokehouse vice-president. “We don’t cut corners; we don’t blend crap pork. We use pork butts and quality sourced products.”
And Then, the Treasures
Shiner beers are everywhere in Shiner. It’s an obvious point, but it’s also difficult to overstate. They. Are. Everywhere. If there is a list of places that tried to replace water with beer — and many places have attempted the feat — then Shiner, Texas would be high on it.
Even after a day of gorging on sausage and Shiner, a mouth might long for a brew of a more foreign origin. For that, there is the antiques store.
But even after a day of gorging on sausage and Shiner Bock/Blonde/Cheer/you name it, a mouth might long for a brew of a more foreign origin. For that, there is the antiques store.
Antiques, Art and Beer is upfront about its intentions. Being a small-town antiques shop means that the place can send you on a treasure hunt for the perfect trinket, and, if you require a break, the store supplies more than 170 selections of beer and 150 varieties of wine.
Those are numbers that rival (and beat) beer bars in major cities. It just happens to be the place to find a makeup box from the ’50s as well.
Where to Rest and Reflect
At the end of a long, boozy, meaty day in Shiner, sleep is welcome. There’s a new Best Western being built on the edge of town to accommodate the city’s growth beyond oilmen working the Eagle Ford Shale. But for the true Shiner experience, a stay at the Old Kasper House Bed & Breakfast is required.
A restored, century-old, Victorian-style house in the middle of Shiner (to be fair, everything in Shiner is in the middle of Shiner), the Old Kasper House is filled with period furniture, photographs and the kind of slow, quiet pace that puts you in the mood for small-town Texas.
On the way out of town the next morning, stop by Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church, a towering cathedral that has anchored Shiner since 1921. Boasting a Romanesque revival style of architecture and stained glass windows imported from Germany with an imposing square tower, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.
There are dozens of small towns throughout Texas that bear a passing resemblance to Shiner. From the dearth of streetlights to the one grocery store to the immediacy of the country, Shiner embodies that Rockwellian ideal of a slower, simpler time.
But to suggest that a small town can’t do big things would be to ignore the richness of culture that Shiner has cultivated. Beer is the most obvious reflection of this attitude, but Shiner’s firm grasp of its roots — polka music is still very popular throughout the area — and Shiner Smokehouse’s ambition to take three generations of small-town sausage-making and turn it into a statewide empire show that, while it is important to remember the past, progress ensures a future.
Without that future, the past simply fades away.