Beer Is Good
Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg starts with a free glass of Shiner "Helles," a crisp, golden-colored Czech-style pilsner. When the gates to Fredericksburg's Marktplatz open on this Friday evening at six, more than 100 people get in line in front of the keg stand where Shiner brewmaster Jimmy Mauric and his crew tap the ceremonial first keg of beer. It is all gone inside of 15 minutes.
Shiner has been tapping the first keg at Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg since 2000. The festival's director, Debbie Farquhar-Garner, pays for the keg and invites the public to come and talk to the brewmaster. "I wanted a Texas-German brewery to kick off the party," she says. "It's a Texas-German festival after all."
Farquhar-Garner, who runs the festival on behalf of the Pedernales Artists' Cooperative, wants to mimic the ritual opening of the original Oktoberfest, in which the mayor of Munich taps the ceremonial first keg. In 2000, Farquhar-Garner did a television interview and mentioned the fact that Shiner's master brewer would be on hand to meet the public. That landed her in trouble with the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission.
"Every year I sit down with the TABC, and they tell me what we can and can't do," the Oktoberfest director says. "I found out that talking about a specific beer company is a big no-no." At Munich's Oktoberfest, the big beer companies put on the party. In Texas, it's illegal for a festival to even mention beer, and it's strictly forbidden for a beer company to donate alcohol.
Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg is the final stop on my summer beer tour of Texas. I have been drinking craft beers and visiting breweries and brewpubs all summer in an attempt to gauge the zeitgeist of Texas beer culture. When it comes to beer, Texas is a puzzling place. We are a beer-loving people, thanks to our cultural heritage, but we are also the former home of Carrie Nation and the epicenter of a 150-year-old Prohibitionist tradition. Statistically, we are among the nation's biggest beer drinkers, but our liquor laws make it ridiculously difficult to run a brewery, a brewpub or a beer festival.
There are now 70 craft breweries in Michigan and 60 in New York state. Texas has just six.
Written by defeated Prohibitionists, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Code was designed to promote public temperance. It prohibits Texas beer, wine and liquor companies from offering any encouragement to drink alcohol—a silly restriction, in light of the beer commercials we are bombarded with on television every day.
At Oktoberfest in Munich, 6.2 million people consumed more than 6 million liters of beer in 2007. Farquhar-Garner can't disclose how much beer is consumed at Fredericksburg's Oktoberfest. "The TABC won't let me," she says with a wry smile. She can say that the festival has been setting new records for attendance over the past few years, thanks in part to a renewed interest in German beer traditions.
There's a new attitude about beer sweeping the state and the country. Sales of mainstream American beers are flat, while the sales of quality beers are up. "The American palate has changed, and so has the attitude about food," Farquhar-Garner says. "New tastes in beer and wine are part of it." People are coming to Fredericksburg to visit the traditional German biergartens, the artisan sausage makers, the old German bakeries and the Hill Country wineries. "Culinary tourism is a big deal around here these days," she says. Farquhar-Garner credits a younger crowd for the growing interest.
On the bandstand, the accordion player, clad in lederhosen, sings the beginning of the old Oktoberfest toasting song, "Ein prosit, Ein prosit..." The music and the dancers stop, the band members reach for their glasses, and hundreds of people sitting at picnic tables around the dance floor and in the adjoining biergarten area raise their glasses together. "Ein prosit, ein prosit, der Gemütlichkeit," they all sing. "Ein, zwei, drei," shouts the accordion player, and then everyone drinks up.
While the older folks gravitate toward the oompah music and the dance floor, the young bunch gathers at the tables beside the German beer tent, where the traditional German Oktoberfest beers are available on draft. You can't miss this gang—they are the ones with the chicken hats, the "Bier Bitch" T-shirts and the pyramids made of empty beer cups on their tables.
The control of the TABC by the industry it is supposed to regulate is well-known, but seldom does the sleazy arrangement get any public scrutiny. Last year, we got a rare glimpse inside the worm can when the TABC came up for "sunset review" by a legislative commission that periodically checks over state agencies for waste and inefficiency. A citizen appointee to the review commission was so disgusted that he wrote a scathing minority report. In it, Austin lawyer Howard Wolf, once a Fulbright and Jaworski attorney and the former president of Continental Airlines, called the state's liquor regulation "a corrupt system that no longer serves the public interest." The wholesalers' control of the system thwarts the free market and protects the industry at the expense of consumers, Wolf said. Thanks to laws that bend in their favor, the big distributors are making enormous profits.
Wolf had run into the liquor lobby before, when he served on the Tax Reform Commission. Seeking to reduce property taxes and prevent a state income tax, the commission looked for additional sources of revenue. Wolf was shocked to discover that Texas liquor taxes are among the lowest in the country and hadn't been raised since the 1980s. The tax on beer in Texas is 20 cents a gallon versus the national average of 26 cents. Texas wine producers and importers pay 20 cents a gallon, compared with a national average of 79 cents. Liquor is taxed at $2.40 a gallon, compared with a national average of $5.52.
When Wolf brought up the idea of raising the tax on beer, wine and liquor, a move that could easily generate millions of dollars, he was told to forget about it. Such a measure would fail to gain legislative support, officials told him. In other words, our state representatives would rather hike our property taxes than risk offending the liquor lobby.
The constant presence of the lobbyists in the gallery during the TABC's sunset review prompted an especially amusing passage in Wolf's report. "Poised like lions on a patch of high ground in the Serengeti, occasionally swishing their tails so their presence would be noted, the lions of the lobby watched at hearings to ensure that no Republican elephant or Democratic mule would dare stray from the prescribed path," he wrote.
Wolf was barred from voicing his complaints by the commission chair, but he issued his minority report anyway. Shortly after the vote, the wholesale liquor distributors reported donating $1.38 million to the campaigns of more than 150 state officials, including most legislators and Governor Rick Perry.
After standing in line for 15 minutes at Saint Arnold brewery in Houston on a Saturday-afternoon tour, I finally got a draft of "Fancy Lawnmower," St. Arnold's German-style Kölsch beer. Kölsch is made with unusual yeast—an ale yeast that ferments at lager temperatures, giving the beer a clean, fruity flavor. The beer is also made with German hops that give it a delicate floral aroma.
The "Fancy Lawnmower" name is an inside joke for beer lovers, explains Brock Wagner, Saint Arnold's founder. When you open a beer geek's refrigerator, he says, you see bottle after bottle of unusual and expensive craft beers and imports from around the world. Hidden way in the back, behind all the good stuff, you'll also find a bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon or some other cheap American brew. If you ask about it, he'll say, "Oh, that's my lawnmower beer, the stuff I guzzle on a hot day after mowing the lawn." So the name "Fancy Lawnmower" is Saint Arnold's way of saying, "This is our unassuming, easy-drinking beer."
I drank my Fancy Lawnmower standing up. There were a dozen or so picnic tables in the tasting room, but they were already packed with beer drinkers. When the doors opened for the brewery tour and tasting at 1 p.m., there were already 100 people or so in line. Around 550 people typically show up. The tour is conducted by a guide who explains the brewing process and recites the gallon capacity of various steel tanks. But few in the crowd pay any attention to him. First there is a mad dash to claim the picnic tables, and then the lines to get a beer start to grow.
The Rahr & Sons brewery in Fort Worth used to host a free tour on Saturdays followed by a tasting, but they changed their policy. In an attempt to cut down on the throngs of college students who were only interested in the free beer, they now charge $5 for the tour.
There's a $5 charge for the Saturday tour of the Saint Arnold's brewery too. But it hasn't cut down on the number of college students. They arrive early carrying elaborate lunch provisions and get in line to claim tables.
On the Saint Arnold tour, you get a souvenir glass and four wooden tokens good for filling it up. The trick is to buy one of the half-liter steins in the gift shop, a guy standing in line with a Subway sandwich and a half-liter glass volunteers. The tokens are good for a fill-up, but you can hand them any size Saint Arnold glass you want.
The guy with the glass had driven all the way from College Station just to hang out at Saint Arnold's this afternoon. And he says he'd taken the tour half a dozen times before—a lot of trouble to go through to drink some beer.
"But it's really good beer," he says.
At the brewery in Shiner, I took a tour with a half-dozen people. The copper tanks, the automated bottling line and the old brewery building were impressive. So were the stories and photographs of the worldly entrepreneur who started it all, Kosmos Spoetzl.
Jimmy Mauric has worked as a brewmaster at Shiner for 31 years. Outside the brewery, he handed me a glass of Shiner's citrusy hefeweizen, a wheat beer made with orange peel and live yeasts. I love hefeweizens, but I had never had Shiner's before. I was shocked by how good it was.
Next, Mauric poured a glass of the blackest beer I have ever seen. "Bohemian Black Lager was our anniversary brew a few years ago," he says. Known as schwarzbier (black beer) in Germany, this style of lager is made by dark-roasting the malt. Shiner's version is made with five different German malts and quite a bit of hops. While it had a hearty flavor, it wasn't nearly as heavy as it looked.
"This is a lot milder than a typical German schwarzbier, isn't it?" I ask diplomatically as I consider the bottom of my glass. Extreme beer geeks criticize Shiner's new craft brews as being watered-down versions of the real thing. Mauric shrugs off the criticism.
"Mild is good. I can live with mild," the brewmaster says.
American mainstream beers are formulated for "session drinking," the consumption of many beers over the course of a few hours. These weak American lagers and light beers differ from the international standard of stronger, more flavorful beers that are consumed in smaller quantities.
Texas craft brewers are aiming at the international style. Shiner and the big American brewers are looking for ways to straddle the fence. They can't afford to lose the session drinkers who still buy the most beer, but they want to get in on the craft beer movement. "We are going for fuller flavors, but we are also going for drinkability," Mauric says. "You could drink a couple of those pretty easily, right?" he asks. I had to agree. And so have a lot of other Shiner customers.
"The Bohemian black is now our No. 2-selling beer after Shiner Bock," Mauric says.
"Who's drinking these new beers?" I ask.
"My daughter and her friends," he says with a laugh. His 24-year-old daughter loves Shiner's new varieties of beer; she is planning a Shiner beer-themed wedding. "It used to be the old German guys that asked all the questions on the beer tours," Jimmy Mauric says. "Now it's the young kids. They want to know what kind of malt and what kind of hops we are using. These kids know their beer."
But it's not just that. "The American palate has changed," Mauric says. "People want some flavor in their beer. And so here at Shiner, we are getting back to our roots as craft brewers."
The first breweries in Texas appeared in German-settled areas around 1840. These tiny operations would be called craft breweries today—they made highly individual beers in small quantities for local markets. Without ice or refrigeration, they could only brew during the colder months.
While the earliest American breweries produced English-style ales and porters with fast-acting yeasts that left lots of residual sugars and malt flavors in the barrel, the German settlers of Texas longed for the cleaner, crisper flavor of traditional German lagers. Lager beers require aging at cool temperatures for a month or more while a secondary fermentation converts residual malt sugars to alcohol.
In 1870, there were some 77 breweries in the state, mostly located in the German areas. Then the king of beers arrived. Anheuser-Busch of St. Louis came to Texas in 1877 with a consistent lager beer. The company advertised heavily and bought up Texas icehouses. Undercapitalized native Texas breweries couldn't compete. By the time Prohibition arrived in 1918, there were only 18 breweries left in Texas.
One of those survivors was Shiner. The brewery was founded in 1909 by the Shiner Brewing Association, a group of German-Texans in the small town of the same name. By 1914, they realized they needed a professional, so they hired a German brewer named Kosmos Spoetzl who had previously set up a brewery in Cairo, Egypt.
In 1915, Spoetzl bought the business and changed the name to Spoetzl Brewery. Cigar-chomping Spoetzl was a short German man but a larger-than-life character. His earliest marketing strategy was to ride around the countryside with kegs of Shiner beer iced down in the back of a horse-drawn carriage. When he saw a farmer plowing his field, a cowboy riding by on a horse, or another wagon driver, he waved them down and poured them an ice cold Shiner. When he started driving a car, he filled the trunk with ice and beer. No wonder he was so well-loved—wherever he went, Spoetzl was a party waiting to happen.
When Prohibition closed the brewery, Spoetzl survived by continuing to run the ice factory and brewing alcohol-free beer. The near beer is made just like regular beer, and then the alcohol is boiled away. The tour leader who took us around the brewery alleged that sometimes Spoetzl forgot the alcohol-removal step.
When Prohibition ended, Congress was obsessed with preventing monopolies and busting trusts, and so it mandated that the revived liquor industry follow a "three-tier system" of distribution—manufacturers, distributors and retailers were licensed separately. You could only have one kind of license. The three-tier system has its merits—it prevents "tied houses," bars owned by beer companies that only sell one brand. And if you've ever wandered into a Courage pub in England and asked for a Guinness, you understand why beer companies shouldn't own bars.
The advent of television advertising in the 1950s brought about the rise of national brands like Coke, McDonald's and Budweiser. The beer industry contracted violently. There were thousands of breweries in America in the 1870s, but by 1970, there were only 90 left.
Texas breweries once had considerable political clout. But when they disappeared, the political vacuum was filled by the middle tier of the three-tier system, Texas liquor distributors. Two lobbyists, nicknamed "The Booze Brothers," keep Texas liquor laws under industry control.
On the beer side, there's Mike McKinney, a former appointments secretary to Governor Preston Smith who represents the Texas Wholesale Beer Distributors. And on the wine and liquor side, there's Butch Sparks. Known for their generous campaign contributions and ability to arrange favors, the Booze Brothers hold sway over almost every politician in Texas.
Did he just say, "Budweiser American Ale?"
The first time I saw the television commercial announcing that Budweiser was coming out with an American Ale, my jaw hit the carpet. It's hard to find, but there are some beer experts who have tried it. Most of them found it surprisingly good.
Budweiser American Ale is an amber ale with more malt, more hops, more color and more body than anything else Budweiser makes. And a six-pack of it will sell for $1.50 more than Budweiser's traditional lager, which will put it on a par with craft beers.
Scott Birdwell, owner of De Falco's Home Wine & Beer Supplies and a leader of the Houston beer geek scene, e-mailed his comments. "I'm not a fan of Anheuser-Busch—neither their products or their iron fist when it comes to Texas liquor laws. And I had very low expectations since Anheuser-Busch seems to brew to the lowest common denominator. But I was somewhat pleasantly surprised. Don't get me wrong, this is not Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, but it wasn't bad. The body was fuller and the malt flavor richer than I expected."
"I am delighted that Budweiser has started making ale," says Brock Wagner of Saint Arnold. "I think it validates what we've been doing."
Budweiser has been trying to get into the craft beer business for a long time. Anheuser-Busch already makes Ziegenbock to compete with Shiner in Texas and a beer called Pacific Ridge Pale Ale to compete with Sierra Nevada in California. It was only a matter of time before they went national with a specialty beer.
"The market for craft beers has been growing at around 12 percent a year for the last few years, while the market for mainstream beers is flat," says Tony Formby, managing partner of Rahr & Sons brewery in Fort Worth.
Everybody is trying to get in on the microbrewery action. A new crop of craft breweries is popping up all over the country, and while dozens of craft brewers and brewpubs opened in Texas in the 1990s, most are gone now. The brewpub laws were so restrictive, almost none of them could make it. The smallest of the microbreweries couldn't get adequate distribution; the biggest were bought up by mainstream brewers.
"Our brewery has been around for four years. We almost went under once, and we are just now beginning to see a profit," Formby says. "We're lucky. Most craft breweries don't make it because of Texas laws." (See "Want More Beer? Change This Law!" page 19)
Bill Metzger, who publishes Southwest Brewing News, agrees. "Better beer laws are sorely needed in Texas," he says. "Texas is falling behind the rest of the country."
Texas beer drinkers are making Texas beer distributors very, very rich. Take Dallas Miller distributor Barry Andrews and his wife, Lana, for instance. Their mansion in La Jolla, California, starred in Steven Soderbergh's Oscar-winning 2000 movie Traffic. The Andrews mansion poses as the swankienda of Catherine Zeta-Jones and her drug lord husband. It's a posh pad—and it was paid for with our beer money.
Changing the liquor laws to let small breweries eke out a living by selling a few cases of beer direct to the public wouldn't break wealthy distributors like the Andrewses nor would it have much effect on the big beer companies. But it would help Texas culinary tourism, the Texas artisan food movement and the Texas restaurant scene. And as Brock Wagner has pointed out, "We are talking about less beer than the Anheuser-Busch brewery in Houston spills in a week."
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