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Friday Escape, Small-Town Hospitality, by Aaron Reed

Some road trips start out all wrong and then somehow end up right. That's what happens when Aaron Reed sets out on Memorial Day weekend to visit a Texas creamery and tour a legendary brewery. Alas: no ice cream, no tour. What he finds instead is some old-time hospitality in a corner of Texas where German, Czech and Mexican traditions mingle companionably over music and beer.

A sign at the start of the one-third of a mile-long Palmetto Trail at Palmetto State Park warns visitors to "watch for snakes."

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Photo by Aaron Reed


As I sit in the shade behind the gas station, sipping a cold beer, I reflect on a day in which almost nothing has gone as planned. Blue Bell Creameries in Brenham -- ice cream central for all of Texas and a good chunk of the southeastern United States, too -- is farther away than I remembered, and in the wrong direction to boot. And, after a late start, we missed the second of two daily tours at the legendary Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner. But somehow it has all turned out OK. In fact, it has been a wonderful, relaxing day full

But first, let's backtrack.

We've left Austin as refugees from a hellish workweek, taking just what we can carry in one trip out the front door. It's late May and the Friday before a long holiday weekend for most folks, but Tamara and I will both be working all day Saturday and a chunk of Sunday, too, so Friday afternoon is our one chance at escape.

We head south on U.S. Highway 183. Just south of Luling, past the place where Interstate Highway 10 arrows east to New Orleans, an unassuming two-lane road angles off to the southwest. Take that right on Park Road 11 (it will be a right off of U.S. Highway 183 whether you're coming from Austin, San Antonio or Houston) and within minutes you're traveling through a twisting tunnel of green.

The swamp in central Texas

Stop, as we did, at Palmetto State Park headquarters and pay the $3 per person entry fee, then drive on across the oxbow lake and across the San Marcos River; then take a left to the historic refectory, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps.

As we pull into the parking area, kill the engine, and open our doors, we are greeted by birdsong and the susurration of a high breeze in the treetops. The buzz of cicadas punctuates the stillness, and in the distance we can hear the rush of cool, green water.

Whoa. Stepping out and stretching is like a long exhalation. My heart rate drops 20 beats per minute, and I can almost feel my blood pressure falling as well.

In just a little over 270 acres, Palmetto State Park preserves the largest, westernmost stand of dwarf palmetto (Sabal minor) in the southern United States. Warm, sulfurous waters form the Ottine Swamp here, and the subtropical plants thrive. So does Spanish moss, which drapes much of the high canopy surrounding the lowland bogs. Together they form a primeval, green gloom that stands in stark contrast to the surrounding oak-and-mesquite ranch lands.

We hike the palmetto trail loop, careful - as a large sign warns - to watch for snakes. After marveling at the sheer greenness of the place, and the profusion of fan-shaped palm leaves, we splash in the river a bit to cool off. Then it's back in the car and down Farm-to-Market Road 2091 to Alternate U.S. Highway 90, and east through Gonzales.

This is, in more ways than one, the historic heart of Texas. It was near Gonzales in October 1835 that the first shot of the Texas Revolution was fired. With its fertile soil and gentle terrain, the area proved generous to farmers, and it was here that many early settlers staked out new lives in a new world.

A lot of those settlers -- more here than any other place in the United States, in fact -- were from Bohemia and Bavaria, Moravia and Switzerland. A gentle arc traces a path of straight-from-Europe settlement across a wide swath of fertile, coastal prairie and gently rolling hills, a farmland dotted with small towns with names like Waelder, Hocheim, Arneckeville, Westhoff and Schulenburg. Even in burgs with names that sound less Teutonic and Slavic -- places like Wharton and El Campo, La Grange and Fayetteville -- you're still likely to hear the peculiar, clipped accent of an older man or woman who grew up speaking at least some Czech or German.


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The little brewery in Shiner

One of those old Czech-German towns is our goal today. Shiner, Texas, population 2,070, is home to a beer by the same name crafted at the 99-year-old Spoetzl Brewery. The year I was first legally allowed to drink, it was distributed only within a 75-mile radius of the brewery and was much coveted at my Dallas college. Today it is sold in 38 states and counting.

We arrive at the brewery's hospitality room just in time to catch an unscheduled tour for a dozen late-afternoon visitors. Anne Raab leads us through the modern brew house with its gleaming copper kettles to the bottling room, where seemingly infinite lines of brown bottles are filled, capped, pasteurized, labeled and boxed. I say seemingly infinite, but what I really mean is nearly half a million every day. Or, if you prefer, 635 bottles per minute, 462,000 -- give or take a couple -- every 24 hours.

Almost 90 percent of those bottles are Shiner Bock, a once-seasonal dark lager that went into production year-round in 1973. Shiner Blonde is based on Bavarian brewmaster Kosmos Spoetzl's original recipe (I remember when it was called "Shiner Premium") and joins several other varieties in the brewery's lineup. My favorite is Number 97 -- a Bavarian "black lager" that appeared on the brewery's 97th anniversary, then disappeared to make way for Number 98, but is back in the full-time lineup by

The brewery was founded in 1909 as the Shiner Brewing Association by thirsty Czech and German immigrants. After a few years of disappointing results, they hired Spoetzl, who purchased the brewery in 1915. With Prohibition, Spoetzl "near beer."

"He didn't change a thing about the recipe," Raab tells us. "Instead, he would put it back in the kettle and boil off the alcohol. Now, I'm told Kosmos was "

In 1950, the brewery passed to Spoetzl's daughter Cecilie, but in the late 1960s, the brewery passed out of the Spoetzl family. It then changed hands at least three times before being purchased in 1989 by San Antonio businessman Carlos Alvarez, who reportedly loved the company's beers so much he paid about three times its market value. As the importer of Corona for Texas and the eastern United States, Alvarez knew a thing or two about marketing and selling beer -- skills he has brought to bear on Shiner and his subsequent purchases: BridgePort Brewing Company, in Oregon, and the maker of Pete's Wicked Ale, in California.

What he hasn't done, Raab says, is tinker with the recipe or traditions of the "Little Brewery in "

Consider: There's no forced retirement at this brewery (Joe Green holds the record for employment with 63 years service when he retired at age 81); employees pay about $75 a month for an $800 benefits package; and nepotism is encouraged, so long as those sons or daughters or cousins are skilled and hardworking.

Folks are so happy to work here, Raab suggests, that no one pushes very hard for that common brewery perk: free beer.

"We'll take the benefits and go out there and buy the beer the man supports us with," she says. "Besides, we can go into the hospitality room -- it's more like a fellowship room -- and visit and drink our four plastic cups of beer each day just like everyone else. If you count that up, it's two bottles per person; with my adult children and everyone else, we probably go through "

We head back to the hospitality room, too, and trade our wooden nickels for cups of beer. There we meet Jim, a ruddy-faced, retired brewery worker who looks at least 10 years younger than his professed 71. He says he has been drinking Shiner beer for more than 50 years. Today he's celebrating the purchase of a new truck, which he has been assured is white. Jim is colorblind, something the woman behind the taps is ribbing him about:

"You remember that time we were sitting "she asks.

"Shop towel got thrown in with the laundry," Jim laughs. "Everything was pink, or at least that's "

On the recommendation of several brewery employees, we map out the rest of our afternoon: first, to the Country Corner Café (at the corner of Texas Highway 95 and Alt. U.S. 90) for dinner with my old college buddy Rob -- he's the principal of the 111-year-old K-12 parochial school here -- and then on a Shiner "pub crawl." That's

A good place to land

We intend to start the pub crawl at Howard's, on U.S. Highway 90 on the west side of town, and then work our way back to Maeker's, a tavern that is also a sausage factory and package store, and then on to Antiques, Art & Beer, the local gallery drinking spot. We never make

It's here at Howard's that I find myself reflecting on the day as I sip a cold, draft Shiner. Howard's is a gas station with nine beer taps separated from shelves of hunting ammunition by a rack of VHS tapes and DVDs for rent. There's fresh popcorn and hand-dipped Blue Bell ice cream, and when the local softball games let out, the place fills up. Proprietor Howard Gloor built the place in 1984 and got an on-premises beer license at the very beginning.

"I wanted a place where people could be casual and could stay and visit," he says. "It "

"This" is the biergarten out back, a shady, fenced patio space. One side is paneled with the side of an old green barn that blew down a while back. Signs festoon the walls and an artificial Christmas tree stands next to the door to the store. Howard's wife decorates it for the season; today it is festooned in red, white and

The custom of drinking beer where you buy it while catching up with neighbors is as old as Texas. Well, at least as old as ice in Texas. In fact, such places are called "icehouses" - a term that has outlived the time when the buildings stored and sold ice as well

As more and more folks flow out onto the patio, Howard introduces us to his friends. Jim stops in to show off his new truck and have another Shiner. Rob drops by with his family after his daughter's softball game. We'd seen her coach earlier and, recognizing the jersey, asked how the game went. My friend's daughter, he said, had a great game.

We sit at weathered picnic tables and talk about the Austin music scene and century-old area dancehalls and soon people start slipping out and returning with instrument cases. Howard excuses himself to set up the PA system and all of a sudden we're being treated to music by half of Los Kolaches -- the Mexican-German-Czech band united by Ruben Torres' squeezebox, Marty Shimek's harmonica and Howard's electric guitar.

Brea Guettner, a local girl with dreams of the big city -- she's heavily, attractively tattooed and her hair is shot through with streaks of blue -- joins in on acoustic bass. One of Marty's sons strums a flame-maple acoustic guitar and another plays bongos and then -- magically -- a drum kit that appears out of nowhere. Moms get up to dance with their toddler children.

"It's the family beer joint," Nancy Pesek explains. Pesek lives about three blocks away and has come down to Howard's to meet a friend who lives a couple

Tamara has long ago switched to water for the 97-mile drive back to Austin, and I pay the bar tab. Shockingly, it's only $17 though I've been buying plastic pints of beer for more than one friend, old and new. The music continues on for a while after the store lights go out at 11 p.m., and then swings to a halt as band members remember they've worked a full day, and some have played softball and nearly everyone has plans for the weekend.

We remember that we do, too, though nothing as unexpectedly delightful as an old-fashioned Texas icehouse on the edge of Shiner.

Aaron Reed
May 30, 2008


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