HOW FAMILIAR IS the name Spoetzl Brewery? How about The Gambrinus Company? Chances are neither rings many bells for the average craft drinker. But say the word ‘Shiner’ and most will conjure up some lukewarm impressions of an American cheese-yellow label with a stenciled goat in there somewhere. Perhaps in this vague image the bottle is lined up in the self-service cooler at an airport quick-BBQ joint. And that’d be about right.
This is Shiner Bock, the flagship beer of Shiner, Texas’s Spoetzl Brewery. Founded in 1909, Spoetzl might seem like the nation’s oldest craft producer, but being Texan they prefer the word ‘independent’. Yet even this distinction seems uncertain, since Spoetzl is owned by The Gambrinus Company, a privately-held corporation that also owns and operates Trumer’s American facility in Berkeley and two others. Combined these make Gambrinus the fourth-largest craft company in the nation, surpassed only by Boston Beer Co., Sierra Nevada, and New Belgium. And indeed, Shiner Bock is nearly the equivalent of Sam Adams Boston Lager or Fat Tire Amber Ale—virtual mini-brands in their own right and so ubiquitous they hardly register in one’s mind as craft anymore. Some may even be surprised to learn that Shiner Bock counts as craft at all.
But this doesn’t stem from the beer’s popularity. Though Bock comprises nearly 75% of Spoetzl’s production, it’s still Fat Tire that gets name-dropped on Breaking Bad. Instead—as it should—this dismissal has to do with flavor. Bock is simply a drab product, akin to what a brewing conglomerate might launch in Southwest markets as a semi-Anglo alternative to Negra Modelo. Serve it in frosted plastic mugs alongside a tub of nachos at the bar and watch the asphalt melt outside. Yep.
First brewed 100 years ago, Shiner named the beer Bock but today calls it an ‘American-style dark lager’. While this does severe injustice to bock the style—powerfully malty beers with elevated ABVs and middle-plus bodies— it’s a fair precursor of what to expect in a bottle of Bock the beer. A dark copper color with excellent transparency, Bock has a light and snappy aroma of pale malts, a slight but indistinct sprig of hops, and some crisp minerality. Likewise it is light on the palate with pronounced carbonation and no trace of its 4.4% ABV, showing some caramel sweetness on the back of the palate but little chewiness in the midsection. Instead it has a furtive creaminess that seems suspiciously like adjunct grains (corn?), harking hardly at all to the specialty German malts that give authentic bocks their satisfying depth. Traditional bocks also aren’t known for hoppiness, but Shiner’s version is even tamer—at 13 IBUs there’s really nothing to note in either bitterness or contrasting flavors. The finish is neutral and a little thin, leaving an impression that’s one-dimensional but clean and inoffensive. Simple refreshment for a hot day. As a bock this is a complete miscarriage, and as a craft beer only marginally less so. As a cheap dark lager, though, it could do considerably worse.
Served: On Tap