AFTER A MERE 104 years, Shiner Bock is finally available in Philadelphia. The Texas lager is already for sale in more than 40 states, so this is not exactly earthshaking news. But it does make you wonder:
What took so long?
And, more importantly, is it too late?
Shiner, made by Spoetzel Brewing, is a lot like Pennsylvania's D.G. Yuengling & Son. It's old as the hills (founded in 1909). It's small compared to Anheuser-Busch but large by microbrewing standards. And it has an avid fan base on its home turf.
And, like Yuengling, the company has a fairly conservative approach to growth: Slow and steady wins the race. It's a philosophy that served both companies well through the devastation of the Prohibition and monster competition from multinational brewing conglomerates.
So, as Spoetzel's chief sales and marketing guy, Charlie Paulette, told me during a visit to Philadelphia this week, "When we go to a new market, we like to take our time and give it tender loving care. . . . Philly has always been on our radar. It was just a matter of the right time."
Time moves a little more quickly up here in the Northeast, though, and Shiner will have a lot of catching up to do.
That's partly because so many other breweries have already staked their turf. Not just Yuengling and the many locals struggling to keep their share. In the past three or four years alone, Philadelphia has seen fast-growing Goose Island, Terrapin, Great Lakes, Firestone Walker and Deschutes enter the market.
Out-of-towners Sierra Nevada, Sam Adams, Oskar Blues, Brooklyn, Lagunitas, Stone, Harpoon and Long Trail already have a strong foothold, and New Belgium - the nation's eighth-largest brewery - is coming soon.
It's also because, flavor-wise, Philly may have already left Shiner Bock behind.
It's not a bad beer. It's malty, not as sweet as Yuengling Lager, with a bitter, thirst-quenching finish. It's also about $5 to $7 more per case, and that puts it into Leinenkugel's, Dundee, Saranac and Weinhard's territory - old-school regional brands that have recast themselves as reborn "craft" brands.
In Philly, though, many craft beer drinkers regard them as something of "bridge" or "training wheel" brands; they try them once or twice before upgrading to a fuller (and more expensive) flavor. In a big-league city where beer freaks can be commonly found discussing the relative merits of obscure Belgian lambics, you might think Shiner is playing in the wrong division.
Paulette and his sales crew will counter that (snobbish?) attitude by casting Shiner as "authentic." It's real, not trendy; it's a beer you can drink straight from the can or pair with good cookin'.
Blue-collar Philly can certainly relate to that, right?
And, because it has such a long history as a part of the Austin music scene, look for it to latch onto and support Philly-area music events. As Paulette said, "If you ever enjoyed a Shiner in Texas, you were probably standing in front of a live band."
One other thing that Shiner has going for it: Many Philadelphians have already tasted and enjoyed the beer during visits to Texas. And, if they haven't, they have almost certainly heard of it.
As Paulette said, "There's pent-up demand for Shiner because we've been around for so long."
Spoetzel is bringing six Shiner brands to Philly: Bock, Bohemian Black Lager, Blonde, Hefeweizen, Kosmos Reserve hoppy lager and its seasonal Brewer's Pride which, for the summer, is Ruby Red Bird, made with grapefruit.