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OPINION | STEVE STRAESSLE: Shine on

by Steve Straessle | March 20, 2021 at 8:21 a.m.

I was in quarantine when he arrived the last time. Stephen drove all the way from Austin, Texas, and pulled up to my house as I watched him from a top floor window. He opened a back door to his car, pulling six-pack after six-pack out of it. I waved.

He laughed as he continued making trips from his car to my porch until he had unloaded about two cases of beer.

Strangely, the scene took me back to my youth. My grandfather had a few acres in Roland, right off Arkansas 10, just past Fletcher's Sundries and Cafe. He had bought the place in the early 1940s and worked for the Missouri Pacific railroad to keep it afloat.

On weekends, he'd host the family out there with bonfires and homegrown food. In the 1970s, it was heaven to my siblings, cousins, and me.

The house was one of those old Camp Robinson Quonset huts they sold after the war. Simple and small, it was a little tight for his big family. A well house stood sentinel against a backdrop of dark woods.

My grandfather had cleared the acres between his home and the highway for luscious gardens. All year long, he would pile dead branches and twigs in an open area. Once the twig pile had become big enough and he had caught ample bream, crappie, and catfish, the family--the whole family--would gather for a bonfire and dinner.

As if on cue, my aunt and uncle would arrive from Houston. I remember watching the men in the group stand up suddenly and amble over to my uncle's car, exchanging pleasantries as my aunt and cousins headed toward the house. I'd watch as the men talked and my uncle ceremoniously unlocked the trunk. He'd lift it slowly, purposefully. Smiling, each man would reach in and pull out armloads.

Armloads of Shiner Premium beer.

Mind you, this was before the advent of the now-hip Shiner Bock. This was Shiner Premium, and you couldn't get it outside Texas. I'd watch that trunk open and think about "Smokey and the Bandit," the movie about bootlegging Coors across the country. Did my uncle outwit hapless state troopers to get across state lines? Is this a criminal enterprise?

With fish frying, fresh vegetables lining tables, and the smell of bonfire smoke wafting through tall pines, I'd notice each man in the group had a white Shiner Premium can in his hand and every car now held a few cases.

My uncle, always the most anticipated arrival, played the role of hero very well.

Shiner beer is made at the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, Texas (population 2,069), just west of Houston. The brewery, founded in 1909, had a German brewmaster named Kosmos Spoetzl who bought the brewery outright in 1915, but kept the Shiner name. He used a Bavarian family recipe to brew Old World German beer right there in south Texas. The German population in the region loved it.

My family is from Bigelow, the German community northwest of Little Rock. We have Metzgers, Nutts, and Vogelpohls in our family tree, with each of them represented at the bonfires and fish fries. Later on, I'd guess that's why they loved Shiner beer so much, as it was made in a fashion approved by their heritage. Plus, you couldn't get it in Arkansas, so the lure increased.

I've never thought of Shiner Premium without thinking about those glorious nights with the symphony of Southern bugs at full tilt combining with the laughter of family sitting around a bonfire with beer cans in hands.

My buddy in Austin has been a dear friend since first grade at Holy Souls School.

A few years ago, he was making the trek to Little Rock to see several of our classmates. The image of Shiner Premium had been on my mind as I basked in middle age, that time when one thoroughly assesses the landmarks of his childhood. So I asked if he'd mind picking up a six-pack of the beer since I can't get it here.

It proved difficult to find, even in Austin. But, true to form, Stephen went to several liquor stores and cleaned out their stock. He arrived with a little over two cases. Now, he bootlegs what he can find every visit.

Arkansas has great breweries and I've enjoyed each one very much. But there's something about Shiner Premium that inflames my memory and takes me back to those wonderful nights on my grandfather's patch of land out in the country.

Maybe it's a German thing.

Watching Stephen unload his car from my upstairs window brought a little life back to this pandemic world. It reminded me of simple times and the importance of family and friendship, all represented by a simple can of beer. Before every visit, Stephen is kind enough to search for it and understand its value to me. After all, his last name is Schultz.

He gets it.


Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at sstraessle@lrchs.org. Find him on Twitter @steve_straessle.

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