By MIKE EDDLEMAN
SHINER — Traveling the right way is a learned skill. It comes with age, patience and a desire to discover what we often lack as we hurry through our early years.
After traveling as a child on family vacations, then seeing much of Europe during my army enlistment, I thought I was quite the seasoned vacationer. I finally leaned to travel right when I met my wife, Elizabeth, a few years ago.
Together, we turn a drive down a nearly-deserted dirt road into an adventure that evolves into something amazing every time. That’s why two weeks ago, we decided on a Wednesday night, that Friday and Saturday we were going to explore the area around Shiner.
Our trips can often be characterized by some very strange combinations of spontaneity and flexibility, countered by research and scheduling.
I an not very flexible, but Elizabeth has taught me that a side road may be the perfect detour, specifically because it is not the usual highway. We might be late, we might end up somewhere else, but without fail every trip has been incredible.
Why Shiner you ask? Well, beer and churches of course, though not together. The small, quiet, unassuming town is home to the century-old Spoetzl Brewery – where Shiner Bock is brewed – and not a lot else. But I would argue that Shiner would not have the same character with a laundry list of sights and activities.
The area along Interstate 10, between Seguin and Columbus, just north of Shiner is also where more than a half-dozen historic churches dot the landscape in areas where you won’t find much else but quiet and ranch land. But I’m getting ahead of myself, and that can be a devastating mistake when traveling right.
We left home early Friday morning, headed south on US Hwy 183 with only one requirement – be at the brewery by 1:30 p.m. The tours are free, but are only scheduled twice a day and only on weekdays. If we missed the 1:30 Friday, we’d be stuck looking in the windows.
The problem with driving down 183 is you travel through Lockhart and Luling, where some of Texas’ best barbecue is found. As we rolled into Lockhart, we felt that familiar magnetic pull to the square and another beautiful Texas county courthouse. We knew about Black’s Barbecue and Kreuz Market, but because it was still a little early for a heavy lunch we opted instead for a walk around the square and through the courthouse.
You know you are in barbecue town in Lockhart, because even at 10:30 a.m., the smell blankets the downtown area. When we reached one corner of the square, what looked like an acre of stacked firewood sat in an empty lot, behind what we soon learned was Smitty’s Market. Having been to the other two well-known spots, the lack of familiarity with this spot drew us in.
It had been Kreuz until 1999, and offered the atmosphere of many of the best joints around – smoke, and the smell of smoked meats that invades your clothes, along with a quality, if not overly friendly customer service. It’s not cheap, it never is, but standing between fires being tended on either end of a huge pit, while Pablo – the resident meat cutter – waits to fill your order is worth it. We decided, since it was early, just to try some jalapeno sausage and a couple of slices of brisket and it was incredible. You can get pickles, onions, bread, napkins, beer, soda, a knife and a variety of sides, but signs all over the building remind you there are no forks, period.
Everyone has their favorites when it comes to barbecue – Mueller’s in Taylor, City Market in Luling, Coopers in Llano, the list goes on and on – but in the end, nearly all of them offer that similar juicy, tender smoked meat that we’ve all come to expect. We spent $12 on our small meal, and still ended up packing some of it for the road anyway.
Smitty’s was the first surprise on this trip, but it wouldn’t be the last. Elizabeth believes in the journey, a part no less important than the destination itself, and by not watching the clock or focusing on schedules, I have learned how much more fun and how many more treasures you will uncover along the way.
At Gonzales, we headed east on Highway 90 and arrived at the brewery with 15 minutes to spare.
I’m a beer lover. One of my favorite pastimes is trying new beers and learning some about the brewing process along the way. Elizabeth is my partner in crime when it comes to sampling, and we have even brewed a handful of batches at home together.
The Shiner tour makes up for its simplicity with hospitality, atmosphere and the all-important free samples. The tour lasts about half an hour, but when you arrive, they give you four wooden tokens to be used to sample from the six to eight beers on tap in the gift shop, the first of which we tried while we waited.
The tour tells the history of the brewery, the brewing process and the technology in place today. Visitors even get a glimpse into the lab where everything is tested and monitored.
Shiner ships out about six million bottles of beer annually, now all over the country. The brewery has the capacity to fill 1,400 kegs daily and receives seven to 10 truckloads of bottles per day as 96 percent of the brewery’s production is bottling. Depending on seasonal offerings, Shiner brews 14 different beers throughout the year, but 75 percent of production is the familiar Shiner Bock.
After the tour, we found one of the familiar yellow and red Shiner benches under a tree out front and enjoyed three more samples. The wooden tokens make great souvenirs, but don’t feel like you can’t have that fourth sample to save your last token. The staff is happy to give you a token for the road to remember your visit.
A quick drive around Shiner tells you that if you’ve seen the brewery you’ve seen most of it, but it is a wonderfully quiet, relaxing place.
We checked into the Shiner Country Inn – the only motel in town – which is a renovated old motor inn. The rooms are small, but the beds are incredibly comfortable, everything is spotless and all the amenities are there, including very gracious hosts Mark and Cindy who will bend your ear and talk travel and life with you.
Because the town is small, nearly anywhere you’d want to go is a short walk away, so we toured the town on foot as we made our way to dinner at Werner’s.
The resident steakhouse has a little of everything on its menu. The catfish plate was tasty and the pretzel and beer cheese appetizer was a delicious beginning, but Werner’s was not the unique dinner spot we had hoped for. Honestly, if there is one part of our travels where I feel spoiled it is in unique dining experiences. I’m not apologizing for my history with the best shrimp toast, tacos, greek plates, empanadas, kolaches, moles, ceviche, cheeses and the like, I am just saying the bar is high.
Besides the brewery, the other can’t-miss stop the internet crowd promotes in Shiner is Howard’s – a convenience store. Howard’s is definitely a slice of life kind of stop. When we showed up early Friday evening, there were more than 30 trucks and a sprinkling of cars parked around it. Inside, the most popular spot is the ice cream counter and beer taps, where they serve up $2 drafts in plastic cups and scoops of Blue Bell.
The store rents and sells dusty DVDs, basic food items and has a freezer near the back door with frozen fishing minnows on one shelf and five-gallon containers of Blue Bell on another.
It is definitely a local hangout, but everyone was friendly, even if they knew immediately we were from somewhere else. When we made our way to the beer garden and patio in the back, we found a few dozen locals playing dominoes, visiting and enjoying their evening. If you want to know anything about Shiner, from history, to politics, to sports or family, Howard’s is definitely the place to spend a few hours.
Saturday was dedicated to exploring the painted churches in the area. Schulenburg is the official home of the painted churches of Texas, with six within just a few miles of the city. There are others, including Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church in Shiner, but there are four in the Schulenburg area that allow visitors access without a scheduled tour.
We could have just followed the GPS to find each one, but decided instead to stop by the Chamber of Commerce and buy the map. The best part of picking up the map was discovering the Texas Polka Music Museum across the street. Thankfully, two doors down was a coffee shop, simply known as “The Shop Downtown” so before we took in the polka museum we were able to enjoy a great cup of coffee. We didn’t eat, but they were offering up cowboy soup that included what sounded like everything left from the previous week.
The small music museum, right next door to the Schulenburg Historical Museum, greets visitors with a background of favorite Polka tunes, and has a great variety of donated musical instruments, show posters, band photos and bios from the famous to the obscure, and artifacts from polka radio, which can still be heard in the area.
The displays are quite interesting, but a visit with Helen puts a nice bow on the trip. She has worked at the museum since shortly after it opened eight years ago and has a wealth of knowledge about what you can see, and will even tell you about her own favorite dance halls through the years. You don’t have to know much about Polka music – or even be a true fan – to appreciate what it has meant to the German and Czech communities of the area over the years.
The Chamber of Commerce map for the churches is not extremely detailed, but it gives a short history of each and basic directions. None are hard to find, as when it says “one mile south on FM 1295”, you can be sure within a half mile, the church will appear in front of you, towering over the open fields.
We visited three of the churches – Praha, High Hill, and Dubina – in our small window of time before they closed at 4 p.m. Only those three, and Ammannsville further north, are open for visitors to explore on their own. Each one is unique, and all display incredible carpentry and artwork we don’t see in modern churches so much.
Praha is a striking stone church, built in 1895, that greets visitors with ornate wooden doors. Inside, the ceiling is painted in mostly blue with white columns and an ornate white alter and fixtures. A few miles away is High Hill, much less impressive on the outside, but decorated elaborately on the inside in dark woods, contrasting with the life-like depictions of Biblical figures throughout the sanctuary.
Our final stop was Dubina, where access was limited, but even a few moments inside proved spectacular and well worth the drive and crossing of the one-lane “Piano Bridge”. The green painted truss bridge has wooden planks and was built in 1885.
The wooden church that rises from the oak trees less than a mile from the bridge feels airy on the inside with a bright blue ceiling and many artist frescoes. The ancient oaks surrounding the church and neighboring cemetery are worth the trip themselves.
There were some choices to make for the journey home, but first we had to stop at the Oakridge Smokehouse in Schulenburg for our lone meal of the day. Making an interstate restaurant your lone meal of the day can be a dangerous move, and this one had its share of challenges. I was starving, and the menu boasted of a buffet that includes “two meats and sausage.” Any buffet that considers sausage separate than meat is a winner with me. Once my plate was packed with noodles and shredded beef, fried chicken, mashed potatoes and gravy and sausage and sauerkraut, I felt like I would make it after a long day of exploring.
When it comes to sightseeing, anything that claims fame for being the largest, smallest or only one of something is a can’t miss for us. That meant that our trip home had to pass through Seguin, where we could pose with the “world’s largest pecan”. No, its not real, and no its not taller than me, but it has a historic context and is on a beautiful square in front of a modern art deco limestone courthouse that was worth the quick drive through town off Interstate 10.
The sun set on our trip as we walked around the Guadalupe County Courthouse, the trees lighting one by one as the courthouse lights came on. The 36-hour trip was packed, but seemed less like a whirlwind and more like a quiet journey back in time.