It’s hard to imagine Gambrinus Company founder and Shiner Beers owner Carlos Alvarez and his wife Malú, the philanthropists behind the Impetus Foundation, struggling to build a beer business after moving here from Mexico in the 1980s.
If you are looking for a story that illustrates how hard-working immigrants enrich the economy and culture of the United States, look no further than the Alvarez family. Their $20 million gift to the University of Texas at San Antonio, announced Wednesday, is the latest of numerous seven-figure gifts the couple have made in San Antonio and is the largest cash gift in the university’s history. It will benefit future generations of Latino students enrolled in UTSA’s Alvarez College of Business who trace their own family roots to Mexico.
It’s hard to imagine, as well, the beer market in Texas and the United States without Corona beer in its signature tallneck bottle with the familiar painted label. But long before Corona became a market leader, Alvarez was an unknown beer importer freshly arrived in Texas from Mexico, working with two other young partners in Austin, selling Shiner Bock, a limited production Texas cult favorite, and trying to interest bartenders in an unfamiliar Mexican beer.
“In the late 1980s, I was trying to sell Corona in a short, stubby brown bottle with a paper label. There was not much interest,” Alvarez recalled in a Wednesday conversation. “I’d sit at a bar, eating chips and salsa, trying to get the bartender’s attention before closing time. We sold 600 cases, 20 bottles in each case, our first year in Austin. Eventually, it would prove to be the start of a revolution, but back then, Americans considered it a fake beer. They would come back from vacations in Cancún and Puerta Vallarta and tell people the real Corona was in a clear bottle with a painted label.”
Alvarez, living in San Antonio, needed help – in Texas and in Mexico – if he was going to ever become more than a bit player in the beer business.
“I was an orphan with no line of credit and a leased office, and that’s when I met Tom Frost,” Alvarez recalled. Frost Bank gave Alvarez a lot more than that badly needed credit line he used to launch Gambrinus here in 1989.
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“Tom Frost invited to me to lunch at the Plaza Club and introduced me to [former] Gov. Dolph Briscoe, to Sam Barshop, and to other community leaders,” Alvarez said. “I don’t know why he did it, but he became my padrino, my godfather. And he kept inviting me back, sharing his views about the community, mentoring me. One thing he told me in front of Gov. Briscoe is that we had to help build UTSA into a great university.
“I still remember Tom – tall, lanky, waving his arms like bird wings – telling me, ‘Carlos, San Antonio is a big city, but it doesn’t know how to act like a big city. We have to build up UTSA.'”
Within a few years, Alvarez had bought the Spoetzl Brewery in Shiner, about 90 miles east of San Antonio, and set about modernizing its antiquated production facility and creating an ambitious marketing plan. He also convinced the reluctant Mexican owners of Cervezería Modelo in Monterrey, the owners of Corona, to expand their production line from the 11-ounce bottles sold domestically to add a standard 12-ounce bottle for the U.S. market. The squat brown bottles gave way to the signature clear bottles with the painted labels.
Sales of Corona and other Modelo beers outside Mexico eventually grew from 20,000 cases annually to 250 million cases worldwide, Alvarez recalled. In time, Modelo was sold to Belgian owners and Gambrinus lost its exclusive import rights to states west of the Mississippi. By then, though, Gambrinus was well established, and today the Shiner brewery produces 7 million cases of beer annually. Gambrinus’ West Coast brewery produces Trumer Pils.
“In Mexico, it’s so important to find the right padrino for your kids, someone who can help them make it in life, and I ended up with the best padrino of all,” Alvarez said. “I was so fortunate to be successful, and eventually, to be invited to serve on the Frost Bank board of directors. Tom Frost meant everything to me and that is why we have become big contributors to UTSA.”
For UTSA President Taylor Eighmy, who secured a $15 million gift from Rackspace co-founder and downtown developer Graham Weston in 2018 for the School of Data Science on the Downtown Campus, the Alvarez gift accelerates the university’s ambitious campaign to raise $500 million in the coming years to fund UTSA’s 10-year strategic plan.
“These moments in time and history for institutions like UTSA are rare,” Eighmy said. “The Alvarezes are grateful for what San Antonio gave to them when they came here from Mexico, and this is their way of paying it forward.”
Editor’s note: Readers interested in learning more about the history of the Spoetzl Brewery and Shiner Beer will enjoy this 1976 short documentary film, The Last of the Little Breweries: Shiner.
Disclosure: Shiner Beers and Graham Weston’s 80/20 Foundation are financial supporters of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here. Carlos and Malú Alvarez’s Impetus Foundation underwrites the San Antonio Report’s Shiner Internship program.