Carlos Alvarez, the San Antonio beer importer behind Shiner's success, has died

Alvarez, who also built Corona into one of the top imported beers, was known for his millions in contributions to UTSA and the arts.

click to enlarge Carlos Alvarez speaks from the stage at the 2021 Texas Business Hall of Fame dinner. - Alexander's Fine Portrait Design
Alexander's Fine Portrait Design
Carlos Alvarez speaks from the stage at the 2021 Texas Business Hall of Fame dinner.
Carlos Alvarez, the San Antonio businessman and philanthropist who launched Corona Extra beer in the U.S. and expanded Shiner Beer beyond its humble South Texas roots, died on Tuesday.

Mexico-born Alvarez, 73, leveraged an upbringing in the south-of-the-border beer industry to launch Alamo City's Gambrinus Co. in 1986 and grow it into one the nation's most successful beer importing and marketing enterprises.

More recently, Alvarez emerged as a high-profile donor to education and the arts in the Alamo City. In 2021, he and his wife Malú granted $20 million to UTSA's College of Business, which has since been renamed in his honor. The Tobin Center's Carlos Alvarez Studio Theater also bears his name thanks to a contribution to the performing arts facility.

"Carlos's impact extended far beyond the boardroom," the Texas Business Hall of Fame said in a statement on Alvarez's passing. "He was a philanthropist at heart, dedicated to enhancing educational opportunities for future generations."

The Texas Business Hall of Fame inducted Alvarez in 2010.

Acapulco gold

Alvarez grew up in his father's Acapulco-based beer distribution business and later climbed the ranks at Grupo Modelo, the Mexican brewing giant behind Corona and other brands. Building on those connections, he launched Gambrinus from San Antonio, building it into the Corona distributor for half the United States.

Although Corona was a blue-collar brand in Mexico, Alvarez said during an early 2000s interview with this author that he picked it to import because it would appeal to U.S. consumers looking for something different but daunted by dark beers. Ad campaigns pushed the brew as a relaxing sipper enjoyed on the beach with a twist of lime.

Corona's runaway success predated the craft-beer boom that introduced American beer drinkers to a wider variety of styles, many more robust and assertively hoppy than mass-produced brands like Budweiser and Miller.

Flush with that success, Alvarez bought Shiner's decades-old Spoetzl Brewery, then in decline, and pumped its flagship Shiner Bock brand up from a regional curiosity into a hipster-ready brand with a national footprint. Ironically, a key to that success was doubling Shiner's retail price to give it craft cache.

Crafty moves

In 2006, Anheuser-Busch took over Group Modelo and dumped Gambrinus as an importer. Despite the devastating blow, Alvarez continued to invest in U.S. craft breweries, purchasing Portland's BridgePort Brewing and Pete's Wicked Ale.

While BridePort and Pete's sputtered out amid a glut of U.S. craft brews, Shiner continued to thrive, branching out into new brews including the summer-ready Ruby Redbird and ¡Órale!, a Mexican-style lager. Gambrinus also launched a Northern California brewery to produce Austria's Trumer Pils, which remains one of its brands.

"[Alvarez] knew the business and surrounded himself with people who also knew it well," said Travis E. Poling, a San Antonio-based author of books on Texas' brewing industry, including San Antonio Beer: Alamo City History by the Pint. "To him, the marketing side was equally important to the brewing."

Poling, an occasional Current contributor, said Alvarez's answer when asked what his favorite beer was underlined his business philosophy.

"He told me, 'My favorite beer is one I'm drinking from a paid account,'" Poling said. "It was his way of saying that his favorite was one that was making him money."

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Sanford Nowlin

Sanford Nowlin is editor-in-chief of the San Antonio Current.

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