Ode to Macrobrews: How Lone Star Won the Beer Alamo

Lone Star Beer
Mike Bezemek

They say things are bigger in Texas. Houston’s San Jacinto Monument was built 13 feet taller than the Washington Monument to commemorate 10 years of independence as the Republic of Texas. On top, there’s a 220-ton concrete star, the official symbol of the Lone Star state. Unofficially, perhaps the biggest symbolic middle finger in America. The state’s best-known beer is biggest where it matters most: a Texas-sized personality.

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Lone Star declared itself the National Beer of Texas in 1980, a full 144 years after the state stopped being a country—you don’t win around these parts by fussing over small details like market share or taste. You win the hearts and minds of Texans by stoking state pride with secessionist vibes.

In an age when the IBUs of microbrew IPAs are flashed across screens like football stats, Lone Star doesn’t mess with all that. Ordering one sends a clear message: You’re at the bar to guzzle light lager, not compare hop varieties for a beer-themed Instagram account.

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Speaking of how to order a Lone Star, there’s a big story behind that, too.

Introduced in 1940, during Lone Star’s first two decades, it was positioned as being “From the Big Country.” A beer for rugged outdoorsmen and cowboys on the wide-open range. By the mid-’60s, the beer was selling a million barrels per year, mostly to country boys and old timers. Then the nationals like Budweiser and Coors elbowed in on Texas territory, with eyes on the growing college crowd.

Sales of Lone Star declined throughout the early 1970s, until two company hombres named Barry Sullivan and Jerry Rentzloff noticed a curious fact. More Lone Star was sold at a single Austin music venue, Armadillo World Headquarters, than any other spot in the state besides the Houston Astrodome.

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The ‘Dillo wasn’t your typical 1970s country western bar. Instead of broken bottles atop sawdust, wide-brimmed hats, and Texas Longhorns, think bong rips in the parking lot, denim cutoffs, and hippy longhairs. The music on-stage was a new progressive subgenre called Outlaw Country, popularized by Lone Star-drinking newcomers like Willie Nelson. When “Cosmic Cowboy” singer Michael Murphey crooned about “Lone Star sipping and skinny dipping,” audience members lifted their Lone Stars and cheered.

Meanwhile, down in South Texas, locals were ordering Lone Stars by calling them “longnecks,” after the tall returnable bottles that were still sold down there. In other markets across America, including Austin, beer was increasingly shipped in aluminum cans and squat disposable bottles called stubbies. Recognizing the anti-corporate marketing potential for Austin’s counterculture, Sullivan and Rentzloff created a new slogan: “Long Live Long Necks.”

The company commissioned artist Jim Franklin to create a now-famous poster series. The first imagined a post-apocalyptic wasteland with only two kinds of humble survivors: foraging armadillos and 10-foot longnecks. Another depicted a full-sized Prairie Schooner wagon resting like a ship inside a 20-foot Lone Star bottle. A third showed an oil derrick built atop a 30-foot longneck that was gushing “Texas Gold” from the spout.

The campaign wasn’t just a new-age hit for Lone Star sales. Across the American beer-drinking scene, there was a full-on revival. The longneck bottle signaled Texas chic and high quality.

In 1980, John Travolta clutched a Lone Star in Urban Cowboy. Two years later, The New York Times made a fashionably late entrance to the party, crediting Texas’ best-known beer with saving the longneck bottle. One problem: Lone Star’s heyday was already over. Market share resumed slipping to nationals and up-and-coming microbrews. The company was sold four times in two decades, most recently to the Pabst Brewing Company.

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But Lone Star’s legend remains secure to this day. A larger-than-life regional, with a no-nonsense image, macro flavor, and loyal following. It’s the kind of name recognition a microbrewery would beg for. But Lone Star begs for nothing.

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