December 26, 2011
The brew that’s fit for a Jew
Manischewitz has its role, but now and then a Jew needs a good cold beer.
Shmaltz Brewing Co., with headquarters in San Francisco and a brewery in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has been producing beers worthy of the Chosen People for 15 years and counting.
“Completely shocking,” says proprietor Jeremy Cowan, when asked about his brand’s longevity. In fact, Cowan says he is still not sure how it’s even possible that the first 100 cases of Shmaltz—handcrafted as an experiment for Hanukkah in 1996—have grown into the production of over 10,000 barrels a year internationally.
In celebration of the 15th year, a series of new and repackaged brews are being released, including the appropriately named Jewbelation 15 and Genesis 15:15. There is even a new book that chronicles the company’s first 13 years called Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah, which includes a list of suggested beers to accompany each chapter.
“When I started Shmaltz, it was really just an experiment,” Cowan says. “I just thought it would be fun and funny to make this country’s first and only Jewish celebration beer.”
With the help of a small brewery in Northern California, the former English major pitched a business idea (despite not knowing a dram from a dreidel), and Shmaltz was born. Hand-brewed, hand-labeled and hand-delivered, the first bottles of Shmaltz quickly caught on, even outside the Jewish community.
“Once I got into the project,” Cowan recalls, “I realized this was my opportunity to create my own brand of a Jewish community organization. [It] allowed me to celebrate my culture and to tie it into Jewish text, holidays, and traditions in a meaningful contemporary way most relevant to my own sensibility.”
While he is happy with his creation’s cache in the Christian and Catholic worlds, Cowan is especially proud of the impact he has had in Jewish homes. Most of his beers are certified by the Kosher Supervision of America (KSA), which is accepted by the Orthodox Union (OU) worldwide.
When it comes to kosher dietary law, beer isn’t subject to the same level of rabbinic and Talmudic scrutiny as wine is, Cowan notes. However, he says it “was important to get the [Shmaltz] beers kosher certified so the whole community, regardless of their level of observance, would feel confident bringing our products into their homes and into their lives.”
Cowan says the name of Shmaltz’s first offering—“He’Brew”—was a “fun shtick my pals came up with when we were just slightly underage in Northern California.” Though his product has been the subject of “lots of funny looks and questions,” Cowan emphasizes that the most important judge—his mother—approves.
“She even helped me deliver cases of the first batch,” he says, noting that she is “relieved that the business is doing well enough that I don’t need to sleep on her fold-out couch nearly as often as I used to.”
Once people get past the name, Cowan suggests, they often find that Shmaltz products are more than just a Jewish joke. “When people read the story and taste…the beer,” he says, “[they] realize…that I was very serious about this fun and delicious project that honestly celebrates Jewish tradition, text, and sensibility, [and] they love it.”
For its 10th anniversary, Shmaltz expanded by adding a new line of East Coast-inspired beers. Approached by “a nice Jewish boy from Manhattan” who had become a fan and who wanted Cowan to help celebrate New York’s most famous playground—Coney Island—Cowan decided to kick off a “sideshow” beer line to raise money for the famous fun park.
Today, Shmaltz’s Coney Island line includes such Boardwalk-inspired flavors as Albino Python, Sword Swallower, Human Blockhead, and Freaktoberfest.
“For over 125 years, Coney Island has been America’s Playground,” Cowan suggests. “Shmaltz Brewing is ecstatic to celebrate that flavor and spirit through this exceptional line of unique craft lagers.”
Looking to the future, Shmaltz continues to expand while keeping its roots firmly in mind.
“One of my favorite parts of my craft beer business is to play with stereotypes and add unique angles and create additional layers of meaning and flavor,” Cowan says, “to tickle people’s expectations and increase their delight with our offerings.”