December 18, 2018

Ale to the chief: ‘He’brewery’ wins fans — and awards

On the eve of Chanukah 1996, Jeremy Cowan began experimenting with squeezing pomegranate juice into a batch of his freshly brewed beer. Working out of a small Bay Area brewery, Cowan hand-bottled and hand-labeled 100 cases of what he dubbed He’brew Beer’s Genesis Ale.

The upstart brewer and recent Stanford graduate peddled his product from his grandmother’s Volvo to local retailers in and around San Francisco’s suburbs. His mother helped deliver some cases, too.

“It was a very organic, hands-on beginning,” Cowan, 47, who now lives in Troy, N.Y., told the Journal in a recent phone interview.

Two decades later, Cowan, 47, still is making his Genesis Ale — but that’s not all.

He’s also making beers with names such as “Chanukah, Hanukkah … Pass the Beer,” a dark ale brewed with eight malts and eight hops with 8 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), and “Genesis 20:20,” a barrel-aged, tart barleywine with 16.7 percent ABV. (Before you run to your Torah, don’t worry, Genesis Chapter 20 has only 18 verses.) There’s also “Jewbelation 20th Anniversary Ale,” brewed with 10 malts and 10 hops with 16.8 percent ABV, and “Shtick in a Box,” a holiday variety 12-pack featuring items like “Messiah Nut Brown Ale.”

The brand is known for the Jewish, shtick-laden names gracing its labels.

“Every year, we have to keep trying to be creative, be imaginative and keep putting out quality products, and keep having fun along the way. One of the things we definitely focus on is a whimsy, creativity and sense of shtick,” the craft beer veteran explained.

The “we” refers to Cowan’s team of more than 30 employees helping to produce, promote and sell what his Shmaltz Brewing Co. proudly terms “the chosen beer.” His company operates out of its own 40,000-square-foot, 50-barrel brewhouse — opened in 2013 — in Clifton, N.Y.

For its first 17 years of existence, Shmaltz was a contract brewer, meaning it had to outsource production of its beer to bigger brewers. Now, its upstate New York facility has an annual capacity of 20,000 barrels and boasts a tasting room open to the public. The space frequently hosts events such as weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and even brit milah ceremonies.

Shmaltz sells its beer across 35 states in nearly 5,000 retailers, including Vons, BevMo and Cost Plus World Market locations. In 2016, Shmaltz did $4 million in gross sales — a far cry from the back of the Volvo.

“It’s really astounding,” Cowan said of Shmaltz’s rise to Jewish beer prominence.

Shmaltz recently combined two of Cowan’s eternal loves — pastrami and beer — to create “Pastrami Pils,” a 5.5 percent ABV pilsner brewed with caraway, cracked black pepper and kosher salt, and dry hopped with horseradish and rye blend.

Also a lifelong “Star Trek” fan, Cowan secured an exclusive agreement to create the only officially licensed “Star Trek” beers in the country: “Golden Anniversary Ale: Voyage to the Northeast Quadrant” and “Golden Anniversary Ale: The Trouble With Tribbles.”

Shmaltz isn’t just a success story and it isn’t just Jewish. It’s also high-quality craft beer. ranked Shmaltz as one of the “Top 100 Brewers in the World” in 2013. The company has amassed 40 awards, including 10 gold medals and six silver medals combined at the past several World Beer Championships.

Born in Los Angeles, Cowan spent his early childhood in Beverlywood. His father taught special education and English at nearby Beverly Hills High School.

After college and before his prophetic pomegranate episode, Cowan spent time in New Orleans, soaking up the diverse culture and working at one of the oldest breweries in Louisiana.

“I didn’t think about what I wanted to do,” Cowan said of that time. “I just wanted to read, write music and eat good food.” In the Big Easy, he first developed an appreciation for beer, particularly European styles.

When he returned home to the Bay Area, Cowan set out to find his own calling within that region’s bustling beer culture. He sensed his Jewish identity had a part to play. Many beers conjure up a homeland or constitute a point of pride for drinkers — Heineken, for instance, is as Dutch as windmills or wooden clogs. Cowan wanted to forge a place for Jews in the realm of great beers and to dispel what he saw as a myth that Jews don’t enjoy beer.

“When I started, there was no Jewish celebration beer,” he said. “Every group had some beers they could call their own. I wanted to create something that would combine a sense of history, referencing pop culture, literature, traditions and holidays and, of course, a beer that can stand with the most innovative, creative delicious beers in the world. Then putting a bunch of shtick on the beer labels. I thought people would feel a meaningful connection.”

The craft beer industry is cutthroat, particularly because it comprises so many small businesses clawing to stand out. According to Cowan, the field has seen more growth in the past three years than at any point in history, ballooning to more than 5,000 craft brewers operating in the country.

“This is the single greatest time in history to enjoy great beer and to make craft beer,” he said.

The Jewish branding of Shmaltz is unique, Cowan said. Iconic kosher wine companies such as Kedem and Manischewitz — the names most Jews attune to when playing word association with “Jewish” and “alcohol” — are owned by bigger companies. Cowan hopes drinkers of his beer relish Shmaltz’s ascendancy in the highly competitive beer marketplace as a Jewish independent business going on 20 years.

“I hope the Jewish community feels proud,” he said. “We do feel the support at events and on social media. It’s very difficult to maintain a for-profit consumer Jewish business, and I’m very proud that we’ve accomplished that and hope we can for many years to come.”