With the countdown to Passover upon us, we thought we’d take a departure from our usual wine and spirits to focus on some other tasty chametz: beer.
The nation is in the midst of something of a beer revolution. While the market is still dominated by big names such as Budweiser, Miller and Coors, a visit to nearly every bar and liquor store reveals a growing list of previously unknown beer makers with unusual, if not bizarre, names like Bad Martha, Flying Dog, Allagash, Dark Horse, Funkworks, Omission and Scuttlebutt.
As it happens, one of the most successful craft breweries is also certified kosher — by the KSA of Los Angeles. The Shmaltz Brewing Company was established in 1996 by Jeremy Cowan. He decided his overwhelmingly Jewish volleyball team needed its own beer, so he created an ale. Declaring his “He’brew” as the “Chosen Beer,” he took it commercial and followed up with a series of beers that have expressed his creativity, irreverence and, fortunately, considerable marketing savvy. Thankfully, these are also some mighty fine beers.
Moving from San Francisco to upstate New York, and from contract brewing to opening his own brewery, Cowan marked the opening with the release of his “Death of Contract Brewer” black IPA. Also tasty is his “Reunion Ale,” made with cocoa nibs, vanilla cinnamon and coffee; sales help raise funds for Multiple Myeloma and bone cancer research.
We recently had an opportunity to ask Cowan about his experiences and future plans.
WJW: Among wine drinkers, “kosher” had a rotten reputation for decades and kosher wine producers have only just gotten past it. Are there any similar issues in the beer world?
Jeremy Cowan: Because so few beers had ever been [certified] kosher, I have not really seen this as an obstacle.
What made you decide to move from San Francisco to upstate New York?
I started the company as an experiment with 100 cases brewed at a tiny brewery in northern California that we hand-bottled and labeled and that I drove around door to door in my grandmother’s car.
After the first year, I moved the brewing to a larger but still small craft brewer a couple hours north of San Francisco where we brewed for six years. In 2003, as I planned a switch to six-packs and an expansion to new markets, it made sense to brew in New York.
So I gave up my San Francisco apartment and spent the next five years on the road selling beer market to market. For 10 years we contract-brewed in New York and were fortunate enough to win tons of awards and make the Top 100 Brewers in the World on RateBeer.com.
This year we finally built our own brewery in Clifton Park, just north of Albany, doubled our staff, and are looking forward to controlling all our own production, brewing the best beers we’ve ever produced.
You overcame quite a few financial and other hurdles during your start up. What are the most important lessons you learned?
Do a ton of extra research before embarking on new projects, and then either make sure you can track the finances or hire/beg/trade someone else to cover it all for you.
What is next? Are you thinking of moving into spirits?
Next? I think a brand new $4 million mortgaged brewery with double our staff and double our beer portfolio is enough.
He makes a solid point. L’Chaim!