A conversation with Jeremy Cowan, the founder of the kosher craft beer company, Shmaltz Brewing Company.
By Joshua E. London and Lou Marmon
Washington Jewish Week March 26, 2014
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.
The craft beer movement began in the United Kingdom in the 1970s and rapidly moved across the Atlantic. There are now nearly 2400 independent breweries operating in the US focusing on traditional brewing techniques to create distinctly flavorful and unusual beers. These often begin as an in-home hobby that eventually morphs into a full-time business, complete with all the entrepreneurial risks and responsibilities. Creativity abounds with exotic recipes that may include nearly every type of spice and flavoring including chocolate, various spices, fruits, honey and even chilies.
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 a 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 kosher, I have not really seen this as an obstacle. Often it became a question of curiosity and a point of differentiation – and a great reason for buyers to put our beers in both the beer section and the kosher section!
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 which 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 6 years. In 2003, as I planned a switch to 6-packs and an expansion to new markets, it made sense to brew in New York – so I gave up my San Francisco apartment and literally spent the next 5 years on the road selling beer market to market. For 10 years we contract brewed in NY as we 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, NY 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!
How did you choose “Crafting Delicious Beer and Delicious Shtick” as a slogan and how do you evaluate its effectiveness?
As with all the shtick for Shmaltz Brewing – I made it up! Given our small size and our goal to make art in the form of fantastic beers – more than ever do any formal marketing surveys or consumer research – if it rings true, sincere, and fun for us, then we go for it.
You overcame quite a few financial and other hurtles during your start up. What are the most important lessons you learned?
Do a ton of extra research and 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!
How do you decide on which new beers to create and which beers to retire?
Often times it starts with an idea, punchline, or fun angle – for example this year’s new “Death of a Contract Brewer” – which then gets spun into a beer style – in this case a Black IPA brewed w 7 malts, hops, and alcohol riffing off the Jewish tradition of 7 days of shiva for a passing in the family. For us, it’s our transformation from contract brewing to our own brewery. And then our anniversary for our 17th year is called “Jewbelation Reborn” – great beer and great shtick!
What exactly is “Extreme Jewish Brewing?”
Jewbelation Reborn: 17 malts, 17 hops, 17% alcohol – and a holiday gift pack with 8 different extreme beers that we make w Chanukah candles and instructions and a national contest about how to Build Your Own Beer Menorah.
Which charities does Shmaltz support and why?
We work with both Jewish community and general non profits (often educational, artistic, and community service) around the brewery as well as across the county. Tied into our Lenny Bruce tribute beer, I donate specifically to Center for Constitutional Rights, a civil rights legal advocacy organization.
What is the title of your next book?
Death of a Contract Brewer: How it took 18 years of craft brewing to become an actual craft brewer!
And the one after that?
One at a time!
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!