Just as Jesus Christ famously turned water into wine, facetiously-inclined entrepreneurial brewer Jeremy Cowan brought pomegranate juice to craft beer. A whimsical, Jewish Renaissance man emanating from San Francisco, Cowan’s first so-called ‘He-brew’ was an exalted potion few dared imitate. And it was totally sacrilecious.
Cowan, a former caterer/bartender, began operating Shmaltz Brewery during 1996. Little more than a one-man operation, he came up with the pomegranate tonic that’d buoy a lifelong career. His long, strange trip since then has been one of American splendor.
Recognized as 2010’s Best American Craft Beer by Beverage World and given the Distinguished Business Award by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, Cowan’s Shmaltz started in California, then migrated East to get contract brewed by Mendocino Brewing’s Saratoga Springs facility. By comparison, Shmaltz’s success nearly parallels that of Sam Calagione’s highly respected Delaware craft brewery, Dogfish Head.
“I started in my apartment, working with 100 cases of He’Brew Genesis Ale (humorously dubbed The Chosen Beer) for Chanukah. I hand-bottled, labeled and self-distributed through Northern California for a year. Then, for six years, Anderson Valley Brewery did it. In ’03, we switched production to Mendocino’s New York site, taking advantage of the Saratoga rainwater,” Cowan recalls as he drives to Fort Lauderdale airport following a successful week-long Florida jaunt encompassing Jacksonville, Orlando, and Tampa (consulting friends and representatives while hosting large promotional draught beer events).
Since New York has become Shmaltz’s largest market, topping his native Golden State, Cowan (who recently published Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah) currently calls Brooklyn home. That’s where I’d originally meet the master craftsman at Brooklyn Brewery’s New York Craft Beer Week media blitz kickoff party, September 2010.
Alongside his massive barrage of Middle East-inspired brews, Cowan soon began a tantalizing Coney Island lager series that’d remarkably contrasts all the Semite-related libations. All together, he has sold over eight million bottles of beer since Shmaltz’s auspicious inauguration.
“Since I wanted to make the country’s first and only Jewish celebration beer, I needed an ingredient that’d tie into Jewish tradition. What’s known as the Seven Sacred Spices in the Tora – that proved to be the bounty of the Land of Milk and Honey – overlapped beautifully with my Northern California experience,” Cowan explains. “I tied together cultural crossroads of the West Coast with the Middle East using pomegranate, in addition to barley. We’ve been running through these seven spices with our Rejuvenation series, first with figs, then dates and now grapes.”
Shmaltz built its reputation deliberately, gaining territories over years, not months, thanks to such fabulous He’brew creations as coffee-dried, chocolate-embittered, chicory-roasted He’Brew Messiah Stout and raisin-nutty, fig-draped, bock-like He’Brew Messiah Bold Dark Brown Ale. But creating worthwhile handcrafted beers takes precise brewing methodology, balancing yeast, malts, hops and grains with a good water source. When good beer goes bad, the results could be quite drastic. Early on, Cowan experienced a few miscues.
“Bad beer is never funny. On my very first opening night, I’d already delivered a handful of cases to Whole Foods and other high-end grocery stores in California.” Cowan retracts. “A good advisor who started Jewish Alternative magazine, Davka, had a Chanukah party. I jumped on it for a beer special called Hollapalooza, in good Shmaltz Brewing fashion. I was pouring samples and everyone loved it. The pomegranate hints were unique. But somebody came up halfway through the party and said, ‘I just ordered your beer. Is this it?’ He held up a cup of nasty, gross, juice-drooled scum. I said, ‘It can’t possibly be mine.’ What happened was one portion of the keg probably hadn’t been cleaned correctly and when we bottled the cases one was infected and turned bad quickly.”
Despite this primordial quality control gaffe, Cowan’s never wavered in his confidence for the Mendocino brewers crafting his uncommon recipes. There have been no major problems up in rustic Saratoga. Besides, he jokingly quips, “I don’t have the resources to risk.”
Being able to work with Mendocino’s Paul Mc Erlean, Cowan’s brewing ‘god,’ makes him especially proud. The two craftsmen go over beer concepts to find a firm direction, doing research and development that entails heavy tasting sessions. The nose, appearance, clarity and flavors matter as much as correctly integrated malt profiles and hop varieties to make a complex, well-balanced, interesting brew.
After Shmaltz released its Monumental Jewbelation Tenth Anniversary Ale, a launch party for the truly phenomenal Bittersweet Lenny’s Imperial IPA, was held in New York City, where Cowan met a licensing agent who’d help him inaugurate the ongoing Coney Island series of adjunct lagers. Each one enthusiastically tests the limits of America’s contemporary craft brew landscape.
“Coney Island, USA is a beloved institution with a museum, giant arts parade and performers from all over the world. Most importantly, they have the last remaining circus sideshow tradition known as Freak Show. Heather Holiday is the Sword Swallower. Serpentina’s the snake charmer. Sideshow MC, Donnie Vomit, does an act called the Human Blockhead. They asked if Shmaltz would be interested in doing a tribute beer series. My art director and I presented Coney Island craft lagers. The idea was to create very unusual, but well-balanced and interesting, lagers that’d bring some of the ale sensibility, techniques and flavors of the Hebrew ale side to lagers and make something offbeat and delicious.”
He admits small batch brewing has its own eccentricities. Sword Swallower is a dry-hopped, yeast-lagered, India Pale Ale-styled invention with non-traditional cold fermentation. Albino Python, one of Cowan’s favorites, is a bastardized Belgian with German hefeweiss and American craft ale character and spicy lagered yeast.
“There’s the art of the brewer. He’s an artist and a scientist keeping brews consistent,” Cowan insists. “Sometimes we’ll have batches that taste different even though the recipes are similar. Those differences add a varied experience. That’s what we enjoy with the Rejuvenator project. It’s the same recipe with different sacred fruits. It’ll have slightly different yeast. The exploration’s part of the fun.”
Sometimes it’s easy to dismiss a beer due to its strangely inaccessible flavor profile only to have its unaccustomed extravagance grow on you over time. That was my experience with fascinatingly ubiquitous Coney Island Freaktoberfest. Its gin-like, scoff and funky pomegranate promenade seemed undone by the bodacious limestone salting and glutinous wheat spine. But further sips revealed an advancing lemon-bruised, grapefruit-dried, stewed pruning that proved essential.
“It’s our one time a year we don’t have to be serious,” Cowan says of Freaktoberfest. “I adore the recipe. Since we have to round up all these free-range zombies to get their bodies and make beer right at the end of the Coney Island summer season, it’s gonna be a different experience. Everyone gets to project their desires and expectations onto that beer. We get D and F ratings on RateBeer because it’s not an Octoberfest. I’ve said repeatedly, a nice Jewish beer company doesn’t need to make an Octoberfest. There’s plenty around. It’s instead designed to be a nice, malty autumn beer with a hint of IPA.”
The latest deeply complex, richly contoured beer Shmaltz brewed for this years’ Chanukah season is He’Brew Vertical Jewbelation Barrel Aged Ale, a magnificent rye-whiskey-aged concoction blending all seven Jewbelation recipes. Its chewy chocolate-vanilla creaminess guards overripe black cherry fruiting, amiable bourbon-sherry warmth, and malt-smoked crème brulee illusions.
“That was one of our most complicated projects,” Cowan adds. “The brewers halfway hate me and halfway love the big beers – depending on the day. Everyone’s been proud of its design as one of the best stand-alone recipes that ties into the flavor profile of a monster brown ale. It’s an incredible odyssey that started with Messiah Bold Nut Brown and just got bigger and more complex.”
Brewhounds of all stripes should check out the new Jewbelation Fourteen. Using 14 malts and 14 hops for a 14 percent, alcohol-fueled Anniversary Ale, this lactic whiskey-malted, vanilla-caked, cocoa-buttered, chocolate truffle wrangles an oatmeal cookie finish. While Vertical Jewbelation combines seven different beers individually barrel aged, Jewbelation Fourteen is brewed the same with different recipes, maintaining a raspier alcohol burn. Both will mellow with age.
As for Cowan’s new debut book, Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah: How It Took 13 Years, Extreme Jewish Brewing and Circus Sideshow Freaks to Make Shmaltz an International Success, it was his most difficult pursuit. He dictated the book to friend, James Sullivan, the author of Seven Dirty Words: Life And Times of George Carlin. It got re-edited back and forth until the final month when they realized the book needed a massive overhaul to insert details into every story and change an enormous amount of vocabulary to make it more dynamic. It’s a fun, funny and honest story about being an American entrepreneur.
A cheerleader of small business owners, Cowan’s now fully-licensed and ready to sell beer under his time-tested adage, ‘The World’s Smallest Brewery.’
As for the dementedly jovial He’brew names that have Shmaltz’s minions snickering (and insulted religious zealots depressed), he lets on, “My mother instilled Judaism in me. But I wasn’t real religious. Later, I had a more powerful experience, got involved in the Jewish community. That was compelling and relevant and took into account my life experience as an assimilated Jew.”
Well, he’s got this lapsed Catholic Italian believing in the power of craft beer, if not religion.
John Fortunato’s website beermelodies.com is the number one source for beer geeks and rock freaks (according to its designer).