All photos courtesy He’Brew
Jeremy Cowan, owner of Shmaltz Brewing Company, fully embraces his Jewishness. Cowan, who launched Shmaltz in 1996, created a kosher-certified, rabbi-approved series of He’Brew beers, including Genesis Ale and Funky Jewbelation, that brought some welcome schtick to the craft-beer world (its tagline: “The Chosen Beer”). But despite the pun-heavy labeling, his intentions are pure. Cowan also uses He’Brew to encourage people to have fun—and drink better beer—while learning about Judaism.
On the eve of Hanukkah, we sat down with Cowan to chat about He’Brew’s origin story, fantasy Jewish floats for the Macy’s parade, and this year’s blowout Holiday Pack.
How did the idea for He’Brew start?
It was basically an inside joke with some of my friends from high school. We thought it’d be really cool if there was a beer called He’Brew. It just stayed as a punchline for 10 years, though, long before I started the company. Then in 1996, I started to look into what it would take to make a few cases of He’Brew beer for Hanukkah and got a little obsessed. I had some friends come over and hand-squeeze pomegranates on the floor of my apartment and we used the juice for the beer. We did about 100 cases of Genesis Ale that year and self-distributed around Northern California. Now 17 years later, we’re gonna do about 100,000 cases annually for all our beers. It’s been quite an adventure.
What was your goal with infusing Judaism into beer?
My goal in the beginning was to reach the Jewish community, but not necessarily the organized Jewish community. I wanted the Jews who didn’t go to synagogue—the ones who listened to Lou Reed and the Beastie Boys. It was more of a connection through pop culture than ritual. I thought it was a fun way to give a product a little bit of substance and a little bit of fun. Now I’m more focused on truly exceptional beer.
Can you have a mix of serious and schtick?
I don’t see why you can’t do both. It’s not that hard to balance, because a lot of Jewish intellectual history is based on humor, so I think people get it. The references are all for fun. The original label for He’Brew had this big dancing green rabbi looming over the Golden Gate bridge and the stones of Jerusalem. Definitely had a Godzilla vibe to it. That was the point, though. It was supposed to be a mix of irreverent and sincere. I wanted to toss about 5,000 years of schtick into one beer label, but also be very serious about the beer. I didn’t want to have just another forgettable contract-brewed golden lager that wouldn’t stand-up when people tasted it.
Were you raised in a strict home?
I had a very suburban and reformed Jewish upbringing in the ’70s, so I did Sunday School and was bar mitzvahed and confirmed and went on my Israel teen tour when I was 16. A lot of the teen tour was exploring Israel—everything from Holocaust memorials to Israeli soldiers and hiking in the desert—but it was also equally trying to kiss girls and drink beer when we were underage.
How was Hanukkah for you growing up?
My folks were divorced and I lived with my mom, so I celebrated Hanukkah with her in Northern California. Funnily enough, when I was growing up, even though my dad and his entire family was Jewish, they lived in L.A. and had Christmas trees. I’d celebrate Hanukkah with my mom and Christmas with my dad, even though everyone was Jewish. It was pretty common until later in the ’80s. A lot of Jews were just, I don’t know…Christmas was more about a season than anything else. It’s a good time to celebrate with your family, and who doesn’t like a nice tree once in a while?
Hanukkah starts on Thanksgiving this year. If you could create a Jewish-themed float for the Macy’s parade, what would it be?
That’s a good question. I’d do an inflatable reproduction of Mount Rushmore, with the heads of Lenny Bruce, Rodney Dangerfield, Lucille Ball and Mel Brooks.
Tell me about the Holiday Gift Pack extras.
We do a commemorative glass with our logo and some schtick, and we include enough Hanukkah candles to get you through the whole season. I’ve had plenty of non-Jewish friends tell me it gets them through an entire year of little kid’s birthday parties, so whatever you need it for. We also do a poster, and this year it’s our most ambitious one yet: It’s an illustration from Paul Harding, and he did a drawing of a turducken in the form a beer menorah-fired mothership flying through the universe eating latkes. Very epic.
You have an annual event called “Chanukah vs Christmas: The Battle Royale Of Beers.” If you put Santa Claus and Moses in a steel cage together, who would win?
Oh, man. That’s tough. I’d say if they have our holiday beers, they’ll agree to sit down and just be drinking partners, instead.
Breaking Down the Holiday Gift Pack
Shmaltz traditionally celebrates Hanukkah with a He’brew Holiday Beer Pack, featuring eight beers, glassware, menorah-
Death of a Contract Brewer
“It’s our first Black IPA, brewed in honor of our transformation from contract brewer to brewery owner, and it ties into the tradition of sitting shivah at a Jewish memorial. It has seven hops and seven malts, and clocks in at 7% ABV. Wonderfully bitter with dark roasty malts and an excellent hop presence.”
“This is a collaboration with Brian Neville at Cathedral Square Brewery in Missouri. We’re good friends. We brewed it to honor my move from the West Coast to the East Coast in 2003, at his suggestion. It’s a monk-inspired version of Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A., which is a double IPA with rye, but we added Belgian yeast strains. It has elements of warm spiciness from the rye and, from the Belgian yeast, a fruity flavor. There’s also an intense bitterness.”
R.I.P.A. on Rye
“This is a barrel-aged version of Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A., and a tribute to a fallen Jewish hero, Lenny Bruce. It’s a statue of deliciousness. We aged this in Willett Rye Whiskey barrels. We only use barrels once, so this is the only time you’ll see this beer. The first notes are rye whiskey served neat, followed by an aroma of warm spices.”
Messiah Nut Brown Ale
“Our schtick for this is, ‘It’s the beer you’ve been waiting for.’ It’s a deep, bold nut brown ale beautifully balanced with rich dark malts and a complex hop character. Simple, but enchanting.”
Rejewvenator Dubbel Doppel
“We did this for three years, a few years back, but stopped. We felt it was too unique not to make it a seasonal offering again. It’s a blend of Belgian-style dubbel and doppelbock, and the only beer brewed with lager yeast and Belgian ale yeast. It’s also brewed with dates and figs, which are sacred species listed in the Book of Exodus.”
“A compliment to Death of a Contract Brewer, made with 17 hops, 17 malts and 17% ABV. We brewed it at the new brewery in Clifton Park, after 17 years of contract brewing. It’s big and smooth, with notes of creamy dark chocolate with hazelnuts or sweet cherry cordials.”
“A one-of-a-kind mashup of six barrel-aged beers: Jewbelation 15, aged for three months; vintage Jewbelation, aged for nine months; Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A., aged for one month; Origin Pomegranate Ale, aged for 14 months; Reunion Ale ’11, aged for seven months; and Messiah Nut Brown Ale, aged for 14 months. The amount of manual labor we did for this was pretty crazy, between taking the beers out of their barrels, tasting them all at various times throughout the year and then blending them all to get certain flavors. It’s pretty insane, though. It’s tart, but not super sour.”
Reunion Ale ’13 – A Beer For Hope
“This is a collaboration between us and Terrapin Brewery in Athens, GA, and a beautiful testament to getting together with friends. A portion of the sales are donated [to The Institute for Myeloma and Bone Cancer Research]. Its a dark brown ale brewed with coffee, chocolate, vanilla, and cocoa nibs and cinnamon.”
Hanukkah Food and Beer Pairings
The iconic dish of the season should pair wit the perfect anniversary Chanukah beer. Light ’em up!
Braised Brisket/Death of a Contract Brewer
Brisket would be the heavyweight of the Shmaltz table, so the roasty malts and complex citrus and pine bitterness is the perfect fit.
Jelly Doughnuts/Rejewvenator Dubbel Doppel
Sacred fruits, beer and donuts. That’s a gift!
St. Lenny’s/Blinis with Smoked Salmon
>Night 5 Noodle Kugel/Messiah Nut Brown Ale
Chopped Liver/Reunion Ale
The balance of dry and sweet from the dark chocolate, vanilla, cinnamon and coffee will make everyone love chopped liver as much as I do.
Horseradish/R.I.P.A. on Rye
Matzoh Ball Soup/
Shamash has 0 malts, 0 hops, 0% abv. And 0 ounces. Yes, the bottle is empty. Don’t mess with a Jewish mother’s penicillin.
>By the end of this epic feast, you’re gonna wanna shake yer chocolate moneymaker.