Shmaltz brews are so much more than shtick
"Don't Pass Out, Passover."
When Shmaltz Brewing launched in 1996 with that slogan, you'd be excused if you assumed it was just another gimmick, like Billy Beer of the 1970s or J.R. Ewing Beer of the '80s. Its He'Brew Messiah Bold and Genesis Ale ("The Chosen Beers") seemed little more than a scheme to use Borscht Belt humor to sell generic fizzy, yellow liquid. You could almost hear Buddy Hackett yucking it up in the background.
A company does not thrive for 15 years, though, on shtick alone.
It turns out that, along with cracking Jewish jokes, founder Jeremy Cowan can actually put out a high-quality product. Or, as one of his brewery's T-shirts irreverently quotes God: "Christ, that's good beer!"
"We're far beyond where I ever thought He'Brew would ever be," Cowan told me earlier this month as he prepared for his annual "Hanukkah vs. Christmas" promotional tour. In lively tasting events in San Francisco, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York, he'll match classic holiday ales against He'Brew Jewbelation Fifteen, an audaciously strong (15 percent alcohol by volume) dark ale.
It's yet another remarkable bottle from a company that has produced:
Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A., a double India pale ale made with "an obscene amount of malts and hops" as a tribute to acerbic Jewish comic Lenny Bruce.
Origin Pomegranate Ale, an imperial amber ale whose use of pomegranate juice is a nod to the fruit's symbolism in Judaic scripture.
Genesis 15:15, a barrel-aged barleywine made with still more pomegranate, plus figs, dates and grapes.
Clearly, these are not your run-of-the-mill ales and lagers – and they've been critical in building Shmaltz's reputation as more than just a gimmick brand. Indeed, it's easy to forget that the company doesn't actually own a brewhouse; it contracts production of its entire line to Old Saratoga Brewing in New York.
"In craft beer," Cowan said, "every successful brand has wonderful creativity, a personality. ... The Jewish shtick gives me an entry into that creativity."
Thus, Shmaltz once declared its beer is "Perfect for Bar Mitzvahs, Weddings and Circumcisions." And when it came time to brew a double bock, he made his with Concord grape juice (the same stuff that goes into kosher Manischewitz) and called it Rejewvenator.
"The shtick has been very important to me," Cowan said. "I'm not making fun, I'm having fun. My irreverence is a form of reverence. It's sincere in being playful."
With the holidays upon us, Cowan sees an even deeper connection between his faith and his work.
"Hanukkah traditionally celebrates underdogs and authenticity and heritage. That's the reason for the holiday," he said. "It's a wonderful metaphor for craft beer: being true to one's self and finding the courage to celebrate that truth.
"Our story is about a band of overmatched, committed Jews fighting against a much larger army. We've been out-gunned, out-moneyed and out-advertised by the big guys. And yet, we have a reason to celebrate."
But that doesn't mean you have to be Jewish to drink and appreciate He'Brew.
"Everyone has an angle on their brand," he said. "So, much like I don't have to enjoy dogs or hot rods or smoking weed to enjoy Lagunitas (whose brands have celebrated all three), you don't have to celebrate Hanukkah to drink Jewbelation."
A note on kosher beer: Because it is made from basic ingredients grown from the ground, most beer is kosher even if it doesn't say so on the label. Beer may not be kosher if it contains flavorings or fruit or was produced through a non-kosher process.
If you're uncertain, ask your rabbi.