Heads up: Jewish brewer thriving amid craft beer boomby lisa alcalay klug, jta
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With the creation of David’s Slingshot Hoppy Summer Lager, beer maker Jeremy Cowan is evoking the image of the legendary battle between David and Goliath — a match-up that’s also apt for Cowan himself.
Though still a small player in the world of craft beers, Cowan, Shmaltz’s owner and founder, is catapulting himself onto a much larger field.
After years in which his company, Shmaltz Brewing, paid others to produce its He’Brew beers, Cowan has opened his own brewing facility in upstate New York.
The facility in Clifton Park outside Albany, which opened in July, includes a 1,700-square-foot tasting room, custom-made brew tanks and a 120-bottle-per-minute Italian packaging line.
Cowan grew up in Atherton and founded the company from his apartment in San Francisco during Chanukah 1996, labeling and delivering the first contract-brewed batch of 100 cases by hand from the trunk of his grandmother’s Volvo.
In the years since, it’s certainly been “shofar so good” for the beer maker, who relied on Jewish puns and assorted kitsch to move 3 million bottles in 2012 alone. Those 125,000 cases — Cowan’s largest run yet — grossed $3.9 million, a 42 percent increase over 2011. Cowan’s libations are now sold by 4,000 retail specialty shops in more than 30 states.
Cowan recognizes that members of the tribe don’t typically drink as much as other barflies. So if it’s not Jewish consumers lugging home those distinctive six-packs, or throwing one back at the legions of bars where He’Brew and its sister label Coney Island Lagers are sold, just who is consuming his beer?
“You don’t have to be Irish to drink Guinness. You don’t have to be Belgian to drink Chimay. And you don’t have to be Jewish to drink great Jewish beer,” Cowan says. “If the beer tastes great and the shtick is funny, then why wouldn’t anybody like it?”
Though Jews carry a reputation as lightweight drinkers, Jewish brewers have a storied history in the United States. One of the earliest Jewish-owned breweries in the country, Rheingold Beer, was founded in 1850 by Samuel Liebmann and became quite popular.
Today, beer lovers looking for Jewish-inspired alternatives to He’Brew can choose from Maccabee, marketed in the United States by Israel’s Tempo Beer Industries; Lompoc Brewing’s 8 Malty Nights, a chocolate rye porter; and the microbrews of New York–based Lost Tribes, which incorporates exotic ingredients from the Middle East.
But Shmaltz has embraced its Jewish side with a gusto unmatched by any of the others. Its newest addition, David’s Slingshot Hoppy Lager, joins a host of quirky labels including Funky Jewbilation, Hop Manna, Genesis Dry Hopped Session Ale, Messiah Nut Brown Ale and Rejewvenator.
Cowan, a Stanford University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in English, devises the shtick, as well as the written product descriptions and marketing concepts. His art director, Nat Polacheck, interprets the concepts into the company’s signature style.
That success owes much to the burgeoning appeal of the wider craft beer industry. Sales of craft brew increased to $10.2 billion in 2012, up from $8.7 billion in 2011. The ranks of small breweries are larger than they’ve been at any time since before Prohibition.
“Since the 1970s, the growth has been small but linear,” says Cowan, who spearheaded the creation of the nonprofit New York City Brewers Guild in 2012 and serves as its president. “In the last four or five years, there have been more breweries opening every year than ever before.”
According to the Brewers Association, small craft brewers produce fewer than 6 million barrels of beer annually. Like Shmaltz, these brewers typically take distinct, individualistic approaches to connecting with their clients. They also use both traditional and nontraditional ingredients, like the fruit juice found in He’Brew’s Origin Pomegranate Ale.
With his new facility, Cowan is now brewing 50-barrel batches every two to three weeks, with an annual capacity of 20,000 barrels.
“We’re controlling our destiny,” says Cowan. “It’s incredibly exciting, incredibly gratifying to be part of an industry that is going through positive change right now.”
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