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A Kitschy, Kosher Beer for Every Jewish Holiday

Shmaltz Brewing Company settles into its new brewery in Upstate New York

Erik Ofgang
November 27, 2013
Shmaltz Brewing Company's Upstate New York brewery.(Corinne Morrell)
Shmaltz Brewing Company's Upstate New York brewery.(Corinne Morrell)

Move over, Manischewitz, there’s a new kid on the Jewish alcoholic beverage block this Hanukkah.

He’Brew, proudly billed as “the chosen beer,” is here. Actually, it’s been here for a while. Shmaltz Brewing Company has been crafting the award-winning, certified-kosher line of Jewish craft beer for 17 years, but until this summer the company was wandering in the wilderness of contract brewing (brew-world lingo for a brewery that does not have a physical location and instead relies on other breweries to brew its recipes). Shmaltz’s exodus came to an end in July when the company’s new brewery officially opened in Clifton Park, N.Y., just outside of Albany.

“It’s awesome to have a home for the brand, to have a facility where we can show off our brewery, and our brewing techniques, and our recipes, and our flavors,” said Jeremy Cowan, the brewery’s founder and owner. “It gives us a lot of creative control and flexibility.”

The Clifton Park facility is a 50-barrel brewhouse that has an annual capacity of 20,000 barrels. It will serve as the base of operations for the Jewish beer company, which sells 200,000 cases of beer annually and grossed $3.9 million in sales in 2012.

The new brewery also has allowed Cowan and his partners in kosher-beer-making crime to experiment with new carbonated creations, including Jewbelation Reborn, an intense beer brewed to honor the brewery’s 17th anniversary that features 17 malts and 17 hops, clocking in at a whopping 17 percent alcohol by volume; St. Lenny’s, a Belgian-style double rye IPA crafted in collaboration between Shmaltz and St. Louis’ Cathedral Square Brewery; and Death of a Contract Brewer, a smoky black IPA brewed to commemorate the opening of the new brewery. (You can find them in Shmaltz’s annual He’Brew Holiday Gift Pack.)

The new brewery is located in an industrial park off Interstate 87. It’s a promised land flowing with beer and, well, more beer. Visitors can sample a variety of fresh Shmaltz beers, tour the facility, and learn about the beer-making process. They also can witness Shmaltz’s signature borscht belt humor: in the tasting room there’s a beer menorah display featuring empty bottles from the gift pack and T-shirts with the slogan “Don’t Pass Out, Pass Over” hanging on the wall.

Brewing kosher beer is actually easier than some people realize, Shmaltz Brewmaster Paul McErlean told me as I toured the new digs.

“Beer is pretty much inherently kosher,” McErlean explained. He said the trick is to make sure there are no non-kosher elements that contaminate the process. The brewery also avoids some traditional brewing techniques that call for the use of gelatin or other non-kosher products.

Cowan started Shmaltz Brewing Company in 1996 as a Hanukkah experiment. That year he brewed, hand-bottled, and labeled 100 cases of beer, then borrowed his grandmother’s Volvo to personally deliver the cases across the San Francisco Bay area.

Cowan said one of his goals with He’Brew has always been to bring Jewish humor to the brewing world.

“It really is about incorporating Jewish content and shtick into a truly unique brand,” Cowan said. “Being able to share punch lines from the Marx Brothers and Lenny Bruce, and tying together stories of sacred fruits and biblical heroes on a beer label is a pretty fun project.”

Fun, and successful: their line of Coney Island Craft Lagers, launched in 2007, was recently bought by Alchemy and Science, a craft beer outfit owned by Samuel Adams brewer Boston Beer Co. Now, Cowan and his crew have big plans for their new brewery, which has 300 bourbon, rye whiskey, and tequila barrels that currently hold various beers.

In the meantime, craft beer fans can enjoy Shmaltz’s festive holiday offerings. For tomorrow’s Thanksgivukkah meal, Cowan recommends the Hop Manna IPA: “That’s the absolutely perfect beer for Thanksgiving,” he said. “It’s got a hint of malt sweetness; it’s got a beautiful complexity of hop bitterness, floral flavors and citrus flavors, and incredible aromas. It’s a wonderful beer that can cut through some of the richness and complement some of the sweet flavors of Thanksgiving.”

We’ll drink to that.

Erik Ofgang is senior writer at Connecticut Magazine and co-author of The Good Vices: From Beer to Sex, the Surprising Truth About What’s Actually Good for You. He is also a mentor in Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program.