Crying in my beer: the only Jewish beer company in America is closing



Jordan Palmer

It’s still hard to believe that with all the breweries in America, there has been only one Jewish beer company in America. And now there are none.

Shmaltz Brewing Co. has announced its farewell season after 25 years in the beer business with the first and final release of Bittersweet Lenny’s RIPA in 16-oz cans, vintage gems from the Shmaltz beer vault, and a fitting tribute, Exodus 2021 Barleywine Ale (8.8 percent ABV) brewed with date, fig, pomegranate and grape. Evolving from a quirky holiday experiment to an innovative advocate for the beer industry, Shmaltz has been known for its creative brand building, as a champion of contract brewing (both brewer and brewee), for completing multiple complex business deals and as relentless punsters.

Founder and Owner Jeremy Cowan quipped: “Was it Mark Twain or Groucho Marx who said, ‘You can’t start a new chapter without putting a period on the last one. Otherwise it’s just a typo.’”

Shmaltz Brewing got started in 1996 by hand-delivering 100 cases of its beloved “HE’BREW — The Chosen Beer” out of Cowan’s grandmother’s Volvo. At the time there were just 700 small independent craft breweries representing 2 percent of the beer market. Along with other “Class of ’96” breweries (Stone, Firestone Walker, Victory, Three Floyds, Two Brothers, Original Sin, Iron Hill, Coronado and many others) Shmaltz put roots down for an industry that has since created and sustained a transformative movement, growing to nearly 10,000 craft brewers and over 20 percent of the overall beer market by revenue. Shmaltz stood out as one of the most idiosyncratic brands of its day. One that cooked along for an initial 10 years and in the mid-2000s became a pop-cultural phenomenon with a dedicated global cult following.

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Highlights of 25 years of Shmaltz Brewing

From the early years of self-distributing to growing to four then 45 wholesalers nationally, Shmaltz served as an unusual example and vocal advocate for contract brewing before opening its own 50-bbl, 40,000-sq-ft production brewery in Upstate New York. Shmaltz expanded production volumes by 400 percent to over 30,000 bbls by then contracting for other renowned national and regional beer brands in addition to brewing their award-winning Shmaltz portfolio.

Shmaltz was ranked one of the “Top 100 Brewers in the World” by (2013); a recipient of the “Distinguished Business Award” by the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce; included in the “Top 50 Fastest Growing Bay Area Companies” by San Francisco Business Times; and given the “Achievers Award” by the Albany Business Review. The brewery amassed more than 50 medals at the leading craft beer festivals, including the Great American Beer Festival, World Beer Championships, US Beer Tasting Championships, and others.

Proudly participating across the spectrum of the Jewish community with non-profits, arts groups, and service organizations, “HE’BREW Beer” made it to the White House for “Jewish Heritage Night” and served during multiple presidencies (Bush, Clinton, Obama), as well as multiple eras of New York City Mayors. A bottle remains in the permanent collection at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (San Francisco), and Cowan’s book Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah: How It Took 13 Years, Extreme Jewish Brewing, and Circus Sideshow Freaks to Make Shmaltz Brewing an International Success is now an offering at the Jewish Center for the Blind. Cowan’s national book tour hit influential indie book stores such as The Strand (NYC) and Kepler’s Books (Palo Alto, CA) as well as events at Craft Brewers Conference, BrewBound Talks, SF Beer Week, NYC Beer Week, and a plethora of beer bars nationally.

Shmaltz operated the “World’s Smallest Commercial Brewery” in Coney Island, Brooklyn, which spearheaded the creation of Coney Island Craft Lagers (sold to Alchemy & Science, a division of Boston Beer Company). “HE’BREW Beer” further found its way into fanatical TV shows and motion pictures such as Friends, Garden State, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, CNN Headline News, The Today Show, and many others. It secured the only license from CBS Consumer Products to brew two critically acclaimed Star Trek Golden Anniversary Ales to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the iconic franchise, Star Trek. Shmaltz later released a Collector’s Edition beer commemorating the 30th Anniversary of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Cowan and his team were also invited to brew George Washington’s “Small Beer” recipe in celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the New York Public Library.

From comedy and music events with the likes of Sarah Silverman, Lewis Black, Judy Gold, and Matisyahu, to epic holiday parties Chanukah vs. Christmas: The Battle Royale of Beers, Shmaltz Brewing always served up the perfect punchlines (“Don’t Pass Out, Pass Over”). However, when it came to brewing world-class beer, quality and innovation was no joke. Inspired by Jewish tradition or mystical connections between Moses and Mel Brooks, Cowan and his brewing teams designed unique and compelling experiments — over 150 beers across 4 brand lines — often with high ABVs, hybrid styles, and barrel aged blending that could stand arm-in-arm with the best of the best.