Jeremy Cowan, the owner and chief shtickster at Shmaltz Brewing Company, was the first brewery owner I interviewed. We met in 2008 at City Beer in San Francisco (a great beer store/beer bar, and a must-stop if you are in the Bay Area). Over a couple of hours and more than a couple of beers we talked about Shmaltz, beer, politics, the hop crisis, and Palo Alto real-estate. The man’s brain seemed to run at abnormal speeds. “Shtick” came to him with extraordinary ease, which together with the beers made for an entertaining conversation to say the least.
Reading his recently released book Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah, I almost felt like I had been transported back to that table. It’s written as Cowan speaks. His sense of humor and lightning wit pervades every page. Self-deprecating anecdotes and tales of his personal explorations of Jewishness reveal a deeper soul hidden beneath. The story-line sometimes gets diverted onto tangents, but always manages to find its way back to the center a few paragraphs or pages further on.
Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah, written with James Sullivan, tells the story of the first thirteen years of Shmaltz Brewing Company from its genesis in the late 1980s as an in-joke among volleyball-playing friends to hard-won profitability in the early 2010s. The journey reveals the inner-workings of both the craft-beer industry and Cowan’s mind. The reader goes along with Cowan on sometimes humorously-awkward ride-alongs with distributor reps attempting to sell a case here and a case there. The long hours and financial struggles involved in building a beer brand are described in such vivid detail that it should make one think twice about starting such a project.
At the same time Cowan lets us in on the personal price paid, from crack-fueled parties and broken relationships to a complete mental and emotional breakdown culminating in an attempt to sell the business. But it is ultimately his boundless energy and stubborn determination to make the business prosper – or even turn a profit – that holds the story together.
The conversational tone of the writing was sometimes too much. I found myself at times wanting more traditional structure and narrative to help me make sense of things. Keeping track of names and relationships proved a difficult task throughout the book. While necessary for setting the stage, I found the early, pre-Shmaltz portions of the book to be less interesting and less well-written. I sometimes had difficulty following the story. Once the first batch of beer is brewed however, the book definitely picks up steam.
Craft Beer Bar Mitzah is a good read for anyone interested in a behind-the-scenes look at the beer industry and must-read for anyone starting on the path to owning a brewery, especially those who choose to go the contract brewing route. It’s an object lesson in what not to do, and sometimes what to do, to make your business succeed.