Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah: the First Thirteen Years of Shmaltz Brewing Company

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.

Rejewvenator 2009

I Picked up a bottle of the 2009 Rejewvenator “Shmoppelbock” from Shmaltz Brewing/Hebrew. Hailed as the “second coming of Rejewvenator” on the Shmaltz website, this is a slightly different beer than last year. The base recipe seems to be the same, a doppelbock brewed with lager yeast, Belgian Trappist ale yeast, and Belgian abbey ale yeast.  The kicker this year is dates. While last year’s Rejewvenator was brewed with loads of tasty fig juice, 2009 is “the year of the date”, introducing date concentrate into the mix. Here’s my notes:

Hebrew Rejewvenator 2009Rejewvenator ’09
Shmaltz Brewing Company, San Francisco, California
Style: Doppelbock on a date with a Belgian Dubbel
Serving Style: 22 oz. Bottle

Aroma: Initially the aroma was all about caramel malt with a pronounced sugary “Belgian” banana and spice yeast character. A good deal of dark fruit aroma was apparent, but nothing that I would describe as “date”. Like a blind date gone good, the date aroma revealed itself in my glass as the evening went on and the beer warmed in my glass.
Appearance: A lovely clear mahogany/amber with light red highlights. Creamy off white foam that lingered. Legs that went all the way up to the edge of the glass when swirled.
Flavor: Rich caramel malt with a sharper bitterness than expected. Spicy hop flavors accentuate the spicy character of the Belgian yeasts. While the dates may not come through immediately in the aroma, they certainly do in the flavor, giving the beer a sweet fruitiness. The flavor of the dates, however, doesn’t quite complement the flavors of the base beer the way that the fig did in last year’s version. Alcohol is apparent, perhaps more than it should be for 7.8% ABV. Finish is sharp and dry like a lager.
Mouthfeel: Lager-like crispness with balancing residual sugar creaminess. Higher than desired alcohol warmth. Medium carbonation.
Overall Impression: While I think that 2008’s fig juice was a better match overall with the base beer, the dates weren’t bad. A nice twist on an already solid beer. I found this beer a touch boozy for the level of alcohol. Otherwise, this was a full-bodied, rich, sweet, fruity beer with the kind of style-bending complexity that I expect from Shmaltz owner Jeremy Cowan. I definitely enjoyed it.

Malty Beer Night

Saturday, March 21st was Firkin Fest at the Happy Gnome. For those of us wanting to enjoy good beer and good company without the hype and crowd of a festival, there was Malty Beer Night with the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club. Seven people gathered at the home of fellow club member Kevin Butler to chew on cheese, munch on malt, and best of all drink a lot of great malt forward beers. This was the first of three monthly meetings that will explore the flavor contributions of beer’s three main ingredients, malt, hops, and yeast. April is hop month for any interested hopheads out there.

The night started with Fuller’s ESB. Chosen to show a balanced representation of all three ingredients, this Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkelbeer starts with a sharp bitterness and herbal hop that quickly gives way to luscious caramel/toffee malt with a good dose of yeast derived fruit. It was a favorite for the night. From there it was on to an assortment of full-on malt focused beers, starting with Weihenstephaner Munich Helles. Like an under-hopped pilsner, this beer features clean bready malt with moderate bitterness and a background of spicy continental hops. This was followed by another southern German lager, Ayinger Altbairisch Dunkel showcasing deep toasty bread crust malt. Another crowd pleaser, we emptied these bottles early.

Three Feet DeepThe next beers brought us closer to home with a local and a regional pick. A growler of Hope and King Scotch Ale from Town Hall Brewery in Minneapolis introduced the rich, nutty sweetness of caramel malt with just a hint of roast. This growler didn’t last long either. For real roast malt character we had Three Feet Deep smoked stout from Furthermore Beer in Wisconsin. This is a somewhat sweet dry stout with nice coffee and chocolate flavors and a subtle smoke from the use of peat smoked malt. While this was one of my favorites for the night, others found the smoke to be too intense. Oh well, more for me.

At this point, we moved into the realm of big beers starting with Celebrator Doppelbock. Rich, toasty, caramel flavors meld with malt derived, raisiny, dark fruit notes and a pleasantly warming alcohol to make this another winner for the event. Or maybe it was the added bonus of the little plastic goat that comes withHebrew Rejewvenator every bottle. Next was Rejewvenator, a doppelbock/Belgian dubbel hybrid brewed with fig juice from Shmaltz Brewing/Hebrew Beer. The group was split on this one as some found the figs to be too intense. We closed the night with Back Burner Barleywine from Southern Tier. This was the only beer of the night that I had not already tried. The description on the bottle and on the Southern Tier website led me to expect a big, malt-forward, English style barleywine. Unfortunately (for the event, not for the beer) the bitterness was too intense and the hop flavor was decidedly American. While it was a tasty beer, it wasn’t quite the malty sweet English barleywine that I was going for.

One thing at this event that all found helpful was having examples of brewers malt on hand to chew on and compare to the flavors in the beers. There were six malts to taste including two base malts, pilsner and Munich, as well as English and American caramel malts, Belgian Special B toasted malt, and English chocolate malt to represent the dark roasted malts. Some of us decided, myself included, that a little bit of Munich malt would be a great addition to breakfast cereal. All in all, good company and good beer made for a good time. The next Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club will be on April 10th. Hoppy Beers is the theme. Come check us out.