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.

This is one of my favorite beers…

A recap of the June Perfect Pint Beer Club meeting.

Happy Pinters Tasting Great BeerLast Friday a record number of Twin Cities Perfect Pinters gathered to taste “some of my favorite beers.” At past events members have mocked me (lovingly of course) for the number of times I say, “This is one of my favorite beers.” Because of this relentless ribbing, I decided to inflict my favorites upon them (lovingly, of course). It was fun to pick beers for this one as I could just go into the store, look around, and say, “Oh yes, that’s good. ” At the same time, when confronted with the chore of picking my favorite beers I had to face the obvious dilemma of where to start.

We started with Bluebird Bitter from Coniston Brewing in England. I have sung the praises of Bluebird Bitter to anyone willing to listen for some time. Light, refreshingly bitter but balanced with caramel and  biscuit malt and wisps of orange marmalade, this is simply a delightful beer. Bluebird Bitter is my “desert island” beer. Mentioning this to the group meant explaining the difference between a “favorite” beer and a “desert island” beer. To me a desert island beer is one that you can drink over and over for an extended period. It should be highly drinkable, meaning not too heavy or alcoholic. It needs enough complexity to keep it interesting, but not so much that it would overwhelm over time. Of course it needs to taste great. That to me describes Consiston Bluebird Bitter.

We followed up the Bluebird with Schlenkerla Helles Lager from Germany’s Heller-Trum brewery, famous for the Aecht Schlenkerla Nick and Corysmoked beers. The Helles Lager has the heart of a solid Munich Helles style lager with bready/grainy malt sweetness and balancing spicy hops. This version is enhanced by a subtle smoke that comes from being brewed in the same equipment as the smoked beers. The smokiness here is not as intense as in the true smoked beers, making it palatable even to those who don’t like smoked beers. Staying on the lighter side, we moved next to Sunburst Ale from Flat Eearth Brewing in St. Paul. One of the many infused ales offered by Flat Earth, Sunburst starts life as the Belgian Pale Ale. An infusion of fresh apricots turns it into an explosion of sunny fruity goodness. As one attendee said, “The name is absolutely appropriate. ” This beer paired beautifully with some sliced melon that our host Alex had prepared.

From there we stepped it up a notch, moving to beers with stronger flavors and higher alcohol, starting with Traquair Jacobite from Traquar House in Scotland. This rich Strong Scotch Ale features luscious caramel and chocolate malt with hints of herbs and spice from coriander in the brewing process. It it tasty and was a big crowd-pleaser, being called, “a beer you take home to meet your mother.” One of the first beers that stood out to me as being something really special, it had been a long time since I had enjoyed a bottle. I’ll try not to let so much time pass before enjoying another.

Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A.I have a reputation in this group for being a “hop hater.” It is a reputation that is undeserved. I love hops. I just want some semblance of balance in a hoppy beer. I’m not a fan of excessively hopped and astringently bitter American IPAs and Double IPAs. There has to be some malt. If that malt has some complexity, that’s even better. To prove my point, we tasted three big, hoppy, American beers, Founders Centennial IPA, Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A from Shmaltz/Hebrew, and Maharaja Double IPA from Avery. Each of these beers expresses intense citrus or pine resin American hop character with assertive bitterness. However, in each one the bitterness is backed up by ample and complex malt that does a bit more than simply provide a hook for the hops to hang on. Each of these beers is world class and fits nicely among my favorite beers.

Next was a swing to the opposite extreme with two hugely malty beers. Koningshoeven Quadrupel, from the Trappist Bierbrouwerij de Koningshoeven in the Netherlands, is a beer that I describe as candy in a bottle, a description that others found apt. The focus here is on sugary sweet caramel malt with intense fruity and spicy cotton candy Belgian yeast character. It’s a big beer at 10% ABV, but remarkably light and oh, so easy to drink. We finished off the night with a special treat, ten year old bottles of J.W. Lee’s Harvest Ale barleywine. This English barleywine from J.W. Lee’s and Company in Manchester is to me what English barleywine is all about. Massive and complex malt with just enough bitterness to keep it from being cloying. The caramel, dark fruit, and sherry-like flavors of this beer were a big hit with everyone there. It is a beer that I find great when it’s young and even better with some age. This example held up well since 1999. It left all of us remarking about how much the world has changed since it was bottled.

To find out more about the Twin Cities Perfect Pint Beer Club click here.

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.

Lager Night

Lager NightThe theme for the April meeting of my monthly “let’s try to taste every beer in the world” beer tasting group was lager. For many, the thought of “lager beer” conjures up images of the pale yellow American style lagers that have become the accepted standard for beer the world over. While those beers do occupy a disproportionate amount the worldwide shelf space, they represent only a small corner of the entire lager universe. Lager styles go from the super light American “Lite” beer to the richly caramel and high alcohol Doppelbock, with a stop at every color and flavor along the way.

The main thing separating a lager beer from an ale is yeast. Lager beers are fermented using what is known in the biz as a “bottom fermenting” yeast, so called because the yeast forms colonies on the bottom of the fermentor instead of at the top as ale yeasts do. Lager yeast also likes to ferment at colder temperatures than ale yeast. This limits the production of fermentation by-products that influence beer flavor and aroma, leading to the characteristic “clean” taste of a lager. Prolonged cold storage after fermentation also enhances this by allowing the yeast to slowly clean up after itself. Another defining characteristic of lager yeast is the ability to ferment trisaccharides, longer chain sugars that ale yeast cannot ferment. The ability to ferment additional sugars leads to a dryer beer, the “crispness” that many people associate with lagers.

For our monthly meeting the only assignment was to bring lagers. It didn’t matter where they were from, how Lager Nightmuch they cost, or what the quality was. They just had to be fermented with a bottom-feeding yeast. In all, sixteen beers were tasted and commented upon ranging from a 2% ABV German light beer to the 10% ABV Human Blockhead from the Shmaltz Brewing Coney Island line. We sampled beers from the US, Germany, Austria, Belgium, and even Wisconsin.

There were a lot of great beers represented here. It’s difficult to pick standouts from the bunch. One of my favorites was Midnight Session Lager from Port Brewing in California. The bottle describes this as a Schwarzbier, but it’s really much too roasty to fit that label. The aroma resemble nothing so much as the burnt old-maids at the bottom of a bowl of popcorn, something I love. The flavor was all roast, with huge Beersel Lagerchocolate and coffee character, but none of the astringent bitterness that often comes with big roasted beers. The only possible flaw was a startlingly quick finish. Whatever you want to call it, I would seek this beer out again. Another favorite and perhaps the most “interesting” beer of the night was the Beersel Lager from Drei Fonteinen in Belgium. Drei Fonteinen is mostly known for their fine sour beers and lambics. The Beersel Lager is lager as you would expect a lambic brewer to make it. It is a cloudy, light bodied beer that starts out bitter but sweetens mid-palate. Nice flavors of light stone fruit and fibrous plant are rounded out by a funky, brettanomyces tinged, dry finish. Also worth mention was the Hacker-Pschorr Kellerbier, a cloudy golden colored beer with a creamy mouthfeel and bready/fruity flavors. The surprise of the night was the Mahr’s Bräu Leicht. At just 2% ABV this little golden lager packs in a ton of malt and hop flavor. It was tasty and you could drink a lot of it in a session without any serious consequences.

While I really can’t say that there were any bad beers in the mix, there were a couple of disappointments. One of these was the Blond Doppelbock from Capital Brewing in Wisconsin. Many of us had tasted this beer in the past and liked it, so this may have been an old or mishandled bottle. Whatever the case, we found it to be flabby, sugary, and full of banana and sulfur flavors and aromas. Also unfortunate was the Kapsreiter Landbier from Austria. Another Kellerbier, this one could not compare to the Hacker-Pschorr example. We found this to be underattenuated and worty, with honey and raw sugar being the dominant flavors. There was very little bitterness to counter the sweetness. One person described this beer as “under-carbonated Duvel.” A final disappointment was the Sam Adams Imperial Series Doppelbock. While not a bad beer, the consensus was that it was “definitely imperial.” The nice caramel malt and spicy hop were marred by a hot and solventy alcohol. And then there was the Mickey’s Malt Liquor……….And then there was the Mickey's Malt Liquor...

The beers tasted were New Glarus Bohemian Lager, Bell’s Lager of the Lakes, Hacker-Pschorr Kellerbier, Kapsreiter Landbier, Beersel Lager, Schlenkerla Helles, Flying Dog Dog Schwarz, Mahr’s Bräu Jubelfest, Mahr’s Bräu Leicht, Mendocino Brewing Company Bock Beer, Capitol Brewing Blond Doppelbock, Sam Adams Imperial Series Doppelbock, Port Brewing Midnight Sessions Lager, Coney Island Human Blockhead, Sam Adams Winter Lager, and Mickey’s Malt Liquor. Those in attendance were Michael Agnew, Tom Graybael, Gera Exire LaTour, Joel Stitzel, Jonathan Crist, and Paul Dienhart.