Chanukah 1996. Jeremy Cowan loaded up a car he borrowed from his grandmother with cases of beer he'd brewed, hoping that a few bars and stores would actually buy it. But with a bearded rabbi as its logo and the name He'Brew, Cowan's beer, though a tasty product, was a hard sell.
From these humble San Francisco beginnings, Cowan has built himself quite a business 15 years later. Eight variations of the "Chosen Beer" are available in bars across America, as well as in chain stores and supermarkets. This year, 130,000 cases of He'Brew have been distributed — a far cry from the 100 he sold in his inaugural run.
With products named Jewbilation, Messiah and Hop Manna, each He'Brew beer tries to offer more than a bit of Jewish schtick along with a buzz. The Genesis 15:15, for example, references a Torah quote about Abraham. The Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A. (the company's India pale ale) is an homage to late Jewish comedian Lenny Bruce.
And, yes, his beers are kosher.
In town for a beer tasting at The Foodery in Northern Liberties on Dec. 18, Cowan acknowledged that he had doubts that his business, Schmaltz Brewing Company, would ever take off.
"Years ago, I thought the whole process would make a better book than a beer company," he said, which is probably why he wrote Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah.
The tale of He'Brew is one of perseverance. Jews aren't a large percentage of the population and they're not notoriously big drinkers, so Cowan focused on baby steps to grow the business.
"I thought, if we can only make it to New York, or we can only make it into a chain store, or we can only make it into Whole Foods — then we'd be successful," said Cowan, whose company has hit all these milestones.
Over the years, the company has seen plenty of results. Ratebeer.com called Shmaltz one of the top 100 breweries in the world. In 2008, Shmaltz was recognized as one of the 20 fastest-growing companies in San Francisco by the San Francisco Business Times.
Still, Cowan hopes the business will double in size but not lose its microbrew luster.
"We're not trying to become the next Samuel Adams. We don't need to be 20 times larger," said Cowan.
Evan Miller, 24, came out to the beer-tasting event to sample a few cold ones and perhaps learn a few tips for the beer he's brewing at home.
"I'm really into craft beers, and this one shows some Jewish pride," said Miller, who is home-brewing a batch of gluten-free beer for his fiancee, Emily, who can't drink most beers because she has a gluten intolerance.
Michael and Alissa Alexander, a couple in their late 30s, came from Abington, hoping to convince Cowan to give a presentation to their synagogue, Temple Sinai in Dresher. Earlier this month, they bought a He'Brew holiday pack and held a beer tasting at the synagogue.
"It's something that could attract a younger, hipper crowd," said Alissa Alexander.
After traveling the country selling his beer and doing lots of book signings over the last few months since the book appeared, Cowan praised Philadelphia for its beer knowledge and selection at stores and bars.
He endorsed Philly's fame as one of the best beer cities around.