Ten years ago, Jeremy Cowan could be seen driving around San Francisco in his grandmother's Volvo, hand-delivering bottles of his homemade beer to local merchants. The label featured a smiling, cartoonish-like rabbi and a tongue-in-cheek name — "He'Brew."
The idea may have started out as a gag between Cowan and some of his friends, but he soon realized that he had tapped into a niche market — and that his beer tasted pretty good.
Now, after selling more than 2 million bottles of beer in 25 different states, He'Brew is anything but a novelty.
Following in the footsteps of West Coast "craft beers" — bascially, microbrews — like Sierra Nevada and Pete's Wicked Ale, He'Brew emphasizes quality in their hops and malts, according to its makers. Brewed and bottled in Brooklyn these days, He'Brew is also reaching a wide array of Jews.
"Our audience stretches from religious — some Orthodox — to totally unaffiliated people who drink it while they watch 'The Producers' with their friends," said Cowan.
That first batch — Genesis Pale Ale — remains the company's flagship product. To celebrate its 10th anniversary, "The Chosen Beer" has developed Genesis 10:10, a Rosh Hashanah blend that includes pomegranate juice, from the fruit that symbolizes righteousness in the Jewish tradition. The company also recently released Lenny Bruce R.I.P.A., an India pale ale that serves as a tribute to the 40th anniversary of the death of the controversial comedian and rebellious free-speech activist. The company is also set to release Monumental Jewbilation, which contains 10 malts and 10 hops for added flavor.
"All these beers are what I feel like drinking, and want to put out to the world," explained Cowan. "I'm not concerned about beer style."
Each anniversary beer contains 10 percent alcohol — almost double the amount of most other beers on the market. All He'Brew products are kosher, assured Cowan, and, in accordance with the Jewish tradition of tzedakah, a portion of the profits goes to charity.
While he does not consider himself especially observant, Cowan takes pride in studying Judaism and frequently puts biblical quotes, as well as Jewish jokes, on the labels of his various beverages.
"It's a way for me to explore and celebrate my own Jewish identity in a way that's meaningful for me," he said.
For example, for the Genesis 10:10 label, "I've been reading the book of Genesis over and over, looking for fodder, but at the same time learning and having fun."
While the beers' names and labels can draw laughs, don't tell Cowan that He'Brew is a "joke beer."
"There's a use of humor and a use of word-play," he explained. "But I feel really proud of it. It's finding a way to take a sensitive subject, like religious cultural identity, and at the same time, have a lot of fun making something funky and creative around it."
He'Brew has garnered some national media attention, with mentions on "The Today Show," and articles in The New York Times and in Newsweek. There was even a mention of He'Brew on the hit TV show "Friends."
"It feels good to start having the beer pop up in places I never thought of," said Cowan. "To become part of someone else's creative process is pretty fantastic."
To the company's credit, Jewbilation 5766 won Best Winter Beer in Show by Pacific Brew News last year, while Monumental Jewbilation earned a five-star rating in the beer publication Celebrator Beer News.
In his opinion, the attention to detail in the brewing should make it suitable for anyone with a taste for fine beer — and that doesn't mean just Jews.
Proclaimed Cowan: He'Brew can be mentioned "in the same conversation as the best craft beers in country."