When Jeremy Cowan, the founder of Shmaltz Brewing Company, says there is biblical inspiration behind his David’s Slingshot Hoppy Summer Lager, you think he must have visions of his brewery slaying his larger competitors. But that’s not the case.
“The inspiration came from stories about King David in his youth,” said Cowan.“when he wasn’t the king and he was just a punk, loud-mouthed shepherd.”
Or in Cowan’s case, a relatively small craft brewer.
In Philadelphia last week for a pub-crawl to celebrate the opening of the company’s new brewery in Upstate New York, Cowan acknowledged that there is no stone large enough to take down Budweiser or Miller — the Goliaths of the beer world. He said his company, which makes kosher He’Brew beers with names like Rejewvenator and has been around since 1996, is still about merging his interest in Judaism with beer.
“We’re not going to conquer anybody,” said Cowan, 44. “Craft beer is not about domination. It’s about giving people something special that’s delicious and unique, and if they start thinking that that is a better life, then so be it.”
Cowan, who a few years ago wrote Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah about his first 13 years in the business, appears sincere in his effort to stay true to his initial mission.
“The Jewish stuff is important for me because that’s why I started the company,” said Cowan, who comes from a Reform Jewish background and lived in Israel for half a year as a participant in Livnot U’Lehibanot, a volunteer program.
He still researches the Torah and other sources in developing the labels and writing the descriptions for his beers — but he also admits that “it’s supposed to be lighthearted.”
“It’s not supposed to be heavy-handed,” Cowan said. “So many people, you watch them at synagogues, they lose their connections to the Jewish experience because they don’t feel it’s as compelling to them. The point of this is to make something that is very relevant and compelling and delicious and fun and has some substance to it.”
The biggest recent change for the company happened in May, when after years of contracting with other brewers in the San Francisco Bay Area and the Northeast to use their facilities to make Shmaltz's beer, the company opened its own production facility in Clifton Park, N.Y., just outside the state capital.
Also, before the Philadelphia pub crawl, Shmaltz Brewery played on a recent trend among craft brewers and aged their beer in other vessels aside from the usual stainless steel containers. More than a year ago, Cowan said he decided he wanted to use tequila barrels and started looking for places that distilled the liquor.
He found a match in a Mexican restaurant at 16th and Locust Streets, Tequila, that makes the liquor and was the first stop on the pub-crawl.
The Siembra Azul Tequila Barrel Aged Albino Python had a zing that made you check to see whether you had mistakenly picked up someone’s shot glass rather than your beer. It had the right sort of punch.
Cowan said using the liquor barrels adds different, enjoyable flavors, but also an element of unpredictability.
“If you do it right and as you get more experienced, you understand what the eccentricities of barrel-aging can be,” Cowan said.
But whether Shmaltz’s beer sits next to the tequilas at a Mexican restaurant or Belgian beers at Monk’s Cafe — the second stop on the pub-crawl — the Jewish connection remains the constant.
He said the experience with Livnot U’Lehibanot “gave me the tools to explore a deeper relationship with my own sense of Jewish history, and it gave me a reason to celebrate and be excited about so many things from Jewish tradition.”
He has since brewed beers like the Hop Manna India Pale Ale, which on the brewery’s website states that “all ye who are wandering the vast macro beer desert, thirst no more!”