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Michael Agnew's picture

How to Build a Brewery with Jeremy Cowan of Shmaltz Brewing Co.

Jeremy Cowan is an idea guy. Conversing with him means keeping up with a mind that whirs at 110 mph. Concepts and connections seem to spin effortlessly from his head, most often expressed with a touch of humor. Cowan’s clever wit is immediately apparent. Puns and jokes – mostly subtle, sometimes not – pour out of his mouth in a steady stream. “Shtick” is what he calls it. Combined with an ebullient, extroverted demeanor, these two attributes make Cowan the perfect front man for the Jewish circus sideshow that is Shmaltz Brewing Company.


I first met Jeremy Cowan in October, 2008 at City Beer Store in San Francisco. Over a couple of hours, and more than a couple of beers, we talked about Shmaltz, beer, politics, the hop crisis, and the price of Palo Alto real estate. Shmaltz was still in its bi-coastal phase then. Cowan’s address was in San Francisco and the beer was made in New York. I say Cowan’s address was in San Francisco because he didn’t spend much time there. He was in the midst of a years-long promotional tour that had him couch surfing from city to city. The Shmaltz home office was little more than a P.O. Box and Cowan’s phone. He maintained a storefront for his Coney Island brand on Surf Avenue in Brooklyn, billed as “The World’s Smallest Brewery.” 

At the time we met, the hop shortage of 2008 was at full intensity. With each overdone IPA we drank, Cowan beefed about the conspicuous excesses of other brewers at a time when he couldn’t get the basic hops needed to produce his beers. The shtick kept coming, too. He mused about a possible collaboration with Oskar Blues called Oskar Jews and Jewish Blues, with beers commemorating Jewish bluesmen and famous Jews named Oskar. It was a memorable and amusing conversation. 

Cowan stepped into the beer industry from a different direction than most. Brewers typically start with a set of beers that they want to make and build a brand around it. But Cowan wasn’t a brewer when he founded Shmaltz in 1996. By his own admission he knew relatively little about beer. True to his nature, Cowan built his company on an idea – a Coors Light-fueled joke among high school friends that the Jews should have their own beer. The beer would be called He’brew and the tagline would be “Don’t pass out, Passover.” The shtick came first. The beers and the company were built around it. 


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