By Jake Tulsky
Schmaltz. The backbone of Jewish comfort food. Otherwise known as chicken fat, Schmaltz is what makes Matzo Ball Soup so savory, Knishes so crispy, and Chopped Liver so, well, chicken-y.
And while your casual deli fan might not think beer when the word Schmaltz is thrown around, hop heads far and wide automatically associate the Jewish animal fat with one of our country’s finest and most well-established craft breweries – Shmaltz Brewing Company. I recently had the opportunity to speak with Shmaltz founder and owner Jeremy Cowan on a range of topics -- from the company’s history, to contract brewing, to his vision for sustaining a valued brand. Our conversation was a continuation of a great time spent with the Shmaltz crew during Philly Beer Week 2015.
Even if you’ve never tried their beers, you might just recognize Shmaltz from the company’s creative marketing. Whether it’s the beer’s names, flavors, or imaginative artwork, everything Shmaltz produces is done with a sense of humor. And that creativity and humor rings true when speaking with Jeremy about the company.
The Shmaltz story is a fascinating one. As Jeremy puts it, the company was originally founded in 1996 as a joke between friends in his San Francisco apartment. He made 100 cases of his first beer, He’Brew Genesis Ale, for Hanukkah, and distributed them out of the back of his grandmother’s car. Fast forward to 2015 and Shmaltz is distributed in over 37 states and produces upwards of 30,000 barrels annually – almost of third of which is He’Brew – Shmaltz’s most popular brand (which includes Hop Manna, She’Brew, Messiah Nut Brown Ale, Genesis Ale, Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A., St. Lenny’s, Slingshot, Wishbone, and more)
2013 was a big year for Shmaltz as the brewery opened the doors to its current production facility and headquarters in Clifton Park, NY. As Jeremy explained, “when we opened the brewery in 2013, I started emphasizing the company a bit more because now we had a facility, a home”.
Prior to 2013, Shmaltz produced much of their beer via contract brewing. Often criticized within the beer world, contract brewing is the practice of hiring another brewer or brewery to physically produce your beer. However, as some see it as an inauthentic brewing practice, the reality is a different story. Contract brewing allows brewers to produce a fantastic product without huge capital expenditures and significant debt. Lift back the craft beer curtain and you’ll soon realize that contract brewing is much more pervasive than you think – and that’s not a bad thing! For starters, it’s what allowed Shmaltz to get to where it is today; a world class brewery that was able to expand at a fiscally responsible pace. Shmaltz’s steady rate of expansion, eased by contract brewing, allowed them to continually innovate while remaining financially stable.
It’s one thing to start a brewery and make some creative, tasty beers. But it’s quite another to turn that brewery into a viable business, and that’s exactly what Shmaltz has done. That said, Jeremy and the team couldn’t help but poke a little fun at contract brewing with their Black IPA release, Death of a Contract Brewer in 2013 – the year they ceased contract brewing for all Shmaltz’s brands.
In much the same way that Shmaltz places an emphasis on responsible and sustainable growth, Jeremy is proud, and rightfully so, of the brewery’s commitment to its staff. As he shared, Shmaltz has grown much of its production team from within. Lead brewer, Richie Saunders, for example, worked his way up the food chain. Starting as member of the production staff, Richie is now in charge of taking Shmaltz’s beers to new heights with bold offerings like Bock Bock, a Munich Imperial Lager aged in bourbon barrels for up to 2 years.
When Jeremy and I spoke about where he sees the business going within the next 5 to 10 years, his response was decidedly blunt: “If I look back on the craft beer world 10 years ago it looks like a completely different universe, so it’s hard for me to know for sure what the future holds. But my goal for Shmaltz is to stay on the smaller side and to have managed growth…to keep my team motivated and incentivized to succeed in producing the amazing, high-end barrel-aged beers and innovative strong ales and lagers that we’ve become known for.”
It’s been a good ride for Shmaltz Brewing Company. Here’s to hoping the success continues.
Published August 2015