Friday, September 11, 2015

Interview with Jeremy Cowen, Founder of Shmaltz Brewing Company

A couple weeks ago, I had the pleasure to speak with Jeremy Cowan, the founder of Shmaltz Brewing Company, to discuss the history of the brewery, the release of St. Lenny's Belgian Rye Double IPA, as well as the future of the brewery along with where the craft brewing industry is headed as a whole. In addition to running Shmaltz, Jeremy is also the also the author of the book Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah: How It Took 13 Years, Extreme Jewish Brewing, and Circus Sideshow Freaks to Make Shmaltz Brewing an International Success.

Before we start, I want to give a special thanks to Jeremy for sitting down and speaking with me. When I first started this blog, never in a million years did I think I would ever have the chance to sit down with someone like Jeremy, let alone anyone who is in charge of a brewery that is as well-known & renowned as Shmaltz.

How did Shmaltz Brewing first get started? Where did the name come from?

Schmaltz is chicken fat in Yiddish and so the idea was kind of like a nostalgic comfort food but for a new generation with craft beer. Shmaltz also means kind of an irreverent, corny sense of humor like Sid Caesar and Mel Brooks and I wanted to tie in that in with most of the beers that we do. In the middle of the word Shmaltz is the word “malt” and malt is obviously a very important ingredient in craft beer; There’s a lot of different types of malts and we take our recipes very seriously and we also try to have a lot of fun along the way.

And the name He’Brew, where does that come from?

He’Brew was an inside joke with from some of my friends is high school and we thought it’d be funny to have a beer called He’Brew and the tagline would be: Don’t Pass out, Passover.

Before we start talking about a beer you recently released, I did a little research and you released a beer called Death of a Contract Brewer recently. Now I’ll be honest with you, up until that point, I thought you had your own brewery but is a brewery of your own a more recent thing?

Yes, for 18 ½  years I was contract brewing in Northern California & New York. So when we opened the brewery of our own, I decided to put out a commemorative beer for our first grand opening party and decided to call it Death of a Contract Brewer. It’s a Black IPA; it’s brewed with 7 malts, 7 hops, 7% Alcohol and it ties into a to a Jewish ritual called Shiva, which is 7 days of mourning but also comfort for families that lose a loved one. We bring food and sometimes even alcohol and comfort family so kind of a riff on Shiva. Shiva means seven in Hebrew and so we used the 7 malts, 7 hops and 7% ABV. It was the first black IPA we ever made and it ended up getting a 97 on RateBeer. We had some labels level over after the party and we decided make some more batches and it became a permanent member of the family of beers. And this week…..actually next week, we are packaging our first ever 12-oz bottle 4-packs and those come out for Halloween so we’re really about it. We redid the packaging, redid the brand but kept to the same awesome recipe and we’re very excited about this new launch of 4-packs.

Now let’s talk about St. Lenny’s. First off, who is “Lenny?”

Lenny is Lenny Bruce, he was a Jewish Comedian in the 50’s & 60’s. We did a beer called Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A. that was a tribute to him for our 10th Anniversary and the 40th Anniversary of his passing and it’s a 10% Alcohol, rye-based double IPA. 

Lenny Bruce

So for our collaboration with a friend of mine when we opened the brewery, we decided to do a Belgian version of that called St. Lenny’s, which is our 3rd year of doing that beer and this is actually going to be our last year we do that but it’s been really awesome beer. I love the flavors, they’re totally wild & unique and it’s a very exciting beer & fun to share with friends and beer geeks.

Now you said of friend of yours works at Cathedral Square?

Yes, Brian Neville is the brewmaster for Cathedral Square. He brews a lot of different Belgian beers so he had suggested we do this. He had talked about the collaboration and suggested this direction and then he actually came up with all the schtick, which was really awesome. The collaboration has been called The Immaculate Collaboration between Shmaltz Brewing. He’brew and Cathedral Square in St. Louis.

As you probably already know, I had the St. Lenny’s a couple days ago. Fantastic beer, great job on that! I mean, I loved it. It was a nice Belgian ale.

Thank you!

Now you said it was the last year you're going to be doing St. Lenny’s, is there a reason for that or just because?

It’s just a good time. Brian and I will continue to collaborate on smaller ones in St. Louis proper. He’s brewing small batch recipes. We did Saint Jewbelation at the end of last year and we released that in the tasting room and he sold some in St. Louis. This year we’re doing an Imperial Pomegranate Saison that’s aged in his bourbon barrels for about 6-8 months & we’re just calling it the Immaculate Collaboration now. It’s pretty cool, he packages them and takes our recipe and tweaks it a little bit, uses his yeast, and the first one, we used our Funky Jewbelation barrels and in the second one, he used his AvĂ© Maria barrels and we get some for our tasting room and he gets some in St. Louis. It’s a cool project, so that will continue.

Since opening up this brewery in Clifton Park, NY, what would you say has been the biggest challenge for you personally?

Probably just balancing, trying to manage a national brand. We’re a very small company still. People think that because we’ve been around for a long time….we are spread very thin around the country and sometimes people think we’re a bigger company than we really are but I think that’s a good testament to how hard we work to spread the word; Being able to manage that. I have a wonderful national sales manager, I’ve got an amazing art director, I’ve a wonderful marketing manager but still I have to supervise the national brand and with 50 wholesalers around the country. We’re constantly putting out new products and new packaging and tweaking brands. At the same time, I’ve taken over being the senior supervisor of the factory and the brewery, so I’m involved with everything from staff to facilities and processed materials & equipment. So that’s been a big challenge, I never thought I would be learning about the production size and the depth that I’ve had to in the past couple of years.

What do you think the future holds for Shmaltz?

Well next year is our 20th anniversary, which is astounding to me. We’re going to be releasing a slew of new beers. We’ve got a barrel-aging program that’s up to about 400+ barrels, which is pretty exciting for a small company like ours. We’ve got sours, we’ve got straight barrel-aged projects coming out for next year. We’re bringing back a beer called R.I.P.A. on rye and that I think will be our IPA on rye instead of St. Lenny’s & it’s a rye barrel-aged version of our Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A. 

Then Funky Jewbelation is our crazy-ass, barrel aged blend that we do once a year and we’ll have that coming out January for SF (San Francisco) Beer Week & New York Beer Week. For the beginning of year, we’re coming pretty strong with a couple of very special barrel-aged beers. Then there are a bunch of fun beer that we’ll be working on, that will be like the second year . Like Wishbone, our Session Double IPA, which went over really well last year. 8% ABV, summer double IPA, which is a little lighter than our 10% version but still pretty robust.

We’ve got our second year collaboration with the Pink Boots Society, they sponsor International Women’s collaboration brew day. So we did a beer called She’Brew this year and we’re going to do another giant IPA next year. With Triple IPAs, we’re going to experiment with that and have some fun. The years will just roll out with everything from variety packs to special release, barrel-aged stuff to focusing on a beer like Slingshot, which is the newest member of our core brand of beers. I love this beer, it’s a lager, which we really don’t do as much of since I sold the Coney Island Brands. 

We have two new lagers, Slingshot, which is year round and it’s 5% golden lager with rye & wheat and some Northwest hops.  We brewed Slingshot sort of as a lager for ale drinkers, so far the response has been really positive, it has a 97 on RateBeer and have gotten really wonderful reviews from folks who’ve had the chance to try it. We have one more barrel-aged monster called Bock Bock and it’s a huge Imperial Munich/Vienna Lager aged in fresh bourbon barrels for about 9 months and will come in around 11% ABV.

Right now, what is your personal favorite beer at the brewery?

Two days ago, I tired our brand new Reunion Ale. Each year we do a collaboration with Terrapin Brewing Company. It’s basically a big brown ale and each year we add different spices and tweak it and twist it and turn it around. 

This year we added, we made a big change to it which is pretty cool. I just tried it for the first time two nights ago and it’s an 8% ABV brown ale brewed with Chocolate, Cinnamon, Mexican Chili, vanilla, cocoa nibs and this year we added pumpkin for the first time. I swore that I would never make a pumpkin beer but somehow it just seemed like the thing to do this year. So we added pumpkin, nutmeg, allspice, and ginger. Then we brewed the entire thing with Belgian yeast, the same yeast we used in St. Lenny’s. It’s super fun, even with all those ingredients, it’s surprisingly balanced and manageable. It’s not super crazy, off-the-chart flavors. I just thought it was really effective and totally delicious; I just wanted to drink all of it.

If you could go back in time and tell yourself anything when you first started professionally brewing, what would it be?

The advice I give to new brewers all the time is to spend more time researching the industry. You can’t know all the pitfalls and twists & turns you’re going to run into. I mean, I had literally no idea what I was doing. When I first started, it was complete experiment, I had no experience in business or in brewing. So I spent years scrambling the vocabulary and the structure and the basic rules of the industry. I did a lot of research on as I was getting started, so most of my learning had to happen while I was doing the thing I was doing that I was trying to learn about and that has been extremely difficult over the years but once you get into the thick of it, you’re so busy and so stressed out that it’s very hard to take a step back and spend the time to learn what you’re supposed to do while you’re in the middle of doing it. So I always tell people and younger brewers who are just getting into the industry to take an extra 6 months or even a year to just learn and ask more questions.
It’s crazy now that they have classes. 

Now they have books and entire classes on how to start your own small brewery that we certainly never had back then unless you went to a graduate school program. Now there are so many more resources online and through publications, so it is a great time to start a brewery. On the one hand, there’s so many more resources and on the other hand there’s twice as many breweries as there were three years ago. It’s a pretty competitive place right now.

Speaking of which, every once in awhile, you’ll hear talk of a craft beer bubble bursting. Do you necessarily believe that?

No, I don’t think it’s a bubble, it’s just a massive expansion but a lot of the expansion has been local breweries with local beer and local markets. I tasted so many delicious beers around the country in the last two years. A few people say there is quality concerns but I tasted beers from the biggest craft brewers that have had quality questions and I don’t see it as an avalanche of closing that’s going to come up. What I think is going to be hard is that it’s going to be harder for small brewers to become medium size and get to that second and third step up; Whether it’s just demand for local beer or beyond the neighborhood. That’s a challenge because everybody’s next door neighbor has craft beer now, unlike 10 years ago. 

The specification as far as what it takes to manage wholesalers instead of self-distributing, what does it take to manage 20-30 staff instead of 2 or 3 & how difficult it is to make money in this industry when you have people coming into it who’ve had real jobs and 2 or 3 partners and then they realize “Wow, margins are slim and costs are high.” It’s a challenge to earn a living that you might make outside the industry, but there is enormous room for growth still. Just think about how many Walmarts, Targets, Grocery & Convenience stores there are out there and chain bars & restaurants that are way underrepresenting what craft beer could be in the coming years. That could be those top 50, top 100 national brands and then the local guys fill in something special & unique in any given market. I think there could be a very robust future.

Relating to that, earlier this year there was that Budweiser Commercial and their “Proud to be Macrobrewed” campaign and how it was a testament to how great they were. Some people out there have said that with this commercial, Budweiser was declaring war on craft beer. What are your thoughts on that?

Well, that’s just marketing. That’s their job but in my opinion, they’re not declaring war on craft beer because they have bought 2-3 craft breweries in the last 18 months so they obviously see future of craft beer as relevant and they’re committed to it. So I think that was that was their marketing department having a good time and then the probably someone else in that organization should’ve said “Hey by the way, we own Goose Island, Blue Point, 10 Barrel, & Elysian.”  Elysian has a pumpkin beer that they were making fun of, so I think their marketing department was having a good time….and that’s fine. If nothing else, it creates a wonderful conversation at a national level. None of us have the ability or budget to generate that kind of hype in that short of a period for all the people that then say “Well, that was rude” or “That was small minded” or  “Stupid." Then you have the rest of us, who get to post something on Facebook to get a kick out of it and respond.

I think that the macro beers will never go away but this country loves blockbusters. We love blockbuster movies, we love whatever the biggest selling thing is. When quantity is sometimes more important than quality in this country and prince is sometimes something we’re never going to be able to compete with at that level. At the same time, look at the ridiculous growth this industry has seen year after year based on really word-of-mouth marketing. I mean, there’s no big national marketing for any of the top 50 craft breweries in this country with the exception of Sam Adams, but whoever it is: Dogfish, Founders or these wonderful, regional breweries like Firestone Walker. 

They’re growing like crazy because of the quality of their products and they do a little bit of a better job managing their sales and marketing and that’s something we should all be proud of. It’s that the American consumer is understanding that and excited about it. There’s almost no other example as I look around at the marketplace of where quality wins consistently over quantity and muscle. It’s not in banking or real estate, there are no luxury items like craft beer that’s so inexpensive compared to it’s competitor. It costs a couple dollars more to buy a luxury beer compared to wine or spirits, they could cost 5-10 or even 20 times more . That story is so impressive and so amazing and we should be proud of being part of that. It doesn’t happen in music, it doesn’t happen in art, it doesn’t happen in the movies. It doesn’t happen anywhere else except in a grocery store really so the fact we are able to accomplish that is incredible.

Once again, I want to extend my thanks to Jeremy Cowan for giving me the chance to speak with him. I enjoyed speaking with him and I wish him the best of luck with the new brewery!

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