In 1996, Jeremy Cowan brewed the "first, only, and best Jewish celebration beer," what is now Genesis Ale, the flagship beer of the Shmaltz Brewing Company. Cowan delivered the beer around the San Francisco Bay area in his grandmother's car, since he didn't have a car of his own.
Perhaps, as it says on the bottle, it was because it had the "chutzpah to declare itself The Chosen Beer," but the popularity of He'Brew beers took off. Cowan added a dark brown ale, Messiah Bold, and in 2003, moved all the brewing operations to the Mendocino Brewing Company's East Coast brewery in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Today, Shmaltz offers 11 regular beers through both the He'Brew line and the new Coney Island Craft Lagers brand. Last year the company brewed 3,000 barrels, and this year hopes to sell 5,500 barrels.
The name of the company and the revelations on the labels tell you that this is a company that has fun making beer. The tagline reads, "Award Winning Beer. Delicious Schtick." In 2006 they introduced a double IPA brewed with rye as a tribute to controversial comic Lenny Bruce. The label claims Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A. is "brewed with an obscene amount of malt and hops," resulting in "shocking flavors far beyond contemporary community standards."
Cowan admits that humor is an important part of the company's identity, but says that they are very serious about their mission as a Jewish brewing company. All of their beers are certified kosher, and their Origin, brewed with pomegranate, and Rejewvenator, brewed with fig juice, draw inspiration for ingredients from the Old Testament. Jews might be more closely associated with sweet wines than with brewing, but Cowan points out that Jews have been involved in craft brewing since its early days. Pete Slosberg of Pete's Wicked Ale, Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada, and Alan Newman of Magic Hat are all Jewish.
With the Coney Island brand, introduced last year and expanded this year, Cowan has the opportunity to step a little further beyond the norm. Sales of the three regular beers and two seasonals in the lineup benefit Coney Island USA, a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to the preservation of American popular culture and entertainment. They operate the Coney Island Museum and sponsor an old-fashioned circus sideshow, a film festival, the Mermaid Parade, the Coney Island Tattoo and Motorcycle Festival, and a burlesque show.
The new Coney Island lagers pay tribute to the sideshow performers, and the labels feature their portraits illustrated by Brooklyn tattoo artist Dave Wallin. Sword Swallower Steel Hop Lager honors 19-year-old sword swallower Heather Holliday, while the Albino Python White Lager is inspired by Serpentia the Snake Charmer's white serpent. Albino Python is this week's beer pick . Look for the blood-red Freaktoberfest in September, and in January, the Human Blockhead Tough-as-Nails Lager featuring Donny Vomit, whose act includes hammering a spike into his skull. "We have really had fun with the marketing on these," said Cowan recently, admittedly still bleary from a party the night before. "We have been gearing our events to the punk and tattoo culture and really gone all out."
All of the Coney Island beers are lagers, a rarity for craft beers. "We're trying to take lagers in a new direction and make them more interesting," Cowan says. "Coney Island Lager is a very approachable amber lager, but it is brewed with eight malts and six hops to create a very complex profile that will appeal to beer connoisseurs."
The other beers in the line are as unusual as the freaks who adorn them. The Albino Python is brewed in the tradition of Belgian wheat ale with orange peel and coriander, along with ginger and fennel, but fermented using lager yeast. Unlike any other lager that I know of, it is unfiltered and should be swirled to put the yeast and other elements that have settled to the bottom into suspension. The Sword Swallower is a hefty all-malt American lager brewed with rye, wheat and Vienna malts that weighs in at 6.8 percent ABV.
Coney Island Lager, Sword Swallower Steel Hop Lager, and Albino Python White Lager are available now at local area liquor stores. You can also sample them at a beer dinner planned for Aug. 18 at Muss & Turner's in Smyrna. Call the restaurant at 770-434-1114 for details.