Above: Jeremy Cowan is the founder of the Shmaltz Brewing Co.
Beer lovers in Georgia have smiled a lot more since the state General Assembly approved the sale of high-gravity craft brews in 2004.
“After they flipped the alcohol cap, they had this incredible renaissance here,” said Jeremy Cowan, the founder of New York-based Shmaltz Brewing Co., who was in Atlanta recently to promote a new distribution deal with a local vendor.
“It was the first time you had access to all these incredible flavors, so we rushed into that and got really excited about it,” he said. “Now Georgia has a very vibrant beer culture, but it’s more crowded than ever. And the challenge down here is how do you carve out space for yourself, make a name for yourself and keep people’s attention. So we’re working to do just that.”
Cowan spoke to the AJT at an Aug. 10 event at The General Muir to celebrate Shmaltz’s distribution deal with Liberator Distributing. The company, located in Tucker, is just what Shmaltz needs right now, he said. “We’re excited to be with them. They’re a small company that reminds me a lot of when I got started 20 years ago: very passionate, excited about the beers they represent but with a lot more experience than many people who (become) distributors.”
He said Liberator is a new wholesaler. It buys beer such as He’brew from small, talented breweries, then turns around and sells the beer to bars, restaurants and retail stores.
“They are very selective about the beers they choose,” Cowan said. “We can now work together to introduce Shmaltz beers to Atlanta in a way that we were unable to do in the last couple of years. That’s been a big challenge.”
Part of that challenge is competing with hyperlocal beer being made around the country, Cowan said. By law, brewers must go through a distributor to sell their product.
“The sale channel gets incredibly busy and competitive,” he said. “Wholesalers now have access to all their local brewers, so it gets harder and harder to compete. There are very limited options for us.”
Cowan’s brewing career began in 1996 in San Francisco, where the first batches of He’brew, his signature creation, were hand-bottled and delivered from the trunk of his grandmother’s Volvo.
His company now has 33 employees and operates from a 20,000-square-foot facility in Clifton Park, N.Y., with a capacity of 35,000 barrels a year. Other beers in the Shmaltz roster include Messiah Nut Brown Ale, Jewbelation, Hop Manna, and Circum Session, a limited-edition ale that started out as an April Fool’s joke.
“If you’re in the beer world and you’re not having fun, you’re probably not doing the job right,” Cowan said. “People still think of Jews as not big beer drinkers, so beer and Judaism seem kind of an oxymoron. … But my dad was at a Jewish fraternity in Berkeley in the early ’60s, and I’m pretty sure they were drinking just as much beer as their non-Jewish neighbors.”
Cowan loves playing with stereotypes, he said, “whether through the packaging, the recipes or the shtick at our events. To me, that’s a really meaningful outlet. The minute anyone reads the stories I’ve written on the side of the labels or looks at our website, they will get a deeper appreciation of what I’m trying to do, which is infuse the most American of products – beer – with a sense of Jewish whimsy and history and innovative connections and sensibility. That I’ve survived 20 years is completely shocking.”