I visited Shmaltz Brewing Co., a brewery famous for its sense of humor. But make no mistake, these guys are serious about beer.
This brewery is a joke.
No, seriously, that’s how it started out. In 1996 in San Francisco, Shmaltz brewing founder and owner, Jeremy Cowan, and his college roommates were joking about starting a comedic Jewish-themed brewery, naming it after the Yiddish word for chicken fat (a core ingredient in Jewish comfort food) and brewing a beer called He’Brew: The Chosen Beer.
Thing is, all that happened. And 20 years later, after contract brewing in California, a move to New York City to contract brew there, and, three years ago, opening a physical brewing site in Upstate New York, Shmaltz Brewing is going strong. Jeremy Cowan and his team have a portfolio of award-winning beers under their purview. The joke has turned out to be on anyone who doubted Cowan was serious about beer.
“Our approach these days is to coax people in with humor, then hit them with great beer,” I was told by lead brewer Richie Saunders when I interviewed him and brand new marketing director Greg Chanese at the brewery recently. “We operate on three simple principles: community, quality and shtick. People may get caught up in our Jewish shtick, but we concentrate just as hard if not harder on the other two.”
Sometimes the shtick is super obvious, as in Circum Session Ale or Funky Jewbilation, a barrel-aged strong ale. At other times, it’s more restrained, as with Slingshot, the company’s aromatic lager, designed to take on the goliaths of the industry as David’s sling did in the Old Testament; or Hop Manna, the company’s IPA and biggest seller, which makes up about 20% of production.
Shmaltz has been on a long journey to make its own award-winning beers in Upstate New York, including a funny flip from being contract brewed to becoming a contract brewer. Jeremy Cowan was an outspoken champion of contract brewing for many years, but in 2013 he opened his own brewery on a large site near Saratoga Springs, the town in which Old Saratoga Brewing Company had been contract brewing Shmaltz beers.
At this facility, Saunders, previously a brewer at Old Saratoga, operates an impressive 50 BBL Brewhouse almost 24/7 to brew not only 9,000 BBL of Shmaltz beer in a year, but another 20,000 BBL or so of beer for contract customers such as Bronx Brewery, Heartland, San Francisco’s Speakeasy and Massachusetts’s Clown Shoes.
“We run three shifts a day, five days a week,” explained Saunders. “The first one starts at 6am and the last finishes about midnight, so we’re working our brewhouse pretty hard. I’d say we’re at 80-90% capacity right now and both the Shmaltz brand and our contract business is growing double-digits, so we’re looking to expand. We have five 60 BBL fermenters coming next week, which will increase our capacity and our agility as all our fermenters are 100 BBL and 200 BBL as it stands.”
Chanese also commented about the brand’s growth: “We’re in 35 states, but right now New York State makes up about half our volume. We’d like to change our mindset in the next few years to think less like a regional and national brand and more like a local brand, while still maintaining our national distribution. (Funnily enough, Jeremy’s in St Louis for a beer dinner tonight.)”
As I sat down to interview Greg and Richie in the brewery’s homely but spacious tap room, I managed to sample a few of their brews. Their portfolio ranges from hoppy IPAs through clean and sessionable lagers and ales to barrel-aged Imperial stouts and triple IPAs – there’s something for everyone, as Chanese pointed out to me. And I have to tell you, they don’t taste half bad. Chanese commented: “If the brewery was just about the joke, it wouldn’t work. People might try a beer once if it has a funny label, but they won’t come back for more. They won’t tell their friends. We have total faith in our brewing team and the quality of our beers – they just happen to have funny names and cool labels too.”
A comedy brewery that is continually focused on making great beer? To both fans and doubters of Jeremy Cowan’s two-decade old brewing shtick, I’d say the company’s attitude is well summed up by the slogan on the tee shirt Chanese was proudly sporting: L’Chaim Sucka.
10 Questions To Educate The Drinking Classes with Greg Chanese, Marketing Director and Richie Saunders, Lead Brewer at Shmaltz Brewing
- Can you describe what your company does in one short sentence?
Chanese: We make award-winning beer paired with quality shtick.
Saunders: That’s actually a very good way to sum it up – nice work Greg.
- How long have you worked here?
Chanese: Just under a month! I’ve been a fan of the brewery for many years though.
Saunders: I’ve been a Shmaltz employee since two months before this facility opened in May 2013, but at my previous company I’d been brewing Shmaltz beer for about two years. So I’ve been brewing this beer for over five years.
- How and why did you come to be here?
Chanese: I grew up outside Portland, Maine, and was lucky enough to “grow up” on beers like Gritty McDuff’s, Shipyard, Geary’s and Sebago. Then I went to college and found people drinking Natty Ice and Red Dog and all this junk; I basically couldn’t take it. I made it my mission to find better local beer, and discovered Ommegang, which wasn’t too far from my college town.
I stayed in the area and ended up as marketing director at the Adirondack Chamber of Commerce in Glens Falls and had this idea that I could help other people find great local beer, so I helped found the Adirondack Craft Beverage Trail and Map. Over time, this put me in contact with a number of local breweries, and I’d spend quite a lot of time here at Shmaltz. When my predecessor recently changed industry, she and Jeremy approached me about filling the role that was about to be vacant, and they didn’t have to ask me twice.
Craft beer is just such a fun, collaborative, interesting industry full of fantastic people. The opportunity came at me from out of nowhere, but I just knew I had to take this chance.
Saunders: I’ve always had this creative energy that needs outlets, and I actually started homebrewing before I could even legally drink what I was making. I just found the process so interesting and I loved making something. I actually thought I was going to be a chef for that reason, but I’m not a great late night person and working in restaurants means you almost never go to bed before midnight.
When I left college after having refined my knowledge in a the homebrew club, I started out in a sales and marketing role at Adirondack Brewing Company to get a foothold in the industry, then managed a move to Old Saratoga in a brewing role, and finally to Shmaltz as part of the opening of this brewery.
I love the mix of structure and total creativity in brewing. For example, we’re at the start of a partnership to make a series of beers for Star Trek to celebrate their 50th anniversary – what a great creative challenge to try and bring what Star Trek is to life through the medium of beer!
- What is your daily routine?
Chanese: I really don’t have one. My job is a mix of marketing the core brand, our seasonal releases and our events, but also looking for a way to bring the Shmaltz story to life and bring new people into the brand.
People are starting to glom onto the idea of Shmaltz as a bigger brand, a national brand, not just Hop Manna and He’Brew beers. To help make this happen I have to do a lot of research, and get to know how people interact with the brand in different places. So there’s a lot of data, a lot of analytics, and then thinking creatively to make sure we’re acting on that research.
I’m definitely not someone who can just come in every day and press a button, do the same things on the same checklist. I need variety and I like that there’s often something surprising or unexpected to react to and deal with.
Saunders: Well I do have to press a button every day! But as I mentioned before, my job has some structure but also a lot of freedom to do things differently and try new things.
I start my day early, and am almost always the first person in sometime before 6am. The morning is a balancing act of starting a new brew, managing the filter pathways for processing beer and checking on beer that is fermenting or is in the brite tank to make sure it’s within specification. As the day wears on it’s about checking on the new brew and preparing yeast to ferment it. We stagger our brewing personnel throughout the day so someone new can come in and take over brewing tasks every couple of hours.
The afternoon is generally about phasing out from hands-on jobs to more managerial ones, like keeping on top of admin, ordering ingredients, and working with the lab to ensure all our beer is to our demanding quality standards.
Every brewer is janitor first, beer-maker second. Each brewery is a unique environment, and a lot of work has to go into keeping what you can’t see out of the beer and making sure we have zero quality or shelf-life issues with our product in keg or in bottle.
- What is the hardest thing about your job?
Saunders: Time management is the most challenging aspect. I often have to be in two or three places at once, and usually something unexpected will happen at the same time as I’m needed to do something that’s more process-driven. So I’ve had to learn how to prioritize and how to think ahead to keep all the balls in the air. We have a great crew here and we’re all very plugged into the processes of the brewery, so that really helps.
Chanese: Managing communication and keeping on top of information. We’re a relatively small company to have such a large national presence, and to help grow the brand nationally we need our team here at the brewery to be in synch with what our reps are seeing and doing to equip them to sell our beer in their market.
For example, say Chicago is really digging Slingshot, so I need to understand what’s causing that and help our guys be well-placed to take advantage of it.
I like the idea of futurescaping to help us plan ahead and be on top of trends. We’ll keep a one-year plan of attack as Shmaltz, and use data and insights to help get from point A to point B over those 12 months.
- In your view, what does it take to make it in beer?
Chanese: Passion. And it helps if you like beer! You have to find a brewery where you really get the mentality and importantly a brewery that makes a beer that you really love and want to see succeed.
Saunders: Drive, determination and ingenuity. How your skills fit into those three categories will help you figure out where you fit best in the industry. You have to apply yourself and either by luck or sheer drive you can find a role that will satisfy you and help you get the most out of your career.
- What is success for you?
Chanese: You have a personal legacy and a professional legacy, and I feel great about my personal legacy because I have two wonderful children. And my daughter is going to run the world and my son is going to help her by destroying everything in his path, so I can rest easy there.
My professional legacy will be when we get to the point that Shmaltz is recognized as a marketing monster in craft beer – when people look at us and say, “Wow, how did they get there?”. And I absolutely believe we have the tools to do that: the recipes and the beer are amazing, and I think we have the stories and the shtick to create a really powerful brand. I don’t need my name to be associated with that; but knowing that I contributed to it will be success to me.
Saunders: I’m a creative person, so on a personal and professional level success for me is a sense of accomplishment that comes from having made something that people enjoy. I also have a drive to make things that people didn’t realise they were missing, almost an element of deception and surprise.
An example is Wishbone, our double IPA, which I tried to make as light-bodied and drinkable as possible. So much so that we call it our session double IPA. I was given an objective – to make a double IPA for the portfolio – but I was really left alone to interpret that. So I designed a recipe with plenty of hop character but with as light a body and mouthfeel as it could have, so that it’s surprisingly easy to drink. For a double IPA. So that beer is something I consider as success, because it’s new and different.
- If you could change one thing about the industry, what would it be?
Chanese: In the world of beer regulation, every state is so different. Getting beers approved for each state requires different applications and processes, and it makes life really hard. As a small but national brand, it puts a lot of stress on us, centrally and for our reps, and makes it harder to run our business. I understand that it’s every state’s right to do things differently, but if everyone could sign up to one way of doing things it would be a huge help.
Saunders: The one thing I’d love to see happen – although I know it can’t – is absolute access to raw materials. As it stands, the big guys can get contracted access to hops or malt years ahead of everybody else. I know that’s the way of the world, but it would be great if somehow every brewer had even access to all materials, which would allow smaller, more creative breweries to make some really exciting stuff.
- Apart from your own, what are your three favorite beers, and why?
- I’m a big fan of Ommegang, and Three Philosophers is my favorite readily available Ommegang beer.
- Gritty McDuff’s is hard to get outside of Maine, and I especially love going to the pub in Portland. I always have a good time. Pick anything in their line-up.
- My family is from Jersey, and I love traditional, regular Yuengling Lager. I have distinct memories of drinking it at family reunions so I have an emotional connection to it.
- You say “name a great beer” and I first think of Rodenbach Grand Cru. It’s funny that we think of sour beers as so new when this beer has been made so well for decades and somehow stayed off people’s radar.
- Sierra Nevada Celebration Ale is a beer I gravitate toward every year, when it comes out. It has body, warming character, great hop character; it’s an excellent beer for winter.
- I think a standard for creativity in the beer industry is Dogfish Head. And instead of going in the expected direction for them, I would choose Festina Peche, a beautiful, light-bodied, tart Berlinner Weisse with a crisp kiss of peach. It’s dynamite.
- Apart from the Shmaltz tasting room, where’s the best place to get a beer in Saratoga County?
Saunders: Common Roots in south Glens Falls is run by Christian Weber who’s similar in age to me, and we got into brewing about the same time. Everything he puts out, whether Belgian or a big IPA, is dynamite. Great guy, talented brewer and a killer taproom.
Chanese: If I’m going out for a couple of drinks, I’ll go to Henry Street Taproom in Saratoga Springs which has a fantastic beer selection and a laid-back vibe. They’re very supportive of the local beer scene, which makes a difference. To buy a bottle of a local beer to drink at home you can’t go wrong with Minogue’s [Beverage Center].