He’Brew, The Chosen Beer, is brewed by Shmaltz Brewing Company, now based in Clifton Park, New York. Fewer than 20 years ago, though, the brewery didn’t exist, as founder Jeremy Cowan began Shmaltz as a “contract brewer” in California in 1996 — or 5757 as Shmaltz’s labels note, the equivalent year on the Jewish calendar. According to the much-publicized legend, He’Brew started as a private joke among friends, took tangible form when Cowan decided to experiment with brewing, and it’s my guess now he’s laughing all the way to the bank.
Cowan’s sales reputedly began with a mere 100 cases of He’Brew in 1996, peddled to retailers from the back of his grandmother’s car. Some say Cowan faced a steep learning curve — I’ve even read that he said as much himself — because he was an English major who had no commerce background. My view, of course, is that English majors are unfairly underrated and actually quite capable of accomplishing anything we — umm, I mean they — set out to accomplish. (Hmmmpf.) Anyway, the retailers apparently chuckled at the pun, bought the beer and asked for more. In 2003, Shmaltz began packaging Genesis Ale and Messiah Bold in 6-packs of 12-ounce bottles and shifted production from California to the Mendocino Brewing Company’s facility in Saratoga Springs, New York.
What’s funky about Shmaltz’s beers? Seriously? You’d get a shorter answer if you asked what wasn’t funky about them. Their names alone comprise a long list of word-play derived from Hebraic terms, Judaic traditions and self-deprecating humorous stereotypes, while the beers themselves are funkily unusual combinations of ingredients, aging techniques and blends.
The first He’Brew was made with pomegranate juice — not exactly the main ingredient you think of when you think of beer — and this juice remains on Shmaltz’s ingredient list. The company’s name, of course, harks back to a Yiddish word (shmalts) for a type of chicken or goose-based cooking fat often associated with Jewish cuisine — as well as with overly sentimental, sappy movies or other art (now usually spelled “schmaltz”).
Let’s start tasting beer with the funkiest of them all: Funky Jewbelation. Funky Jewbelation is an annual ale produced by Shmaltz each February since 2012. It’s an addition to Shmaltz Brewing’s “Limited Engagement Barrel-Aged” series and, depending on the year it’s produced, is a blend of either six or seven beers aged in bourbon and rye whiskey barrels. The blended beers in my Jewbelation were: Jewbelation Fifteen Ale, Origin Pomegranate Strong Ale, Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A., Messiah Nut Brown Ale, Coney Island Lager and Coney Island Albino Python White Lager — each one individually aged between three to 12 months before blending. (Coney Island is Shmaltz’s craft-lager division — distinct from He’Brew, which focuses on ales).
This was, without doubt, the most unusual beer I’ve ever tried. It started out looking fairly normal and pretty yummy — pouring with a color like cold espresso, completely opaque, and topped by a long-lasting mocha-colored head. Light aromas of whiskey, with the citrus quality whiskey sometimes has, visited my nose. The taste, though, was so sour and un-beer-like that, I have to admit, I initially thought it had turned to vinegar. It tasted somewhat similar to a Belgian Lambic fruit beer, with bushels of tart pomegranate predominating. After a few sips, though, Funky Jewbelation started to grow on me — and it wasn’t just the 9.4 percent ABV talking. It was the textbook definition of an acquired taste.
Just to make sure my taste buds weren’t on strike, I sought out online reviews and found pretty much the same words as I’d written in my own notes. These included: strange, sour, rich, complex, sour, alcoholic, tart, sour, strong, tart blackberries, subtle whiskey, oaky, interesting, deep, pomegranate, tart, fruity, funky, dark fruity, raisiny, sour, dark chocolate, balsamic vinegar, malty and sour. Did I mention “sour”? No other reviewers said they’d stopped drinking it, though.
I was at a loss as to what to pair with Funky Jewbelation, so I tried another funky extreme: Funkychunky’s Peanut Butter Cup snack mix, a blend of popcorn, crushed peanut butter cups, peanut butter, milk-chocolate chunks and peanuts. Salty and sweet, crunchy and chewy, it shaved off some of Funky Jewbelation’s sour edge and enhanced its chocolate notes. Overall, though, this was one ultra-funky beer experience and not for the faint of heart. (funkychunky.com; available at Domke Market.)
More mellow beers from Shmaltz Brewing include Genesis Dry-Hopped Session Ale, which incorporates Warrior, Centennial, and Cascade hops during brewing, followed by extra servings of Centennial, Cascade, and Simcoe hops added after brewing has stopped. Is it hoppy? What do you think? So, yes, it’s hoppy, but Genesis also includes five types of malt, which keep it amazingly balanced and drinkable. This is a great football-watching beer, reasonably low in alcohol (5.5 percent) and friendly with most snacks — from potato chips to buffalo wings.
And if you’re looking for a slightly darker brew, there’s He’Brew’s Messiah Nut Brown Ale. It may or may not be “the beer you’ve been waiting for,” but it is a rich, sturdy brown ale whose six malts give it a boatload of taste (or would that be an “ark load”?) — not just a pretty color. Messiah has layers of pure malt, chocolate, caramel and coffee flavors playing a round robin game for primacy with your tongue. Warrior, Cascade and Liberty hops bring in lighter notes without adding noticeable citrus. (5.2 percent ABV).
Shmaltz Brewing Company’s He’Brew line is available around Mobile in 12-ounce bottles, bombers and on tap (I found mine at one of our smaller grocery chains). Ranked as one of the 100 “Best Beers of 2011” by RateBeer.com, it’s definitely worth giving a whirl if you’re looking for something new. Mixing good beer with a funky-humor shtick can’t help being a winner. After all, it’s ample quantities of beer plus a keen sense of humor that have been enabling “4” guys to marry “10” girls for generations.