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He’brew Across America: the Jewish Palate Turns to Beer? by Joe Berkofsky

December 18, 2003
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When Moses received the Torah at Sinai, he camped out for 40 days and 40 nights with neither food nor drink.

When Jeremy Cowan set out recently on a 40-day, 40-night trek in his 1993 Nissan Pathfinder, he came prepared.

He brought beer. Cases and cases of it.

This past Sukkot, Cowan stocked his vehicle with He’Brew, the kosher microbrew he created, for an 18-city, 7,500- mile cross-country tour to deliver beer to the chosen people.

With the goal of wrapping up his “Wandering He’Brew Beer Tour of America” by Chanukah, Cowan had covered 6,800 miles by the time he reached New York, with New England still ahead.

Along the way, he schmoozed with retailers, distributors, and Jewish and non-Jewish beer drinkers, unloading beer and gathering tales.

He plans to make a swing through the Deep South next spring, cajoling Texans to buy his hamische — warm and friendly — handcrafted hops. But that should be nothing after what happened in the Big Apple, he says.

“It’s won’t be as hard as selling to the Palestinian liquor store owners in Hell’s Kitchen,” Cowan says of the storied Manhattan neighborhood.

It turns out that Cowan, 34, owner and sole employee of the San Francisco-based Shmaltz Brewing Company, got waylaid on his mission to take his kosher beer to the mecca of American Jewish culture, Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

A wholesaler sent a Palestinian liquor salesman to meet him on the corner of ninth and 51st in Hell’s Kitchen.

So Cowan found himself hawking He’Brew to Arab-owned bodegas clad in a T-shirt reading, “He’Brew: The Chosen Beer.”

The Arab owners asked, “What is this, some kind of Jewish beer?” prompting much chatter in the stores. But when Cowan’s Palestinian sales rep insisted He’Brew was “good beer,” he made some deals.

“I figured if I can sell a Jewish beer to Palestinian refugees, I’m going to be OK. That’s New York City for you,” Cowan says.

Cowan’s beery trip has lasted a lot longer than 40 days — and he’s even stumbled into a Jewish beer battle of sorts with another kosher brew, Layla.

The San Francisco area native and Stanford University graduate launched He’Brew at an artsy San Francisco party, dubbed “Challahpalooza,” on Chanukah 1996. He started with a $2,000 investment and 100 cases of ale and stout produced at the Mendocino Brewing Company of northern California.

He’Brew first was sold in bottles with a label inspired by Marc Chagall, showing a green-faced Chasid carrying twin bottles and looming over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and an Israeli flag flying in Jerusalem.

While many beer recipes start off kosher, since the recipes begin with water, barley, malt and hops, some brewers use yeast from non-kosher animal byproducts to ferment the mix. That could make the beer non-kosher.

To ensure that his beer got the right kosher credentials, Cowan hired a mashgiach, or rabbinic supervisor, to oversee every step of the He’Brew brewing process.

In the beginning, Cowan awoke at 4 a.m. to schlep beer in his grandmother’s station wagon to retailers. Eventually he started finding distributors, and he recently nearly doubled his number, from 11 to 18 distributors nationwide.

Last year, Cowan sold 3,500 cases. This year, he plans to move 20,000 as he goes from selling He’Brew in single 22-ounce bottles, typically reserved for specialty brands, to the more popular 12-ounce bottles in six-packs.

Nowadays, He’Brew is brewed in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and comes in two flavors, “Genesis Ale,” a light-brown ale, and the new “Messiah Bold,” a rich, dark-brown ale-malt hops mix.

He’s also dropped the Chagall-esque green-faced Chasid for a more sober-looking celebrant because, he says, many “people thought it was weird.”

Palestinians are not the only ones who have developed a taste for He’Brew. Among the beer’s national purveyors is the upscale natural-foods grocery chain Whole Foods.

Cowan also has developed several shticky spots to sell his beer. “Don’t Pass Out, Pass Over,” went one slogan.

While the High Holidays and Chanukah remain peak sales periods, Cowan says Purim, with its Talmudic injunction to drink until one cannot distinguish between the evil Haman and good Mordechai, helps too.

“It’s not exactly St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s a good excuse to get in front of people,” he says.

He’Brew is not the only kosher beer around. Many other beers are certified as kosher, and earlier this year, the Cedarhurst, N.Y., Abarbanel Wine Company began selling the Israeli-made Layla: The Dirty Blonde Lager.

Cowan says he is not amused. He doesn’t mind competition, he says, but he asserts that Layla is simply “repackaged Tuborg,” a popular imported beer in Israel.

“A good Israeli beer would help me, but so many people tell me Israeli beers stink, so they assume all Jewish beer is bad,” he says. He also expressed distaste for the beer’s slogan, calling it “questionable.”

But Abarbanel’s owner, Howard Abarbanel, says Layla is an original Israeli “proprietary blend” based on an imported Bavarian barley malt and Belgian hop mix brewed at the Israel Beer Brewery in Ashkelon. That brewery is a joint venture of Coca-Cola Israel and Denmark’s Carlsberg, which makes Carlsberg and Tuborg beers, according to Abarbanel.

Layla also uses water filtered from Israel’s Judean Mountain aquifer, and is crafted for an American palate that prefers sweeter beer with more barley malt and fewer hops, Abarbanel says.

“It’s not some craft beer — it’s just meant to be enjoyed watching a football game. And with Chanukah coming up, it would go well with some greasy latkes.”

Abarbanel says the beer is named after the amber lager’s hue, and the word also means “night” in Hebrew.

“There’s no picture of some buxom blonde on it,” he says in response to Cowan’s criticism. The beer’s Web site adds, “Israeli. Kosher. Great Taste. Good Looking. Wants to Come Home With You.” It also says, “Excellent with Cholent, Herring and barbequed anything.”

Layla’s label pictures an abstract electric guitar, echoing the eponymous Eric Clapton song.

So far, Layla has found distributors in a handful of states. More are on the way, Abarbanel promises.

For his part, Abarbanel says there is no need to get “uptight” about a kosher beer war.

Clearly, he says, “We’re not trying to be some shticky beer.”

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