Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Schmaltz Brewing (Clifton Park, NY)

     Schmaltz: literally, a Yiddish word for chicken fat; figuratively, a Jewish-American style of stand-up comedy, brought to its classical form in the summer resorts in the Catskill Mountains about sixty miles north of New York City; also the name of a craft brewery born in San Francisco sixteen years ago and now brewing in a suburb of Albany, New York.  That the middle four letters of the word are M-A-L-T is a happy if intended consequence.
     The founder, Jeremy Cowan, had returned from an extended trip to Israel in the mid-90s and reentered the life casually observant Jews led in northern California when he decided, on a lark, to create a winter ale for the Chanukkah season in 1997.  He produced a hundred cases at a brew-on-premises brewery in Moutanin View, Calif.,  had enough initial success to sign up Anderson Valley Brewing to make his Jewish-themed beers under contract for a few years, then contracted with the Olde Saratoga Brewery in upstate New York to brew his recipes and fill his bottles with the zany labels (He'Brew, the Chosen Beer, don't Pass Out, Pass Over, etc.).  After sixteen years of contracted brewing, Cowan bit a bullet and built his own 50-bbl plant between Albany and Saratoga, opening in 2013 and launching Death of a Contract Brewer as a T-shirt and a Black IPA, made with seven malts, seven hops, and brewed to 7% abv. All the Judaic and other meanings of the number seven are squeezed onto the label, see the story on the link.

    I wandered into Schmaltz the day after Christmas with my son-in-law Ed Lessard, a Clifton Park native son who knows the back roads here.  Death of the Contract was not on tap in the taproom, but the five we could sample all featured complex assortments of malts and hops.  I began my journey with Genesis Dry Hop Session Ale.  The session ale here weighs in at 5.5% abv.
     Other than the Messiah Nut Brown Ale (the beer you've been waiting for, 5.2% abv), the other taps kicked the alcohol up a hefty notch: Channukah Beer, 8%, Imperial Amber Pomegranate, 8%, and Lenny's R.I.P.A., 10%.  The Channukah  beer, made with eight malts and eight hops in the dark ale style, hasa piney aroma and a peaty mouthfeel.  The pomegranates in the imperial amber have a biblical reference, according to Cowan's autobiography Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah.  Poms are one of the Seven Sacred Species named in Deuterenomy 8:8 by the scouts Moses sent out to find the Promised Land.
     Cowan's book stands out in the small sub-genre of craft brewing autobios.  While accounts of the founding and growth of companies like Dogfish Head (Brewing Up a Business) and Sierra Nevada (Beyond the Pale) dwell on the gradual accession of brewing hardware like bottling lines and fermenting tanks, contract-brewing Schmaltz never had to wrestle with those issues for its first fifteen years.

The 200-bbl fermenting tanks in Clifton Park were still on the drawing board when Cowan published his book in 2011.  Rather than hardware, he dishes up wry accounts of making labels and getting them approved by the feds, navigating the hazards of trademark law, and courting potential wholesalers.
    The last beer tasted, Lenny's R.I.P.A., illustrates Cowan's shtick to a T.  It memorializes the late comedian Lenny Bruce (R.I.P.) with a Rye India Pale Ale. It is made with outrageous amounts of malts and hops, enough to be a double IPA, bitter as Bruce's humor.
     Jews and Gentiles alike will be savoring Schmaltz's kosher beers for many years, it would seem.
(Visited 12/26/14)