"DON'T PASS OUT, Passover."
When Shmaltz Brewing launched in 1996 with that slogan, you'd be excused if you assumed it was just another gimmick, like Billy Beer of the 1970s or J.R. Ewing Beer of the '80s. Its He'Brew Messiah Bold and Genesis Ale ("The Chosen Beers") seemed little more than a scheme to use borscht belt humor to sell generic fizzy yellow liquid.
A company does not thrive for 15 years, though, on schtick alone. It turns out that, along with cracking Jewish jokes, founder Jeremy Cowan can actually put out a high-quality product. Or, as one of his brewery's T-shirts irreverently quotes God: "Christ, that's good beer!"
"We're far beyond where I ever thought He'Brew would ever be," Cowan told me earlier this month as he prepared for his annual "Hanukkah vs. Christmas" promotional tour. Lively tasting events in San Francisco, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York will match classic holiday ales against He'Brew Jewbelation Fifteen, an audaciously strong (15 percent alcohol by volume) dark ale.
It's yet another remarkable bottle from a company that has produced:
* Bittersweet Lenny's R.I.P.A., a double India pale ale made with "an obscene amount of malts and hops" as a tribute to acerbic Jewish comic Lenny Bruce.
* Origin Pomegranate Ale, an imperial amber ale with pomegranate juice, a nod to the fruit's symbolism in Judaic scripture.
* Genesis 15:15, a barrel-aged barley wine made with still more pomegranate, plus figs, dates and grapes.
These are not your run-of-the-mill ales and lagers, and they've been critical in building Shmaltz's reputation. It's easy to forget that the company doesn't own a brewhouse; it contracts all production to Olde Saratoga Brewing in New York.
"In craft beer," Cowan said, "every successful brand has wonderful creativity, a personality. . . . The Jewish schtick gives me an entry into that creativity."
Thus, Shmaltz once declared its beer is "perfect for bar mitzvahs, weddings and circumcisions." And when it came time to brew a double bock, Cowan made his with Concord grape juice (the same stuff that goes into kosher Manischewitz) and called it Rejewvenator.
"I'm not making fun, I'm having fun," Cowan said. " My irreverence is a form of reverence."
With the holidays upon us, Cowan sees an even deeper connection between his faith and his work. "Hanukkah traditionally celebrates underdogs and authenticity and heritage. That's the reason for the holiday," he said. "It's a wonderful metaphor for craft beer: being true to one's self and finding the courage to celebrate that truth."
But that doesn't mean you have to be Jewish to drink and appreciate He'Brew.
"Everyone has an angle on their brand," he said. "So, much like I don't have to enjoy dogs or hot rods or smoking weed to enjoy Lagunitas [whose brands have celebrated all three], you don't have to celebrate Hanukkah to drink Jewbelation."
About kosher beer: Because it is made from basic ingredients grown in the ground, most beer is kosher even if the label doesn't say so. Some flavored or fruit beers may not be, because their ingredients may have come from nonkosher animals or other sources.
Also, some beer may be regarded as nonkosher because of its brewing process. For example, beer clarified with isinglass made from the dried bladders of sturgeon is nonkosher.
If you're uncertain, ask your rabbi. All of He'Brew's beers, by the way, are certified kosher.
Join Joe Sixpack and Jeremy Cowan Sunday for Philly's own Hanukkah vs. Christmas showdown. We'll pour He'Brew's lineup from 4 to 7 p.m. at the Foodery (2nd and Poplar, Northern Liberties), and sign copies of our new books: Craft Beer Bar Mitzvah (Malt Shop Publishing, $16.99) and What the Hell am I Drinking? (Joe Sixpack, $11.95).
Then, we'll head over to Devil's Den (11th and Ellsworth, South Philly) for a beer-and-food pairing featuring holiday ales with Hanukkah and Christmas cuisine.