Photograph by Jon Wunder
Gift No. 3
The holiday season is upon us, which for many means a time of social gatherings, family, friends and traditions both religious and secular.
This time of year brings me back to my youth, when I believed December was the time the Jews celebrated Hanukkah as well as Passover — when Santa Claus passed over our house and went to everyone else’s. Were it not for Cecil B. DeMille and his documentary, “The Ten Commandments,” I might still be disillusioned.
Needless to say, as an adult I have no sentimental attachment to any of December’s celebrations, but thanks to Shmaltz Brewing Company, that is all about to change. Because if there’s one tradition I can full invest in, it’s one that involves craft beer.
After 17-years of contracting out their beer brewing, Shmaltz Brewing Company, known for its award-winning HE’BREW craft beers, has finally moved in to its own brewery in Upstate New York. With the new space, there’s a lot of new developments on tap.
In honor of the new facility’s opening this summer, Shmaltz’s sole proprietor Jeremy Cowan and consulting brewmaster Paul McErlean came up with the company’s first-ever Black India Pale Ale. “Huge, rich, roast-y…a lot of chocolate. We wanted to make the malt profile extremely forward…an incredibly complex black malty beer that was hopped as much as we could possibly get in there,” is how Cowan described the brew’s flavor in a video shot at the brewery’s grand opening celebration.
Fittingly, the brew was called “Death of a Contract Brewer,” and it holds to a shiva (the seven-day Jewish mourning ritual) theme, with seven malts, seven hops, and seven percent alcohol by volume.
Sombreros, kegs, and teddy bears surround the gleaming Hanukkah lights, on display in a album on Shmaltz Brewing Company’s Facebook page. But what distinguish these holiday scenes are not accessories but rather the very menorahs themselves — they’re made out of beer bottles. They are all entries in Shmaltz’s annual Beer Bottle Menorah Contest, an online holiday contest that is now in its third year.
A beer bottle menorah is exactly what it sounds like: eight brewskis lined in a row, with Hanukkah candles sticking out of them. The problem is how to get those candles to stay put. Creative solutions include placing playing cards, tin foil, upturned bottle caps, and even small dreidels on the top of the beer bottle — all in order to hold that candle in place. The guidelines for last year’s contest offer little help: “We realize the traditional candles still will not fit in the top of the bottles, but we are a handy people from tent dwellers to Jewish carpenters to craft brewers. Behold! A second chance to prove yourselves.” They suggest stuffing a matzo ball in the nape, as a way of holding the candle in place.
With dancing rabbis, clowns, and unicorns adorning their bottles, and names like Genesis Ale and Funky Jewbelation, Shmaltz Brewing Company’s He’Brew beer commands the attention of the liquor store browser — myself included.
The little-engine-that-could brewing company has made big waves over the past 16 years. Starting as an inside joke between Southern Californian friends, the brewing company, which celebrates “delicious beer and delicious shtick,” now has products on the shelves of 31 states. And its beer, brewed in Saratoga Springs, has won worldwide acclaim.
And so, I gathered some fellow beer connoisseurs and foodies in order to judge how good this He’brew beer actually was. Lucky for us, Shmaltz’s Holiday Gift Pack just hit store shelves, and includes eight diverse varieties of their wildly different craft brews.
The results? Delight. These brews are fun, distinctive, flavorful, clever and generally enjoyable to drink. The packs are expensive, from $25 to $30 depending on the store, but worth it. And so, with the opinions and insights of my overly opinionated sensitively-beer-tongued-friends, I provide you with a guide for enjoying each beer to its fullest flavor potential.