Bottoms Up

Beer and wine in the Bay Area and beyond

He’brew – The Chosen Beer: How It All Began

Note: This is an updated version of an article I wrote for Northwest Brewing News in 2005.

By William Brand
SAN FRANCISCO –  “He’Brew – The Chosen Beer.’’ It all began as a joke between  two  high school kids in suburban San Francisco, a long time ago.

“We were the only Jewish kids in our immediate group of friends,’’ Jeremy Cowan explains. It was back in the 1980s. Sam Adams had been on the market a little while. They thought, `You know what  – Jews need their own beer.’

They played with the idea and came up with slogans like `Don’t Pass Over Sober.’

Those 17-year-olds  never would have guessed that two decades later that very beer would be sold in 20 states and the people – Jews and most everybody else – would laugh at the joke and enjoy the beer.

Cowan recalls that He’brew remained an inside joke among friends for years, but the craft beer movement in the San Francisco Bay Area kept growing and Cowan got serious.

It’s not widely publicized, but Jews have an incredible drinking and brewing tradition, he said. “I came up with He’brew.  I thought it would be a fun idea, a unique idea. I had bartended; I had worked at a brewpub in New Orleans,’’ he said. But he was not a brewer.

So he went to a  `brew  on premises’ shop in Mountain View,  CA to work out a formula. “I wanted to make a really good beer that I could be proud of,’’ Cowan said. “It was just a tiny place,’’ Cowan said. “But the brewer  there  was really good.’’

He’s not kidding. The brewer was Simon Pesch. Today he’s head brewer  at Pryamid’s large brewery in Berkeley, CA. He remembers Jeremey Cowan and the beer. “I came up with a pretty traditional English style ale for the first recipe,’’ Pesch says. “I did like that beer.’’

He’Brew was a big success and soon Cowan was the only the shop’s only contract customer.  “He did a lot of volume, compared to our retail customers, who usually made seven gallon batches,’’ Pesch said. “He was ordering 20 barrel batches – that was the size of our entire system.’’

This was 1996. Jeremey started out with 100 bottles of He’Brew.  The label shows an Hassidic Jew with a full beard and wearing traditional black clothing – except for the hat. It’s red.

Cowan  loaded the beer into his grandmother’s station wagon and peddled them to retailers. It was a steep learning curve, he said. “I had no business experience. I was an English major. I didn’t know what an invoice was; I had never heard of wholesalers.’’

But merchants  laughed and they bought his beer. He was onto something big. Today He’brew Genesis Ale  and Messiah Bold  are sold all along the  East Coast,  in most of the Midwest and in California.

The beer has evolved  slowly. He says he always wanted great beer. As sales boomed, he moved

his contract to Anderson Valley Brewing in Boonville, CA, home of some of America’s best-regarded and hoppiest ales. Last year, as sales boomed, he switched  to Mendocino Brewing’s Sarasota Springs, NY brewery.  He also added 12 ounce bottles, which boosted sales sharply.

When he switched to 12 ouncers,  he also changed his Messiah style from a stout to a brown ale. But he kept the logos and slogan: “Genesis Ale – The Chosen Beer’’ and “Messiah Bold – The One You’ve Been Waiting For.’’

Genesis Ale is made with pale, caramel , dark crystal, Munich barley malts and a touch of wheat. Finishing hop is Willamette.  Messiah uses Carapils, dark crystal, caramel, dark chocolate and Victory malts, Cascade and Mt. Hood hops.

In December 2004, , he released his first holiday beer – the holiday was Chanukah, of course.  Miraculous Jewbelation  was made with eight malts, eight hops and was 8 percent alcohol by volume. It sold out quickly. It’s still a tiny little business in the world of beer. He remains a one-man-company and he spends much of Cowan says. About the future, who knows. But Jeremy Cowan has quit his day job.

Postcript: Jewbelation – Jeremy has dropped the Miraculous – has continued’ it comes ouit each year in early winter, before Chanukah, and marks the anniversary of the company This year, it’s Jewbilation 12, with 12 hops, 12 malts and 12 percent ABV.

In an e-mail, Jeremy explains how the company has progressed:

  • This adventure started with 100 cases of Genesis Ale for Chanukah 1996. Now 12 years later we’ll sell over 3500 cases of Jewbelation 12 for our anniversary season and over 75,000 cases of 11 beers throughout the the country, in Canada and now the UK.
  • We’re still a tiny project but growing because of the incredible staff, brewers, distributors, retailers and bars as well as the countless friends and the support of the craft beer community that have made this all possible.
  • Thanks to everyone for a spectacular 2008 and a crazy and wonderful 12 years. Have a bright and meaningful holiday and a very happy New Year….L’Chaim!

And happy Chanukah to you Jeremy.

Photo above….He’brew founder Jeremy Cowan: It started as a joke in high school. Jews with beer? Believe it!