By Abigail Pickus

On a snowy Saturday afternoon at Sam’s Wines & Spirits, near North and Sheffield, Jeremy Cowan is in from San Francisco to set up a tasting table for his two microbrews, bottled under the label He’brew: the Chosen Beer. He lines up bottles of Genesis Ale, his first recipe, alongside bottles of his newest, Messiah Stout–“The beer you’ve been waiting for,” according to the back label.

As he eyes the customers milling about, he says, “Just wait, someone’s going to come by and say, ‘But Jews don’t drink.’ So I tell them, ‘Now you can.'”

Cowan quit his day job in 1996 to deliver the first 100 cases of He’brew to local distributors in time for Hanukkah, using his grandmother’s Volvo and stopping first to pick up an invoice book. “Other people have the money to hire a PR firm, an accountant, and a secretary,” he says, “but so far I’m doing everything myself.” Actually his wife, Tracy Ginsberg, paints the Chagall-esque labels, and he contracts with the respected Anderson Valley Brewing Company outside of San Francisco to brew the beer, based on his recipes, and then bottle it. But he does all the marketing alone, working on a shoestring budget out of a tiny office around the corner from his house, pouring He’brew at countless Jewish functions, schmoozing with people at tastings in bars, at parties, at Jewish fairs. And he’s the one who came up with the Shmaltz Brewing Company name and the blurbs on the backs of the bottles: “Don’t Pass Out, Pass Over.”

The microbrew market is highly competitive and oversaturated, but He’brew got a blitz of media attention when it first came out–articles ran in Playboy, Newsweek, the New York Times. Cowan says it isn’t just a one-time gimmick: “I’m actually building a brand.” He now has nearly 900 retail accounts throughout California and New York and in Chicago.

“There are a lot of little players out there, with creative, catchy titles,” says Sam’s vice president Brian Rosen, who estimates that his store sells 30 to 35 cases of He’brew beer a month. “But what it comes down to is what you like. If something is not up to snuff, it will disappear.”

Cowan–a 30-year-old Stanford grad who’s been a bartender, a zine publisher, a paralegal (“That made me realize I never want to be a lawyer”)–says he has made taste and quality a priority for his beer. Genesis Ale recently won the best-beer prize at the Sausalito beer festival.

Yet he sees a special niche for his brew. “There’s a resurgence of cultural and intellectual Judaism going on now,” he says, “and people are discovering that Judaism can be fun, hip, and cool. But when it comes to consumer products, there are not a lot of fun, hip, cool Jewish things out there.”

As the afternoon wears on, shoppers with full carts stop by Cowan’s table and usually walk away with a bottle or two. “I want to be the chosen one,” says one woman buying a bottle of the ale for her father. An English guy with a kerchief of the British flag tied around his head also buys a few bottles. “I like to drink anything,” he says. “Anything alcoholic.”

“You were great the other night!” says an energetic young guy, who explains that he saw Cowan at a Jewish Federation tasting event. “Hey, have you ever tried pouring He’brew over a brisket? Seriously, man. Just add some carrots, some onions–it’d be delicious!”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/J.B. Spector.