There are chocolate beers, raspberry beers, honey beers and even jalapeño beers. So why not kosher beer? Jeremy Cowan, 30, decided to fill that niche. "There was a microbrew explosion going on in 1996," recalls the Stanford grad, who launched He'Brew The Chosen Beer that year.
Although Cowan started the business with the barest essentials and $15,000-plus in savings, his San Francisco company expects sales of more than $500,000 this year. Cowan began by using a small Bay area "do-it-yourself" brewery to make experimental test batches. By Hanukkah 1996, Cowan--with help from his girlfriend, his mother and an assortment of friends--had produced about 100 cases of Shmaltz Brewing Co.'s first hand-bottled, hand-labeled beer, Genesis Ale.
Despite a negligible advertising budget (the biggest ad Cowan could afford was a 1-inch spot in the local Jewish paper), Cowan's kosher beer brewed in positive feedback. And thanks to He'Brew Beer's novelty, a short article in the San Francisco Chronicle led to tiny mentions in 15 national papers. During Hanukkah, says Cowan, "The voice mail was full every night with calls from all over the country. It was obvious we were on to something."
As sales increased, Cowan landed a contract with Anderson Valley Brewing, one of the nation's top 10 breweries, which enabled him to hire a distributor to warehouse and deliver the beer, now sold at grocery stores, kosher delis (yes, it's certified) and liquor stores.
Cowan eventually graduated from his kitchen office to a tiny loft--but the 6'1" entrepreneur didn't let the space's 5'10" ceiling cramp his style. "Each [difficult] step of the way [I told myself], `Someday I'll look back on this and laugh.' " He's laughing now: He's finally got a "real" office, private investors and distribution from Los Angeles to New York City. Says Cowan, "Every day, [people] e-mail me and say `Loved the He'Brew. Keep up the good work.' It's a blast."
Shmaltz Brewing Co., (415) 648-4327, http://www.shmaltz.com