High Holy Beer: Kosher Beer From Coast to Coast

Shmaltz's He'brew Jewbilation, photo by Bernt Rostad
Shmaltz's He'brew Jewbilation, photo by Bernt Rostad

This week begins the High Holy Days for Jews across the world — a sacred time for reflecting and repenting on the year gone by and making prayers for a sweet new year. For many, its also family time – including big kosher meals with matzo ball soup, chopped liver, and after the 24-hour Yom Kippur fast is over, the time-honored tradition of lox and cream cheese on a bagel.

For over a century, the holidays have also meant Manischewitz’ Concord grape wine — a drink that to millions of Jews was their first taste of alcohol. Wine is so tied to the Jewish religion that little boys and girls learn the prayer for the wine in their earliest days of Hebrew School. But Manischewitz doesn’t have to be the only alcoholic choice to celebrate the Jewish New Year, 5778.

Sonia Marie Leikam plans to serve craft beer on Rosh Hashanah and after Yom Kippur at her home in Portland, Oregon. But it won’t be a mass produced Budweiser or something from one of Oregon’s owns breweries like DeschutesFull Sail and Widmer Brothers.

Instead, she’ll be serving beers from the nanobrewery she owns with her husband, Theo. Leikam Brewing makes beers that are unlike most other beer made in the United States: They’re kosher beers.

The beers are certified kosher by Oregon Kosher, a group of rabbis and supervisors who come to the brewery periodically to approve all the ingredients and recipes to ensure they meet strict Jewish dietary rules.

According to the Brewers Association, Leikam is one of only two kosher craft brewers in the United States — the other is Shmaltz Brewing from Clifton Park, NY. Among the giant brewers, MillerCoors, the second largest brewer in the United States, has some Kosher-certified beers, which are noted with a small circle with a "U" or a "K" on the label. In May, one of its newest breweries in Denver, the Blue Moon Brewing Co. was certified as Kosher from the Orthodox Union. Blue Moon first obtained the certification in 1995 at an older brewing location in the city.

Jeremy Cowan at the Bev Net Conference, photo courtesy Shmaltz Brewing
Jeremy Cowan at the Bev Net Conference, photo courtesy Shmaltz Brewing

“The Kosher population is often overlooked by our industry, that’s more than 10.5 million people in the U.S. alone,” said Josh Luman, general manager of Blue Moon Brewing Company – RiNo District. “Becoming Kosher certified by OU was an obvious decision for us.”

But only two craft breweries share that opinion. Shmaltz and Leikam, tied together by religion, are more different than alike. Schmaltz is much larger and has a 50-barrel brewhouse. Leikam uses a 5-barrel system.

Jeremy Cowan started Shmaltz Brewing Company in 1996 as a Hanukkah experiment. That year he brewed using hand squeezed pomegranates and hand-bottled the first 100 cases. He then borrowed his grandmother’s Volvo to personally deliver the cases across the San Francisco Bay area. Cowan’s first batch of He’brew Beer’s Genesis Ale helped launch a line of big bold beers that have been cleverly marketed to the country with humor and shtick. Their slogan was once “The Chosen Beer for the Chosen People.”

Cowan, who was raised in Brooklyn and New York City before moving to San Francisco, said one of his goals with He’Brew has been to bring Jewish humor to the brewing world. “It really is about incorporating Jewish content and shtick into a truly unique brand,” Cowan said.

The brand is known for the Jewish, shtick-laden names gracing its labels. These include:

“Chanukah, Hanukkah … Pass the Beer,” a dark ale brewed with eight malts and eight hops with an 8% ABV, and “Genesis 20:20,”a barrel-aged, tart barleywine with 16.7% ABV. There’s also “Jewbelation 20th Anniversary Ale,” brewed with 10 malts and 10 hops with 16.8% ABV and Messiah Nut Brown Ale, a 5.3% ABV beer with hints of chocolate and coffee. Indeed, Shmaltz even has a “Shtick in a Box” variety 12-pack that it sells for the holidays.

For its first 17 years of existence, Shmaltz was a contract brewer, as it had to outsource production of its beer to bigger brewers. Now, its upstate New York facility has an annual capacity of 20,000 barrels and boasts a tasting room.

Cowan said he’s as surprised as anyone that his Jewish-themed brewery has lasted over 21 years. Its not as miraculous as the legendary candle lighting oil that was only supposed to last one night lasting a full eight nights, but Cowan notes few Jewish-themed projects of any kind last decades. What’s his secret? “I have a high tolerance for pain,” he jokes.

Seriously, Cowan said behind the humorous beer labels and marketing is putting out great tasting beer and constantly trying new bold beers. “Its not just another beer with a funny label… our focus has been on creative innovation and producing a quality product and then an endless pursuit of spreading the word,” Cowan said. The beer is sold in 37 states — having spread into communities where a synagogue or a kosher deli can be hard to find.

Shmaltz does events with Jewish communities in various cities — around the Hanukkah and other secular and non-secular holidays but beer sales are steady through the year. The one exception is the end of the year when it releases its anniversary Jewbilation brew by using the same number of malts, hops and alcohol-by-volume value as number of years they have been brewing.

In Oregon, Sonia Marie Leikam takes a much more subtle approach to “Jewish beer.” There’s a kosher symbol on the beer cans but the beer names don’t push the faith or the Jewish humor. Rather “Hey Porter,” “Grateful Red” and “Eight Days a Wheat” draw on other inspirations.

Theo and Sonia Marie Leikam
Theo and Sonia Marie Leikam

Being a kosher brewery adds cost to the beer making, but Sonia Marie says its not added on to the price of beer. And she says its worth the cost to show her family’s commitment to the Jewish community. She said the kosher beer helped the brewery, which opened in 2015, quickly make a name for itself in the crowded craft beer market in Portland, Oregon.

Her husband Theo, an accountant, spent a decade home brewing before opening the brewery in their backyard. The kosher certification is the inspiration of Sonia Marie, former executive director of the Oregon Holocaust Resource Center and currently a program director for the Oregon Jewish Community Foundation.

Producing a kosher beer means that they must make sure none of the equipment or ingredients has been exposed to non-kosher foods. They don’t use any lactose in their beers, which means no milk stouts. And they don’t use yeasts from other breweries to avoid a non-kosher contamination. Oregon doesn’t have the big Jewish population of a New York or San Francisco, so Sonia Marie, 35, was surprised having a kosher beer would draw them so many fans. “Being a kosher brewery seemed like a natural way to express our commitment to Judaism and the Jewish community,” she said.

Leikam is a community-supported membership brewery that relies on subscribers who purchase shares up front and then receive regular beer allotments in return. Members get beer to fill up their growlers, access to events and even spent grains from the brewing process. For now, Leikam beers are only available in restaurants and bars in Portland.

Leikam makes a Maccabeer for Purim and some special beers for Hanukkah. But so far no beers for the High Holy Days. Sonia Marie, who is Jewish (her husband is not) hopes next year to change that with a special honey beer to help christen a sweet new year.

Of course, trying to get beer on the table for Jewish holidays is a challenge and goes against hundreds of years of tradition. “Wine is a part of the ritual — you don’t say ‘thank you God for the fruit of the hops or the barley plant,' you say ‘thank you God for the fruit of the vine,’” she said, reciting the familiar prayer. But Sonia Marie hopes people will consider bringing a kosher beer to their next gathering or offering to a Jewish friend or relative as a gift.

Sonia Marie respects Shmaltz and their play on all things Jewish. “Being Jewish is part of who we are... Maybe Shmaltz is Jewish-American and we are American-Jewish,” she said.