The Winos’ Tasting Series: searching for faults in the malts of Shmaltz

By Jesse on December 11, 2008

The holidays are coming up, and you know what that means: lots of wine, most of which you won’t be expected to pay for! But between robust reds on your dinner table, bubbly on New Years, and all the bottles you’ll receive as gifts, is is possible that a Young Wino might get sick of wine during the holiday season? Truthfully, no, probably not… but prevention is the best cure, so in order to allay the slight possibility that you’ll go sober at any point over the next few weeks, we thought we’d hook you up with a beer review.

Despite their oenocentric moniker, the Winos are nothing if not versatile. If these troubled economic times have taught us anything, it’s that any brand wishing to remain sentient better diversify its portfolio. In this spirit of diversity, we recently welcomed to one of our meetings the western regional sales manager of the illustrious Shmaltz Brewing Company, who tasted us through some of his company’s intriguing brews.

Zak Davis met Schmaltz founder Jeremy Cowan while working for a Jewish non-profit group. “I ran a beer tasting, I met Jeremy, and I started working for him when he moved to San Francisco,” he said. “And I’ve been there ever since.” Today, Shmaltz produces two brands: the He’brew line of ales, and the Coney Island line of lagers. He’brew, Zak told us, began in 1996 as the nation’s first Jewish heritage beer. “The crowd we’re going for, though, is the craft brew crowd,” he said, “not just the Jewish crowd.”

I’m sure I’m not alone among the Winos in considering myself an accomplished beer drinker — I did go to college, after all — but for all those spent suds, many of us know shamefully little about beer’s ins-and-outs. I threw Zak a softball to kick things off: what’s the difference between an ale and a lager? “Ales are fermented at a higher temperature, with the yeasts on top,” he explained. “And lagers are fermented at a lower temperature with the yeasts on the bottom.” Lagers, he pointed out, encompass many of the beers that we beer philistines are most familiar with: Budweiser, Sam Adams, and Stella Artois, for example, are all lagers. (Ales include such varied names as Sierra Nevada, Newcastle, and Guinness, among innumerable others.)

We launched the tasting with the Coney Island Albino Python Lager. Right away, it was evident that this was no Budweiser clone. “It’s brewed with coriander, orange peel, ginger and fennel,” said Zak, “and with 40% wheat malt.” I got spicy and herbal notes all over the nose — extremely intriguing — while John picked up some banana bread. The palate rolled in much lighter than we’d anticipated, and offered up heaps of lemon. Jessica picked up “a lot of fennel,” and those of us who don’t know what fennel taste like were left wishing we did so that we could argue with her.

Zak had to open up two of the 22-ounce bottles to make it around the room — interestingly, the second bottle tasted more “yeasty” to the assemblage than the first. “It was probably nearer the end of the bottling,” Zak explained. Now there’s a consideration you don’t talk about too much in wine discourse: where your bottle wound up in the bottling order. In the beer world, though, it apparently makes a difference.

Next up was the flagship Coney Island Lager, featuring the pigmentation of an amber ale, and made with six types of malt and eight types of hops. “This is our pitcher-style beer,” said Zak. “It’s for people who are used to light lagers, but it’s still really interesting.” Indeed it was: Jason and I picked up a soy sauce character on the nose, and Allison got molasses. On the palate, Jessica tasted some maple candy, and John got some honey notes. “For a ‘gateway’ beer, it doesn’t taste like your typical lager,” offered Jason. He liked it, and said it was “malty.”

The next bottle in the Coney Island lineup was the Sword Swallower Lager, which Zak called their “IPA-inspired lager” (IPA = India Pale Ale). I picked up some delicious fresh-baked croissants on the nose, and managed to get a couple of the Winos to agree with me. The palate was lighter than the other two, but more hoppy (spicy) and less malty. Zak explained how the “dry-hopping” process creates “superficial hops” (all the beer people reading this will surely know what that means, even if I don’t). Darren called it “extremely hoppy,” and the sharp spice notes were a little much for a few of the beer-newbs present.

The last lager on the list was the Coney Island Freaktoberfest, which had been auspiciously colored with “leftover zombie blood” from the production of a horror movie in New York. The resulting beer poured out hot pink into the glass, but Zak assured us that the bizarre coloring agent had no more than a negligible affect on the flavor profile, and encouraged us to taste it as though we hadn’t seen it (I suppose to avoid any unfavorable “rosé beer” evaluations). Despite his disclaimer, several of us found the palate a bit sweeter than the others, although that wasn’t at all an unwelcome observation. Jason found it “very round” in the mouth, and appreciated the “malty nose.” The alcohol on this bottle was appropriately 6.66 percent. To get there, Zak explained, they simply added more malt, which creates more sugar — and, thanks to the wonders of fermentation, more alcohol.

Zak with his babies; the wine journalist does his best to switch gears; John can’t believe his nose

Next up was the He’Brew line, which we kicked off with the He’Brew Genesis “Light Brown” Ale. Zak called this bottle one of Shmaltz’s “session beers,” and explained that it’s meant to be “not too out there, not too complex.” The nose offered up big caramel notes, and the palate was easy-drinking, with significantly more body than the lagers. Jason thought it was “well-balanced,” and the bottle was positively received all around. Tasting the ale right after the four lagers really drove the differences home for some of the Winos, myself included; while ordering a single pint at a bar typically won’t do much to dispel the “tastes like beer” mindset, trying out different examples back-to-back puts all of the subtleties under a huge magnifying glass.

We followed the Genesis with the He’Brew “Messiah Bold” Dark Brown Ale. “Darker doesn’t necessarily mean heavier,” Zak cautioned us, “nor does it necessarily mean higher alcohol.” What it does mean, he explained, was that the malts are roasted for a longer period of time prior to fermentation. This was apparent when we smelled it (a lot of charcoal elements at play) and when we tasted it (big dark-roast coffee action). That said, the body was surprisingly light.

“People confuse the attributes that they assume go together when they’re ordering beer,” said Zak. “Someone will ask for the lightest beer we have, and the Sword Swallower is the lightest in color, but chances are those people do not want the Sword Swallower. Or they’ll ask for the darkest beer, which is the Messiah Bold, and I’m like, ‘ok, but just so you know, it’s dark, but it’s light.'” Sounds like a similar snag to what we sometimes run into in the wine world: people think all Riesling is sweet, because they’ve never tried one from Alsace or Clare Valley, or they expect their Zinfandel to be pink, because they’ve never been exposed to the good stuff. Most casual drinkers could use a crash course or two in their libations of choice, and the Winos are no exception when it comes to the brew-niverse.

With his next entry, the He’Brew Origin Pomegranate Ale, Zak engaged the controversial topic of fruit-flavored beers. “Too many fruit beers are a lot of fruit but not enough beer,” he complained. This one, though, was no fruit-bomb; the pomegranate was there for sure, but the malt and hops made major impressions of their own. Zak explained further that this was an Imperial Amber Ale — “imperial” in the beer world simply means “more than,” so, as he explained it, “maltier and hoppier.” I appreciated this bottle’s smoothness, while Jason commended the fruity kick at the end.

Things got a little more complicated on the next brew, the He’Brew Rejewvinator “Harvest to Harvest” Ale, which Zak told us was half dopplebock (a hearty German-style lager), half belgian double (a healthy Belgian-style ale), and brewed with fig concentrate (which sounds delicious). “So there’s Belgian yeast for floral character, lager yeast, and fig imparting caramel at the end,” he exalted. The nose was as intriguing as we’d hoped, with big notes of dried fruit: prunes, dates, and candied plums. The palate was also a treat; round and full, and slightly sweet, it featured lots of baking spice character. Noah appreciated the creaminess, and I observed that it had a total oatmeal cinnamon thing going on — not just in terms of flavor, but on a textural level as well. Clearly I need to start drinking more beer for breakfast.

Wrapping up the tasting was a bottled tribute to Lenny Bruce, the He’Brew Bittersweet Lenny’s R.I.P.A. (rye IPA), brewed with 20% rye malt. Noah noted some caramel on the nose, and the “dried fruit” claim from the previous bottle made a return appearance here. At 10% alcohol, this was on the high end of what you can expect to find in the beer spectrum, and we figured it would need a lot of flavor for the alcohol to be in balance. Fortunately, it delivered big: “this is huge!” came the collective opinion, followed by a smattering of “that’s what she said”s. The palate was extremely bitter, but gigantic caramel notes vied just as strongly for your tongue’s attention. John found it “striking,” and said “my eyes keep popping out every time I taste it.” Jason found it well-balanced, “despite the fact that both the malt and the hops are huge.” A few of the girls disagreed, and said it was too big for them. Well, hey… that’s what she said.

I asked Zak how he’d enjoyed running a beer tasting for a bunch of wine drinkers, and he told me that he’d appreciated the diversity of opinions that were shared. “But that’s basically how it always is,” he said. “You’ll always get somebody who likes a beer, and somebody else who thinks it tastes like vomit.” For our part, we were impressed with the diversity of styles and flavors contained within the Shmaltz line. From the brightness of the Albino Python to the hulking mass that was the R.I.P.A., this was a lineup for all tastes, and definitely one that’s piqued the Winos’ interest in venturing out from our insular little barrels to taste more craft suds sometime soon. And that’s exactly what Zak wanted to hear. “The craft brew world is kind of fraternal,” he said. “There’s almost a sense that ‘I hope you’re drinking my beer, but I’d rather you’re at least drinking craft beer, and being part of the revolution.'”

The whole lineup; Zak is surrounded by blurry faceless voids; stingy Jason wouldn’t let his fish have any beer

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.


  1. Hey guys. It’s Zak from Shmaltz. Wow! Great writeup. Couldn’t have summarized the evening any better myself. Really glad you all had a good time. Paige and I did too. Maybe next time, we’ll be able to do a beer and cheese/chocolate pairing or something. Have a great holiday!

    Comment by Zak Davis — December 11, 2008 @ 9:14 am

  2. Love me some beer!

    Comment by Dylan Conroy — December 11, 2008 @ 6:01 pm

  3. Lenny’s is just amazing. Zak was no where close to lying when he told me about that one.

    Comment by Mike — December 15, 2008 @ 8:06 pm

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