There were 123 winners at the Ontario Brewing Awards in September, but only one beer was specifically certified kosher.
Normally, kosher certification doesn’t matter for beer – it’s pareve by default, consisting only of hops, malt, yeast and water. But this beer was different: it was a raspberry ale. The creators knew they wanted to make their beer kosher, because they couldn’t have drank it any other way.
Ben and Jamie Shillow, the married couple behind Shillow Beer, have been living Orthodox lives since around 2012, when Ben left a rising career as a sommelier and manager at fine-dining restaurants. “I couldn’t navigate a hospitality career while living essentially a frum life,” Ben explains, because he’d have to work Fridays and Saturdays.
He transitioned to selling upscale wines to companies and private buyers, while Jamie tinkered with homebrewing when she wasn’t serving up drafts in downtown Toronto.
But what started as a hobby evolved into something more. Jamie stopped buying premade kits and shifted to all-grain brewing from scratch, casually submitting her ales to homebrewing competitions. Eventually, she won one of them – a competition pitting teams of bar staff across the city against each other. Jamie led her team with a recipe she’d been honing at home for months, and together they decided on a name: Bitter Waitress.
“We just had fun with it,” she recalls. “We made a beer that we would like to drink. That’s really always been my approach to brewing.”
The Shillows decided to take brewing seriously. Jamie enrolled at Niagara College’s two-year brewing program, tolerating a 90-minute daily commute from Toronto (three hours if traffic was bad), while Ben grabbed the reins of the business side and began sussing out partnerships and contracts.
“We took a real chance,” Jamie recalls.
Their main account, at first, was Beerbistro, Jamie’s former employer. “I knocked on Beerbistro’s door for a year-and-a-half, trying to get them to collaborate,” Ben says. Ultimately they won out, leading to their public debut: Sass on the Side, a brown ale that’s still served exclusively on tap at the King Street restaurant.
With precisely one client and one beer, they were officially in business. Their next step was broader distribution. They submitted Bitter Waitress to the LCBO in 2015, hoping it would get accepted as a seasonal beer. While anxiously waiting for a response, a text from a colleague informed them the LCBO had indeed accepted their beer – as a full-year offering.
The Shillows were shocked. This was great news, of course, but it also meant they had to ramp up production from making 500-litre batches to 6,000 litres in a couple months.
“The rest was a race to get everything ready,” Ben recalls. They needed to design the cans, find suppliers, contract a brewery willing to rent out their facility, send quality-control samples, scale up production and check label requirements in the span of just a few months.
“At each stage, we were getting excited, but also a little shocked that this is really actually happening,” Jamie says. “It was exciting and scary at the same time.”
These days, they’ve teamed up with Common Good Brewery in Scarborough to produce some of their beers, including their kosher raspberry ale, on sale at Common Good’s retail shop.
Finding a trustworthy brewery that understood the parameters of kashrut was tricky, the Shillows say – some brewers will brew pareve beers in the same machines they use to brew their oyster- or bacon-infused ales. One time, Ben recalls sniffing an unflavoured IPA and detecting something fruity. “Oh yeah,” the bartender told him, “our brewmaster likes to toss in mango sometimes to make things interesting.”
“The level of transparency is another discussion,” Jamie says with a sigh.
They hope to fight that when they open their own brewery in 2019, in Ottawa, where they’ve moved to raise their two young kids. They’re optimistic about breaking ground as Orthodox brewers.
“It will be the only completely certified kosher brewery in Canada,” Ben says.