Harlem Brewing Company

By Alex Gearhart

The aspiring story of a homebrewer becoming a professional brewer is a common one, but the story of Celeste Beatty and Harlem Brewing Company is unique.

Celeste stumbled upon homebrewing and fell in love with the practice. Stewing the wort over a big pot reminded her of the bean soups that her mother used to make when she was a little girl growing up in Harlem. Celeste ran with her newfound love, and in the spring of 1996 sat down to create the recipe that would become Harlem Brewing Co.’s Sugar Hill Golden Ale named for the famous Billy Strayhorn song, “Take the A Train (up to Sugar Hill in Harlem)” as popularized by Duke Ellington.

Having worked with Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream on a project as her introduction to the food/beverage industry, and after honing her skills as a homebrewer and hop grower, Celeste partnered in the Mojo Highway Brewing Co. The lessons she learned from Ben and Jerry’s about social entrepreneurship and the knowledge she gained about the brewing industry from the short-lived Mojo Highway project, recharged Celeste’s fervor to get the Harlem Brewing Co. up and running to show the public the “craft side of beer.”

Like most craft breweries today, Harlem Brewing was born out of passion—for the beer of course—but also for the cultural significance of Harlem. The Harlem renaissance that flourished in the early 20th century was a time of art, music and dance. Today, the second Harlem renaissance is coming about with a revitalization of  “businesses, renovations, and a new spirit,” said Beatty; backed by, among other things, Harlem’s Sugar Hill Beer.

The Harlem Brewing Company fought an uphill battle in Harlem, with the negative connotations associated with beer, malt liquor and alcohol in general. Educating the public is a key philosophy of the company as well as “being mindful with those consumers who hold negative images of alcohol,” said Beatty.

For the past 11 years Harlem Brewing has been contract brewing their Sugar Hill Ale at a location in Saratoga Springs, New York. In July 2011, Mayor Bloomberg approved a project to allow for Harlem Brewing to occupy a building on Amsterdam and 126th Street in Harlem. In the next three years, Harlem Brewing should finally be up and running in its hometown.

Aside from participating in charitable events for music and school programs, Harlem Brewing is busy working with their developer to get the new building up and running, as well as planning new beers to brew, growing hops, and creating a spent grain-fed garden at the future brewery. A campaign to raise money for the new location will also be launched this spring.

The passion with which Celeste speaks about her project is infectious and the support that she has received will finally make the dream of Harlem Brewing a reality in the near future. The love of beer and Harlem will no doubt be a continual driver of Harlem’s second renaissance and the greater craft beer awareness that is sweeping the country.

Thanks to Celeste and the other members of Harlem Brewing Company, the growing second renaissance of Harlem will be able to propagate and quench its thirst with its own locally produced craft beer.

Alex GearhartAlex Gearhart, current Craft Beer Program intern at the Brewers Association, is a worshipper of the sun and cottonwoods, he can be found homebrewing when not exploring the Colorado Plateau. After completing his BA in Spanish for Business from the University of Colorado at Boulder in May, he plans to take his knowledge from the Napa Valley of Beer to Brazil to start his own brewpub.