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Something Brewing In Harlem!

Mon, 02/16/2015


2015 Brews a Busy Year for Harlem Brewery: First Brewpub and European Expansion on Tap

By Milford Prewitt

Food historians trace the origin of beer back some 3,000 years ago to Mesopotamia (Iraq and Syria today) where it was probably women famers who accidentally discovered the refreshing brew that comes from fermenting barley, yeast and other grains.

Although the passing millennia would bring hops to the recipe and come to see men dominate the world’s second-most-heaviest-consumed beverage on earth, women are reclaiming their ancestral roots in the “man’s world” of beer brewing.

One of the few is Celeste Beatty, a proud and scholarly member of an ancient and growing sisterhood of female brew masters who is changing the look of craft beer brewing.

Even within that tiny subset of women brewers, Beatty’s uniqueness stands out because she is one of the few black women in the industry.

For the past 17 years, Beatty has been the president and face of the celebrated Harlem Brewery, a craft brewer that is best known in New York City and along the East Coast for its top selling brew, Sugar Hill Golden Ale. More recently, the company added Harlem Renaissance Wit to its mix. The brew has become a big hit at two Harlem hotspots, The Cecil and Minton’s.

Named Harlem Entrepreneur of the Year in 2014, Beatty's company counts more than 5,000 points of distribution, from Florida to New England, with most of that concentrated in the New York City metropolitan area. About 2,000 of those outlets are restaurants and other food service venues, which includes Harlem’s famed Sylvia’s, where Sugar Hill Golden Ale is the featured brew.

But 2015 is looming to be a pivotal year for growth.

European expansion, new domestic markets, and most dramatically, the launch of its first full-service brewpub on the same location as one of Harlem’s most legendary nightclubs are making for a busy year.

Beatty is moving forward to debut a small-batch pilot brewery pub on 138th and Adam Clayton Powell Blvd. in the same 1,600-square-foot space where Noble Sissle, one of Harlem’s most prominent composers, operated a song shop and a very popular restaurant – the late, great Red Rooster (whose name was reborn with celebrity-chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Harlem flagship). A host of jazz luminaries performed there.

Beatty says that heirs of the family that currently own the building and operated the Red Rooster are excited about the possibility  of reviving the spirit of the place with live brewing and music. 

The restaurant will feature beer production on premise and a full-service menu that is still being developed.

“It’s been a very rewarding journey,” says Beatty, “and what I’m looking to do after so many years is to invite the community to brew with us, to experience the art of beer and food pairings with great music. We will finally have a flagship home  – a pilot brewery – right here in Harlem, helping revive a long lost tradition.”​

Both Jazz at Lincoln Center and Motema Music, an independent jazz and world music label, have pledged their support to the project.

Beatty says the restaurant will have some unusual and distinctive design and architectural features. Among these includes shipping pallets for flooring and chandeliers made out of beer bottles. She also has on board an award-winning food and beverage expert who will shepherd the opening of the place.

She estimates that the restaurant will have 60-to-70 seats and an outdoor, mini-beer garden in the warmer months.

She says the opening of the brewery pub cannot come a minute sooner.

“You have no idea how many calls we get from tour groups who want to see how and where we brew our beers” she says. “But it has been a challenge finding a space and dealing with the industry, the city and their regulations.”

Her son, Khouri Beatty, business partner and her chief motivator, is instrumental in all aspects of the family business, she says.

“There have been some moments when I just said why am I doing this and he would say, ‘don’t give up, mom! Keep brewing it!' ”

Beatty says she is blessed and very grateful for the seed investment from locals  – including a Harlem based music executive, a prominent real estate developer, friends and family.

Another project under review is the possibility of opening a brewery plant in Harlem. Currently, Harlem Brewery's products are commercially made in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., just down the road from Beatty's 170-acre hops farm. She relays that Harlem operated several breweries at one point and made some of the best beer in the city. One of those breweries was in the Mink Building, formerly the Bernheimer Schwartz Brewery. It employed more than 200 people and was a meeting place for locals. 

In 2011, Mayor Michael Bloomberg tapped Harlem Brewing to consider reviving the brewery plant in the Mink Building and the Taystee Bakery. Beatty is still considering the project.

Harlem Brewery’s first foray in international expansion is also on tap this year. It plans to jump across the pond and enter for the first time Ireland, England and Sweden.

More domestic expansion is also on the agenda. Besides expansion in California, Michigan and a number of other new markets, Harlem Brewery’s products will also be available in Sugar Hill, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.

Beatty notes that she homebrewed her early recipes out of her Harlem home, carrying on a tradition with deep roots in Harlem.

Meanwhile, Harlem Brewery will be teaming up with various retailers and restaurateurs for four events to celebrate Craft Beer Week in NYC from Feb. 20th to March 1.

Some celebrities are loving the brew. Sugar Ray Leonard, who had Sugar Hill Ale shipped to his California home and Harlem native Antonio Fargas (the Huggy Bear street character from the1970’s “Starsky and Hutch” cop show) have made commercials for the the brewer and are supporters of the Build the Harlem Brewery Go Fund Me Campaign.

Beatty hails from North Carolina, following the footsteps of family members who migrated to Harlem in the 1960s. She grew up loving farms and gardening, helping her mother and grandmother make soup. She drew inspiration from musicians in the family who traveled the world performing with Ragtime genius Scott Joplin, Blues founder W.C. Handy and other legends.

Another vital source of inspiration in her business was a trip she made to Africa some years ago where she marveled at the home brews local villagers made in Southern Africa.

Beatty says strong relationships and being in touch with mentors has been key to her success. She encourages entrepreneurs to never lose touch with wizened mentors as their careers progress.

In Beatty’s case, she was a mentee of Ben Cohen, one the two famed icons behind the zany ice cream manufacturer, Ben & Jerry’s of Burlington, VT. After moving to Harlem, she worked with the two intrepid and colorful entrepreneurs and checks in with them a couple of times a year to discuss business strategy.

After deciding to venture into the beer industry, she also befriended the late civil-rights leader, politican, lawyer and Manhattan Borough President Percy Sutton and sought his insightful advice on a number of business issues, she notes.

“I think the cultivation of relationships is key to business growth,” Beatty says.

On top of everything going on with her and the company in 2015, she is adding yet another chapter to her journey: She will be teaching beer brewing at City College this year.