Celeste Beatty of Harlem Brewing is next up in the TapRm Brewer Spotlight series. Surprisingly, she's the first brewer based in New York City to be featured but NYC isn't the only banner she flies high. The brewery's namesake, the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan, is a rich part of every one of Celeste's brews. Despite other female led brewery partners at TapRm, Celeste is the only of them that's the actual brewer and, though she'd be quick to tell you all about the history of Harlem and those that came before her, she is well on her way to cementing a lasting craft beer legacy in the neighborhood.
TapRm: Harlem Brewing was founded in Harlem in 2000. Take us through the founding story of the brewery.
Celeste: I moved to Harlem 26 years ago because I wanted to be closer to the rich history of the neighborhood and my friends told me I was nuts. I have family members that were born and raised here. I wanted to have a chance to soak all of that in and be a part of it. In a community like Harlem that was coming back to life in a number of ways when I moved here, whatever I did, whether it was beer or something else, I knew it would need to be something that made a difference.
I’m a big gardener and I absolutely love beautification, planting flowers, making places nice. When I moved to Harlem I was very involved with cultivating gardens. Later on, I discovered hops and learned the beauty of growing them. I also love cooking - particularly with beer and wine. When I first came to the neighborhood it was a concrete jungle: buildings, pavement, and not a lot of grass. But there were a number of people in the community that were doing these beautiful gardens so I think my love for cooking, bringing people together, and my experimenting with the first beer kit that I got (I used the same pot by mom made soups in) evolved together over time. I had no idea that in the 1970s President Jimmy Carter passed a law allowing people to make small batch wines and beers. I started brewing small batches in my apartment on 123rd Street and Mt. Morris Park (also known as Marcus Garvey Park). The beer that I made wasn’t an immediate hit but as I got feedback I really enjoyed it and those were the beginnings of Harlem Brewing Company.
Brewing reminds me of my grandparents southern soup recipes. They made barley soup, lentil soup, pinto bean soup - every type of soup you can imagine - and most of it was stuff they grew on their farm in North Carolina. While the brewing process was similar to making soup, you weren’t able to enjoy beer immediately. You need to have a little bit more patience because you need a couple weeks for fermentation. But still, I was like, that’s all? You don’t need a degree in chemistry or anything like that and I fell in love with it because it resonated with something else I loved: getting my hands into the soil and planting.
TapRm: Harlem is one of the most culturally rich neighborhoods in the country, let alone New York City. What is the beer scene like here?
Celeste: If I were to talk about the beer scene when I first started brewing, I wouldn’t even call it a scene. It was dominated by all the brands we just saw in Super Bowl commercials. As a craft brewer, going into bars and restaurants when I first started the company, they’d looked at me like I was a beer alien. Those big brands rule the space here and around the City. We were the only craft beer. None of the brands that you hear about today were even around in 2001. Those that were didn’t have a presence in the market. As the community has evolved and dramatically changed over the past 5-10 years, the interests of many of the people that have moved here have brought a demand and a desire to taste craft. Now, our brand has been embraced tremendously. The knowledge and insights through publicity and social media connecting people has really broadened the understanding and awareness of what craft beer is. The other thing that’s shifted is there are now a lot more bars and restaurants in Harlem. As the craft beer revolution has unfolded, those bars and restaurants have changed and shifted towards craft. The whole local culture of people wanting to promote local farmers and artists is also part of the evolution. I think we have a whole movement of local sensibilities and an understanding of how supporting a local brand uplifts and supports the community. It’s refreshingly different to see how much more craft beer has been embraced in Harlem although there are still a few stores that's like traveling back in time and I’m like, “You guys haven’t gotten the message yet?”
TapRm: Not only is your brewery named after the neighborhood but each of your brews has something to do with Harlem, as well. How do the non-beer traditions and history of the neighborhood inspire you?
Celeste: Sugar Hill Golden Ale is our first beer to launch and our flagship brew. Sugar Hill is where we’re sitting right now on 141st Street - although it’s much debated where Sugar Hill actually is. Sugar Hill is such a special community in the history of our country in so many ways. We’re right down the block from Alexander Hamilton’s house. Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train - “take the A train to go Sugar Hill way up in Harlem” - is all about the aspiration to live a certain lifestyle, to aspire to be the greatest you can be whatever your craft. James Reese Europe, who was a bandleader of the 369th Regiment, did parades down on Fifth Avenue where the library is. This is serious history right underneath our feet that is so important. A lot of my inspiration for what we do with the beers - not just the names - but supporting the very important legacies of Harlem that have to be celebrated. As Harlem has changed through gentrification, I want to make sure that we don’t lose these things and history that make Harlem one of the most popular tourist destinations in the city. Ultimately naming the beer Sugar Hill was all about paying tribute to that history.
Renaissance Wit - next year will be the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance - that time when there was such a convergence of artistic freedom here in Harlem. People from all over the country and all over the world gathered. People came from Africa, the Caribbean, Central America, Germany, France - so many different places - because they heard this story of this great thing that was happening in Harlem. Talking about Harlem, people say it’s too black, it’s too ethnic, nobody’s going to buy it but I refuse to accept that. I will never be able to live up to the name Harlem but at least we attempted to use this as a banner to say something positive about it.
125th Street IPA - 125th Street is one of the top 10 most famous streets in America. I’m very proud of this beer because 125th Street is now more than 200 years old and there’s so much energy and culture on it still. There’s a lot of iconic stuff that’s happened on 125th Street and it’s disappearing because of the big box places. We certainly hope we never lose the Apollo Theater, The Hotel Theresa, The Studio Museum, and a number of other places. If you look at craft beer cans and all that they celebrate, there’s so much happening and all this crazy fun stuff. Ours pay tribute to our community and our neighborhood.
TapRm: This interview is being conducted in your “brewdio.” Tell us about this space.
Celeste: The “brewdio” (brewery + studio) is a live/workspace that has become such an interesting place for us. There are a couple of brewing systems here. As we know, technology has been a great influencer in the way we connect and the way we brew. These systems allow us to experiment with different styles of beer. I can test these things here on this small system. This is a place where we experiment, but we also have an opportunity to let people come in and do small batches and have a hands on experience brewing. One of the things that I’ve enjoyed about being in the beer business is the conversations. My background is in international relations so I’ve always had an interest in bringing different cultures together just to find common ground and often times that’s around a table (over the past 18 years that’s been around a table that has a beer). We’ve had people come here through our “Air BnBeer” experience where people come from around the community and around the world to meet - we’ve even had one engagement between people who have met here! It’s so important in the world we live in today to be able to have a conversation and I’ve enjoyed the journey brewing and how it connects people - especially in the “brewdio.”
TapRm: There seem to be a lot of brewers diving into the craft beer scene in the outer boroughs but Manhattan brewers - either due to space or cost or something else - don’t exist at the same rate as Brooklyn, Queens, or the Bronx. Do you believe that that’s the case? Do you feel you’re taking up the mantle for the whole borough and not necessarily just the neighborhood?
Celeste: I wasn’t thinking that we would take up the banner for Manhattan but, after winning the Best Brew of NYC, it sort of happened that way. I’ve been home brewing in Harlem for 20+ years but we’re pretty close to having a commercial brewing presence in Manhattan. Brooklyn and Queens are huge with the industrial space and the lay of the land. They offer so many more opportunities. Manhattan is the epicenter of culture and finance and so it’s very expensive to do anything. Brewing requires space so that’s quite prohibitive. I’ve seen a couple breweries try to do brewing in Manhattan but they didn’t survive. The borough presents a unique challenge because of its place in our world in terms of what it represents, and wealth, and all those other buzzwords. I wouldn’t say I get jealous of our friends in Queens and Brooklyn but they certainly have a lot more opportunity in those places right now. We’ll see what happens to the breweries in Long Island City as Amazon moves in and creates a hotbed of high priced real estate there.
TapRm: It’s not a secret that you don’t look like most brewers out there. How has being a woman of color shaped your approach to beer - whether the brewing process, the business of running a brewery, or something that no one thinks of as an obstacle or even advantage?
Celeste: I would say that because there are so few of us doing this, often times there’s a great deal of expectation from the community. You’re kind of seen as this “beer goddess.” It’s exciting but it’s a lot of pressure because it can sometimes feel like - wow, they’re really counting on me to be successful, they’re rooting for me. On one hand you don’t want to let them down but then on the other you have the realities of what it takes to sustain a brand. There are obstacles that you have to deal with no matter what your color and then being female and with race, it’s been a colorful experience in a lot of ways - a lot of pain, a lot of ongoing challenges - but overall the response to being a female brewer and a black brewer has been amazing. One of the issues that I’ve been challenged with being a woman from an African-American community is the seeming serious concern of it being alcohol. I spent some time in Africa and met women who have been brewing beer there for thousands of years. It’s a part of the culture that we have a connection to and a heritage that we don’t know about.
I have an advantage too. Over this past year we’ve got at least five offers from communities like Harlem and especially some in Georgia and Alabama to bring our energy there and it’s a special thing to see what they perceive as something really unique and special. A lot of what we’re doing involves education and working with HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges & Universities) in chemistry, supply chain, and agriculture. Teaching things that I love like how to grow a hop (we call them hip-hops), teaching not just what hops do in beer but what they do in terms of food. A lot of people don’t realize that the early shoots of hops are like asparagus. You can sauté and eat them. There is a chemical compound inside of hops that, if you weren’t to put them in beer, have a lot of antioxidants that can be used to treat cancer. A lot of the conversations we’re having as I’m involved with our projects in North Carolina and Harlem has nothing to do with brewing. It has everything to do with engaging the community and talking to them about what beer is and the background of beer. I feel a sense of excitement and obligation to make sure that my relationship to beer and how I share it with my community, in particular, has to be a holistic one.
TapRm Staff Note: Celeste's brews are featured in our GALentine's Day Pack celebrating our female led breweries!
TapRm: Harlem Brewing is the first New York City brewery to be featured on the TapRm Brewer Spotlight. When did your relationship with TapRm begin and do you see craft beer drinkers being willing to buy beer online?
Celeste: We met TapRm a little over a year ago. We had been with a very well-known distributor and had an amazing relationship with them but they were a huge company and very intimidating. As brands evolve, relationships evolve and needs evolve - we were one of the few craft beer brands but now we were surrounded by so many amazing beers. Finding our voice was really challenging so we had to look at that and make some hard decisions to make a radical change - not necessarily to go bigger but to go with someone who was doing innovative things that would be good for our brand like online beer sales. I think here in New York, people have gotten very comfortable getting a package in the mail for everything that now it’s part of our culture. I was really intrigued by being able to do that and some of the other things that TapRm was planning on doing socially. I felt that we needed to be with someone who really focused on some of the creativity that was happening in the space and was excited by what TapRm had to offer.