Photo by Steed Media Service
In the 1990s, Celeste Beatty traveled Europe, Central America and Africa as an exchange student to study local beer brewing customs after perfecting duplicates of American ales like Samuel Adams. She founded Harlem Brewing Company, the maker of Sugar Hill Golden Ale (delicious, I’ve tried) in 2000.
Harlem Brewing recently sealed a partnership with the major distributor Manhattan Beer Distributors, which supplies 35 percent of New York Cityâ€™s market. The deal is helping to get Sugar Hill Golden Ale into bodegas, supermarkets and restaurants around New York City.
A native of North Carolina, Celeste gives 10 percent of her companyâ€™s income to charity, usually to jazz organizations. Here’s Celeste…
How did you get involved in the beer business? What do you like most about beer?
I just love cooking. Recently I started collecting stories about homebrewed recipes. In our own family, we have a history of relatives that made wine, liquors and beers. This tradition is well known throughout the country and particularly in the southern region of the USA—even down in the Caribbean islands.
I started brewing in my apartment with a homebrewing kit. A passion slowly turned into a small beer company. I Iove the aroma of barley (reminds me of the sensation I get from breakfast oatmeal), especially during the boiling phase, and the combined aroma of the barley and then the hops! Almost like cooking your homemade favorite food recipes; there are so many specialty grains that are used in brewing, all with unique characters and flavors.
The Harlem Brewing Company is 86 years old, but the Sugar Hill ale we know now originates from brewing work that took place in 1996. Can you talk more about this process, and preserving the history of a company while still steering it forward in today’s economy?
Legend has it that there was a beer being brewed in Harlem on Sugar Hill. We recaptured the name from that legend. We celebrate the history of the period and also incorporate the new Harlem Renaissance. Much of our promotions combine the old and the new through our work with a diverse line up of local musicians like Harlem native Chuk Fowler and Nefertari Bey.
We have also reached out to other “Sugar Hill” communities throughout the USA, such as Sugar Hill, New Orleans, to celebrate our mutual histories. The name Sugar Hill, was highlighted in the Billy Strayhorn song performed by Duke Ellington’s Orchestra,”Take the A Train” (up to Sugar Hill in Harlem). It referred to the sweet life. Our company commercial starring Huggy Bear (from “Starsky and Hutch”) or Antonio Fargas refers to the sweet life. Harlem’s history will always be in vogue regardless of economic trends and rezonings.
As owner of Harlem Brewing Company, how would you describe your company? Besides making and selling good beer, what particular mission, if any, do you have for the Harlem Brewing Company?
We are a community brand. Our very name, Sugar Hill, embraces a wonderful history that is Harlem culture; its music, its literature, its food, its people! Our mission is to elevate, celebrate and preserve the history of Harlem globally, in particular, the Harlem Renaissance. As we prepare to launch our brand in in Asia, we’ve begun putting together a music tour as well.
I see that the Harlem Brewing Company offers recipes and classes on how to make your own brew on its website. Do you experiment with making different beers? What do you look for in a good beer?
This summer we grew our own hops and plan to brew a holiday spicy beer for family and friends; about 40 bottles or so. I think a beer has to have real character, a nice aroma and finish, a balance. The more natural the beer is without all of the preservatives and adjuncts, the greater the flavor!
What’s life like for you as a black woman in the beer business? What does your family think about your line of work?
It’s an adventure of a life time! My family enjoys drinking delicious beers! They are excited about my work. My son works many of the promotional events with me and he loves to cook with beer. He’s competed successfully in cooking competitions using our beer.
What particular challenges does Harlem Brewing Company face when it comes to competing with other beers, like Sam Adams or Corona?
We don’t have their marketing budgets, so we have to work particularly hard to keep our brand on the consumer radar using word of mouth and lots of cross promotions. At the end of the day, the beer truly has to be good and that’s especially important to us!
Is alcoholism something that you worry about as an owner of a brewing company with such a community-oriented identity?
One thing I’ve enjoyed about being in the beer business and having a young adult son is having the opportunity to speak to him and his friends about responsible drinking and also about the science and culinary joys of beer and alcohol. I speak regularly to high school students and teachers about being an entrepreneur in the beer industry. I urge them to be responsible and think broadly about its diverse uses.
What community events…or new beers…does Harlem Brewing Company have in store?
Well, there are a number of initiatives. We definitely want to do a big beer event in Harlem to introduce specialty beer to the community. We also plan to open a brew pub and are searching for spaces currently. We plan to launch our beer in China in 2008 at the invitation of the NY in China Center in Beijing.
As for new beers, nothing on tap for the retail markets but you’re always invited over for a tasty home brew!