Celeste Beatty, “not quite 50″ as she describes herself, has many passions in life, but she took two of her biggest, a love of Harlem and knack for homebrewing, and turned them into a successful business venture when she opened Harlem Brewing Company in 2001. Today her signature brew, Sugar Hill Golden Ale, is now served across the globe, and it’s still the featured beer at the legendary soul food establishment Sylvia’s, which also happens to be the first Harlem spot to serve it. Though she now splits her time between Harlem and Jamaica, Queens, Harlem residents will be seeing her a lot more in the coming months when her brewpub opens in the neighborhood this fall, which is also when she’ll be launching two new styles — Harlem Wit and Harlem IPA – and debuting kegs for the first time in 13 years. It’s a family affair, as she works and brews with her business partner and son Khouri Beatty, 31. In honor of Harlem Week 2013 (harlemweek.com), we caught up with Celeste to get some insight on her love of the neighborhood and what it takes to be a successful businesswoman in today’s booming craft beer community.
What originally drew you to New York and how has it impacted you professionally?
As a child I frequently traveled to New York to visit family and friends and learned so much about the amazing history of Harlem. Countless walks down 125th Street and Lenox Avenue, visits to the Schomburg Center, the Apollo Theater and local churches — plus neighborhood events inspired me tremendously. And still do today!
What prompted you to start brewing beer in a small studio near Marcus Garvey Park?
I’ve always enjoyed the aroma and flavors of the traditional recipes that my mother, grandmother and aunts would serve at dinners and special family reunions, sometimes with beer or homemade wine and ginger beer. As I traveled, I learned about the local traditions of other cultures and began incorporating many of the spices in our family recipes and infusing them with beer (I’m in an Indian biryani groove right now). Growing up in the Southern tradition of farm-to-table soul food [tradition] — the abundance of fresh produce, meat and fish from local farms and gardens resonates well with the spirit of craft brewing. Collaborating with the community to find the best local ingredients to make great beer is a truly gratifying experience. After learning to brew, it was like watching my mother single-handedly orchestrate one of her tasty dry bean soups with all of her signature spices. My love of brewing has connected well with my love of gardening, especially growing hops, barley and many different herbs and flowers. Add to that the words from Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem Sweeties whistling down from the Fire Tower, Billie Holiday’s God Bless the Child, and top it off with a down-home Southern dinner at Sylvia’s — this provided all of the nurturance I needed to start brewing.
How did you go from home brew to opening your own brewery, and why did you start it in Harlem?
I spent lots of time cooking, tasting and performing trials before fine-tuning recipes, but encouragement from friends and family was the most important key. Harlem has a pretty active brewing history, and several major breweries operated in Harlem including the Bernheimer Schwartz brewery on Amsterdam Avenue that dates back to 1905 in a building that still stands today.
Tell us about the brewing traditions of Harlem and if and how they’ve affected your process?
More than anything, beer has been enjoyed throughout nearly every renaissance in the world for thousands of years particularly in Africa with the Nubians. In fact, we’re planning to examine items, including beer bottles that were unearthed in Seneca Village, an early settlement of African-Americans in Central Park, hoping to gather some details about the people and the ingredients. Of course there is plenty of prohibition era brewing history in New York including in Harlem. Many of these local beer stories serve as an inspiration.
What inspired you to create a beer named Sugar Hill and what does Harlem mean to you?
The inspiration for the beer name came from my mother. She took the “A train” (Amtrak) from North Carolina to the A train subway in New York City up to Sugar Hill in Harlem to visit her sister Evelyn. They were both huge Duke Ellington and Langston Hughes fans. The stories they told about their experiences on Sugar Hill, and its rich history always inspired my siblings and me. I recently learned that Billy Strayhorn, of Take the A Train fame, actually enjoyed cooking his popular red beans and rice in beer! Does anyone have that recipe?
How has the neighborhood changed since you first moved there and what do you think of its current renaissance?
Since moving to Harlem in the early ’90s, and visiting for the first time in the early ’70s, so much has changed. Wow, the entire landscape is different. Overall the current renaissance has been quite positive, but we must work together to make sure that the soul of the community is preserved along with important traditions and legacies that make Harlem one of the greatest communities in the universe.
What are some of your favorite Harlem hangouts and why?
One of my favorite hangouts is Marcus Garvey Park. I recently saw the Classical Theater of Harlem’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The setting is just magical.
What spots in Harlem and beyond are you most proud of that carry your beer?
We are proud of all the places that carry our beer, but I would say that the one we are most ecstatic about is our very first — the legendary soul food spot Sylvia’s Restaurant.
Are you planning on opening a retail outlet or pub soon?
We are exploring opening the Harlem Brew Garden at MIST Harlem on 116th Street [a food, arts and cultural venue] very soon and a brewpub at a location in central Harlem this fall.
The beer brewing industry is traditionally a male-dominated business. What challenges, if any, have you faced as a businesswoman in the industry and what did you learn from them?
So many businesses are male dominated, but traditionally many women have brewed beer and picked hops. The fact is that many of our supporters are men like Simon Bergson, pioneer and founder of Manhattan Beer Distributors, and Pete Slosberg, a tremendous beer pioneer and founder of Pete’s Wicked Ale. Jon Bloostein, founder of Heartland Brewery, also shared many insights about the industry in the early days. I love the craft beer community because they are so open and welcoming. It’s exciting to connect with more and more women brewers these days. Many of our customers are male and increasingly female.
What does a typical day look like for you?
There is no typical day in this industry. Usually I am reviewing our event calendar with the Harlem Brew team, making sure beer is delivered to accounts, shipping samples to distributors to everywhere from California to Sweden, tracking deliveries to charitable events, meeting with restaurants, sales team and artists, reviewing floor plans for our new brew house, ordering kegs, checking on hops, plus lots of calls and emails. And, of course, enjoying a tasty brew at the end of the day.
Where other projects are you working on?
Teaching a brewing class at City College of New York in September, and there’s a Harlem Brew cameo on NBC Universal’s Ironside with Blair Underwood this fall.
What advice would you give to someone looking to start a brewing business in New York City?
Be original, passionate and collaborative. Anyone can make beer and design a great label; genuine relationships are what fuel great local brands. Focus on making good beer and doing some good too in the community, and you’ll have a lifetime supply of friendships.
Find out more about how New Yorkers are making it in the big city with our Cool Job Q&As.