Celeste Beatty Is Forging A Path For Black Women In The Craft Beer World

The founder of Harlem Brewing Company turned a home-brewing adventure into a business that brings people from different cultures together.
Valerie Bradley/HuffPost

In 1993, North Carolina native Celeste Beatty moved to New York City and, soon after, started home-brewing in Harlem, a neighborhood whose brewery history dates back to 1905. In 2000, she founded Harlem Brewing Company and became one of the first — if not the first — Black women to own a craft beer brewery. Though her business is based in Harlem, the brewery has yet to open a taproom in Harlem —the beer is brewed and bottled in upstate New York and then gets distributed to bars, restaurants and retail outlets — and that’s just one of many challenges she’s faced. Later this year, she hopes to open Harlem Brew South, a taproom and educational center located in the beer desert Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Besides running the brewery, she keeps busy in other ways: She has co-hosted a monthly National Museum of Women in the Arts happy hour; she’s writing a cooking-with-beer cookbook; and she’s implementing the Grain to Glass Initiative, which provides grain seeds and processing equipment to Black farmers for growing grains for brewing, distilling and flour.

In this edition of Voices In Food, Beatty tells Garin Pirnia about how ice cream led her to beer, the obstacles she’s encountered in a white male-dominated industry and the impact that beer can have on communities.

There’s less than 1% of Black-owned breweries out of 9,000. We would probably be a lot further along if it were not for gender or not for race. But we didn’t allow that to stop us.

The project we’re working on in Rocky Mount is really a digging-in kind of project where we want to create the Brewers Village to try to create a space where people in the community — many of whom I meet day to day — have never imagined they’d be brewing beer. So we’re about to start our first class for people who want to just learn some basics about brewing and give them an opportunity to do that intergenerationally.

We have 21-year-olds and 60 and above who are going to be participating in the class. As we look around the country with so many different breweries, it’s something that’s unfortunately missing from so many of the Black and brown communities — to a point where I can just see it in the events happening in this town. People come out and they discover people who they had no idea are just down the block or in the same community, and beautiful things happen. Conversations unfold. But if we don’t have these places — and obviously, breweries are great places to create that type of space for people to connect — then we can’t see opportunities that you see in so many other communities, because people may be passing one another in the car. Those cars don’t stop and people don’t stop to find the spaces and places to connect.

But prior to all that, [I got my start] learning about ice cream — meeting Ben and Jerry and helping them operate their first partner shop in Harlem at the corner of 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. Those were my beginnings on the craft side, because I learned so much about ice cream and community engagement. Coming from a community engagement family, it kind of put me on that track because they were so involved with saving organizations and community activism.

But when I met Ben and Jerry — the company, them and their team — I saw business and craft in a very different way, and I was like, “Wow, these guys are doing something they love, but they’re coming to Harlem in the middle of a drug pandemic to open up an ice cream shop?” I mean, how could something like that be successful and how could they make a difference? And I really had a chance to rethink how businesses can make a difference and how they can be sources of empowerment and equity and so many different things. So that was kind of implanted in my brain as I watched how that project impacted the lives of homeless men and men coming out of incarceration in the middle of this epidemic.

“You want to help us out in February and that’s a good thing — but what about the rest of the year?”

That experience gave me a lot of things to consider as far as creating a beer company and thinking about, well, people like drinking beer. But how can we do something good with good beer? And that just blossomed in a way that I never imagined. I never imagined we could support elementary schools and things of that nature.

For my community, they saw me as the first Black woman in the craft beer business, specifically. They saw me out there doing things: brewing beer, having a product, having a brand, selling the brand. At that time, I wasn’t really thinking in any significant way, “Oh, this is a way to build brand awareness,” because people weren’t even using that phrase then. I was like, “This organization could use beer for their event and this can help them raise money, so why not?” We gave away a lot of product. But from a strategic standpoint, there wasn’t any strategy. It was just, “Wow, this is what companies do and this is something I believe in.”

Black History Month in February is the biggest month for us. Period. All these big companies reached out to us because they wanted to support Black businesses. But I did ask a couple of them: “Can you help people in Rocky Mount? They need a lot of help. Can you help this community organization?” Because we don’t have deep pockets like that. I get it. You want to help us out in February and that’s a good thing — but what about the rest of the year?

It was lonely at first, because even after the beginning when I would go out into the marketplace with my beers, I would get incredibly weird stares and sort of a brushoff like, you wouldn’t take me seriously. I got that quite a bit. But what I have seen happen as the craft beer industry has matured and there has been more dialogue is that I have actually had an incredible amount of outreach from white-bearded guys and people of all different backgrounds wanting to help, wanting to generally share resources. That happens more often than not. So I am encouraged by that.

I studied international relations and I had this plan to bring people to the table from different cultures and create peace and understanding. I spent some time in the Middle East and I realized it is not that simple to bring people together with these long-standing conflicts. When I got beyond home-brewing and decided to venture into creating a beer company, I was thinking, “Wow, well, I may not be able to get people to the table to make peace, but maybe we can get to a bar and share beers.” We have to talk to one another. We have to find places and spaces for whatever the platform is to just discover how much more we have in common. And what excites me about being in the beer business as it is and as it can become is being able to create those moments.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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