Harlem brewer taps her African-American roots for flavor


NEW YORK (Reuters) – Celeste Beatty, one of the first African-American woman brewers in the United States, sees craft beer making as a way to reconnect with her roots.

The flavors of the beers made by Beatty’s Harlem Brewing Co conjure up a proud tradition that was unwillingly left behind long ago when Africans were forced into slave ships bound for America in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

“Brewing beer was so deeply embedded in the African continent,” Beatty said. “Coming from Africa in the way we did, through slavery, we weren’t able to bring those traditions with us.”

Beatty found her passion when traveling to Zimbabwe and other African countries, where she discovered that women were often the keepers of the art of beer-making.

She returned to the United States inspired to enter an industry dominated by white men, and create beers, such as her Harlem Renaissance Wit, spiced with cumin, grains of paradise, orange peel and coriander, seasonings found in African brews.

“I think the barriers we’ve had are because of the perception of what a brewer is. It’s a man. With a beard. And typically a white guy. Not someone who looks like me,” Beatty said.

“Trying to pitch a beer to a bar, I could write a book about some of the reactions I’ve gotten,” she said.

“Most of the time it’s kind of a shock. ‘Beer? What do you know about beer?’” she recalled.

The United States is home to about 8,000 U.S. craft breweries, but the owners of only 1% of them are African American and only about 23% of all craft brewers are women, said Bart Watson, chief economist of the Brewers Association, which advocates for small and independent U.S. craft brewers.

Craft brewing, now an all-time high, is expected to pull in 25% of market share by dollars in 2019.

Still, there are small signs that craft beer culture is becoming more inclusive and diverse. One of its fresh voices is Chalonda White, who writes about her love of craft beer on her “Afro Beer Chick” blog.

In September, a racist message from a reader suggesting she did not belong in the industry triggered an outpouring of online support for her. White, 40, an office worker at a Chicago-area county water agency who blogs as a hobby, said she considers Beatty a pioneering African-American woman brewery owner.

“As far as I know, she’s the first,” White said.

After opening her first brewery in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem in 2000, Beatty returned to North Carolina, where she was born, to open “Harlem Brew South” in Rocky Mount.

Beers created by Beatty, who was previously employed by non-profit organizations that ran homeless shelters and worked with artists, are sold in bars and restaurants and various groceries from Whole Foods to corner stores.

Perhaps it is fitting that Beatty’s second brewery is housed in a former cotton mill built by slaves, in a community known as the birthplace of American jazz great Thelonious Monk and as the place where civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. delivered an early version of his “I Have a Dream” speech.

One of Beatty’s challenges, especially in the South, is gaining the support of churches that have long been the backbone of many African-American communities.

“Growing up in the South, particularly in the Bible Belt, alcohol and religion haven’t exactly aligned,” Beatty said. “It’s been difficult to break through the mindset that alcohol is a negative thing.”

Equally daunting are the Confederate flags she sometimes encounters on business trips, including one on a late afternoon in 2009 when she and her son were visiting a distributor in Georgia.

“We were kind of concerned that seeing these Confederate flags that we grew up believing was probably people who felt that we were not worthy or might want to do some harm to us,” Beatty said.

“We decided not to work with them because we just felt that maybe the culture there was not one that would support our brand.”

Additional reporting by Barbara Goldberg; Editing by Marguerita Choy