During the 1930s, Harlem’s Adam Clayton Powell Boulevard was known as the “Boulevard of Dreams.” As the epicenter of Black American culture during the Harlem Renaissance, it was home to buzzing nightclubs and lounges like Club Hot-Cha, Jerry’s Log, and Small’s Paradise, the patrons of which included national treasures like Zora Neale Hurston, Billie Holiday, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, and many more. Prohibition may have been the law of the land, but that didn’t stop people from having a good time.
Nearly a century later, that tradition continues with Harlem Hops, the neighborhood’s first entirely Black-owned craft beer bar.
Opened in the summer of 2018, the bar makes its cultural connections clear at the outset, from the beautifully handwritten story of beer in Africa on a chalkboard near the entrance to the spray-painted mural on the back patio that gives a nod to the early days of hip hop. Owners Kim Harris, Kevin Bradford, and Stacey Lee—all three of them graduates of Historically Black Colleges and Universities—wanted it no other way.
A former restaurant consultant who used to travel to Queens and Brooklyn from Upper Manhattan just to get good craft beer, Harris initially came up with the idea for Harlem Hops about five years ago and decided to partner with Lee, an event planner and owner of a marketing firm. After an early partnership ended up going sour, Harris connected with Bradford, a beer connoisseur who ran a series of beer-tasting events out of his Harlem brownstone.
Together, the three of them apparently found the formula for instant success. “When we opened, there was a line down the block,” Harris recalls of the bar’s grand opening in June. “We had a line from about 6 or 7 o’clock till 12 A.M.”
And that was without a massive marketing push—or really any push at all. “Really it's been word of mouth and guerrilla—just people passing it,” Harris adds.
"The community has been very supportive,” Bradford says. “The turnout here at the bar can vary from someone with a vast knowledge of beer all the way to someone who's very neophyte in knowing beer. So it's a nice little mix.”
Kevin, Stacey, and Kim’s connections to HBCUs have also helped spread the word. “[Other graduates] are all like, ‘We know you graduated from HBCUs and we wanted to come and support you. I don't drink beer but I'm here, can you show me something?’ We have a lot of that,” says Harris.
“Because all of us went to HBCUs and we know that education is key, we will plan on giving back to our community as well,” Lee adds. In the spring, the owners plan to award a rising or graduating senior with a scholarship on behalf of Harlem Hops.
When it comes to the bar’s beer, Bradford is the resident expert. A school teacher by day, he fell in love with craft beer during his days at Hampton University almost 20 years ago. He’s also responsible for building and sustaining relationships with a number of brewers across the city.
“When it comes to selection, I'm looking at barrel-aged stouts, wheat ales, and lagers,” he says. “IPAs are our top seller so we’re always have to have those on tap.”
One important thing about serving craft beer at its peak freshness is to ensure that the lines from the kegs to the taps remain clean. At Harlem Hops, the process of doing a water rinse happens every four to six weeks. “After every keg, we rinse our lines,” Bradford says. “You'd be surprised—some brewers, even some big bars, don’t practice this as often as they should. And you can taste the lack of freshness in the beer.”
Out of the 16 taps behind the bar, four of them are for IPAs. There are also two types of bottled beers available, along with 19 canned options. Harlem Hops also keeps wine and cider on tap, and a whiskey produced by the Black-owned distillery Uncle Nearest, which is one of their top-selling spirits.
The Harlem Hops trio makes a point of supporting other people of color who are blazing their own trails in the wine, beer, and spirits industries. As much as possible, they source beers from local breweries owned by men and women of color in Harlem, Queens, and Brooklyn.
“It's important as a community to just recycle our money the best way we can,” Harris says. “It's difficult to get distribution in New York City—unless you have a sales team—so slowly but surely we've been working more with different people within the craft beer community and building those necessary relationships.”
Building community has been essential to the bar’s growth, but it’s also a proactive response to the changing social fabric of Central Harlem in recent years. Mostly, however, it’s about teaching people how to fall in love with great beer.
“I don't think we’re a rejection of gentrification,” Lee says. “I think it's all about us bringing something to the community to educate people of color about craft beer. For us, it's also very important for young people to see business owners that look like them. We want our young people to walk around here knowing that they too can be entrepreneurs.”
To hear the bar’s owners tell it, Harlem Hops sees every kind of customer: beer nerds, newcomers to the neighborhood, the genuinely curious, and even people who simply support a Black business. “Some people are hesitant to announce that,” Harris says, “and I don’t think it is necessary to fear that. If you're providing quality experience and quality product, it shouldn’t matter who you are. We provide a welcoming environment for everybody. And it’s doing better than we all anticipated and everything we really imagined it would be.”