When you think of ways to help neighborhoods in need, opening a brewery might not be the first thing that comes to mind. But according to Celeste Beatty, maybe it should be. Beatty is the first black female brewery owner in the U.S.: She founded the Harlem Brewing Company in 2001, Rocky Mount Brewery in North Carolina in 2018, and is working on plans to open another brewery in east Baltimore next year. What do all of these breweries have in common? They serve communities that, in one way or another, are considered “dangerous.”
“When I came here more than 26 years ago, I was told that Harlem was dangerous,” Beatty says. One of her first jobs was working a Ben and Jerry’s partner store located on what the New York Times dubbed “the most dangerous block in America.” The store was staffed by those who previously suffered from homelessness.
“When it comes to community, ‘danger’ isn’t something to run from,” she says. “It’s something to run to, and ask, ‘What is it that you need?’” For Beatty, the purpose of her breweries is not just to make beer, but to build a stronger community—across cultural lines—in areas that historically have been starved of communal spaces.
It’s worth noting that most of America’s 7,000 craft breweries are clustered in upward-trending areas, eschewing economically disadvantaged ones. While some local leaders see breweries and bars as nothing more than fuel for alcohol abuse, Beatty sees them as foundational pillars of society. “You can’t gather at the corner store or McDonald’s,” Beatty explains. “People [in these communities] aren’t given the chance to network and connect. I think beer can be enjoyed as it was intended: in a positive way that aids our intake of information and our reception of people and ideas.”
This is why we’re sitting in the future taproom of Harlem Brewery & Pub, which—when it opens next spring—will become the neighborhood’s first brewpub since Prohibition and Harlem Brewing Company’s first taproom. The space will also act as a teaching brewery, offering both hands-on tours and brewing classes.
“I want to invite people off the street to smell, taste, and touch our beer, and help break down stereotypes about what beer is,” Beatty says. She also wants to inspire a new generation of brewers in communities that otherwise might not have access to these opportunities for education and career development.
As we talk, we sip a Renaissance Wit. It’s refreshingly complex, with orange essence, clove and coriander. Beatty’s love of beer began with a love of cooking. Today, she’s inspired by spices she gathers at Harlem’s markets. “[Harlem is] really a great place to be, because of the crossroads of cultures here,” Beatty says.
She’s dreamed of opening this brewery for years, but met resistance from religious leaders, who feared its existence would perpetuate stereotypes about substance abuse in the neighborhood. Out of respect for these voices, Beatty took her early recipes to a number of breweries in upstate New York. She found a home at Lake George Brew House, where she has been contract brewing for the past 18 years.
To maintain her roots in Harlem, she turned her apartment into the “Harlem Brewdio,” a collaborative brewing space that evolved into an “Airbnbeer” Experience, drawing guests from around the globe who want to learn the craft. Participants help create an original, small-batch beer recipe; sample a flight from Harlem Brewing Company; and return home with the knowledge to create their own brews. One guest, who came from part of the Middle East where alcohol isn't publicly sold, left with the goal of cornering his neighborhood's home brewing market.
Beatty didn’t give up on her brewery dreams and her persistence paid off. Harlem Brewing Company gained the support and partnership of a broad range of businesses, customers, and charitable organizations—including the churches that once balked at its existence.
I love seeing people who are totally opposite finding themselves in the same place, having a conversation over a beer, and eventually finding common ground.”
Beatty’s success as a black woman in the beer industry is a woefully uncommon tale, as both women and minorities face a lack of opportunities. One study found that only 29 percent of breweries have female employees. Minorities are so underrepresented, no employment data has been collected—though the Brewers Association is working on this.
To raise raise the visibility of underrepresented groups in the beer industry and beyond, Beatty is using her breweries as a place to start conversations about inequality, They carry extra weight at Rocky Mount Brewery, which Beatty co-founded with Spaceway Brewery founder Briana Brake. Not only is it one of only two African-American-owned breweries in North Carolina, but the brewery incubator it operates from is located in a former cotton mill built by slaves.
“We’re looking for ways to celebrate the positive developments while acknowledging the dark days,” she says. “There are so many different people coming to these grounds and not just enjoying the beer, but reflecting on that history—and then forging a new history together.”
The brewery hosts community engagement events where people can learn about both America’s troubled past and the rich cultural history of Rocky Mount: another city that today is regarded as “dangerous,” but was once an artistic and social hub frequented by the likes of Billie Holiday and Martin Luther King, Jr. Beatty seeks to bring these spaces and experiences to underserved areas not only because of their power to build community, but because of the incredible opportunities they offer.
“It’s not just about having a great beer,” Beatty says. “It’s the jobs that are created; the science [being done] here. I [want] to be doing this all over the country.” And that’s exactly what she’s doing. Beatty is in talks to open a new brewery in the Baltimore Food Hub, a project that will transform a 3.4-acre space in East Baltimore into a vibrant home for food and drink startups. “To see the space transformed into a place of nourishment is an incredible thing,” Beatty says.
Beatty believes the most important nourishment her breweries can provide is for the soul. They will offer gathering spaces in areas where these are lacking, along with jobs and educational opportunities. And she plans to provide rich culinary experiences, such as dinners and pairings, that these communities rarely have access to—uniting people in real and lasting moments.
“These experiences at breweries and pubs refuel your sense of creativity and purpose, and celebrate who the people in the neighborhoods are,” she says. “I love seeing people who are totally opposite finding themselves in the same place, having a conversation over a beer, and eventually finding common ground. That’s where change happens.”