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Alumna Celeste Beatty Brews Beer, Breaks Barriers

Celeste BeattyIt’s like making soup. That’s how Shaw University Class of ’84 alumna Celeste Beatty describes the essence of the recipe and sentiment of the craft beer she began brewing at home 17 years ago. These days, two stars of Beatty’s Harlem Brewing Company, Sugar Hill Golden Ale and Harlem Renaissance, stand label-to-label with big-merchandise spirits sold at Wal-Mart.

Harlem Brewing Company’s Sugar Hill Golden Ale harkens the era of uptown Harlem during Prohibition, when a special beer could be found in Speakeasies - and in the hands of music’s great artists. Beatty’s Harlem Renaissance brew is wheat-based cider with barley, coriander, cumin, a West African spice and orange peel.

“Those are the things I love cooking with,” Beatty said. “It’s like making my grandmother’s homemade soup. You use the same pot,” said Beatty, the product of a “family of cooks” known to showcase signature dishes, and experiment cooking with beer and wine. Beatty compares the water-and barley-based wort, the body of the beer, to the water-based broth of homemade soups waiting for lentils or tomatoes. “There is a lot of similarity; putting those ingredients into the pot and adding signature flavors,” Beatty said. “And in the darkness of science and nature, they are converted to alcohol through fermentation.

“It’s a really exciting experience for anyone who likes cooking and loves being creative with things. Craft beer offers a lot of creativity; more layers of flavor,” she said. Credit the universal appeal of craft beers, at least in part, also to changes in foreign policy making it most reasonable to produce goods closer to where consumers buy. Beatty’s six-packs cost anywhere from $10-$12. The Wal-Mart deal could boost the company’s sales as much as 20 percent.

Beatty started Harlem Brewing Company in 2001 and it currently is headquartered in Harlem. She runs the company with her son and business partner, Khouri Beatty. She’s also working through challenges of scarce space and high real estate costs to open a brewery in Harlem, home to a robust brewing history dating back to 1905. A campaign is underway for Harlem Brewing to land its chosen spot, and it’s led by Harlem native and Beatty family friend, actor Antonio “Huggy Bear” Fargas.

Beatty, who grows her own hops for Harlem Brewing, also is working on a cookbook of recipes borrowed from family files, and her own. Think beer-battered fish, and sweet and savory sauces infused with beer or wine.  

The brewing experience aligns with Beatty’s International Relations degree from Shaw, and her interests and work in international relations, conflict mediation and cross-cultural understanding. “Instead of bringing people to the mediation table, we bring them to the bar,” said Beatty, applauding Shaw President Dr. Tashni-Ann Dubroy’s EPIC mandate that champions entrepreneurship. “As we’ve seen the business grow, we’ve also seen, interestingly enough, it can be a great unifier; to have a conversation about what’s going on over good beer,” Beatty said.

As an African-American woman, Beatty is a rare breed in the beer brewing industry. But the Harlem Brewing Company brand carries nuances of brewing history steeped in the story of the African Diaspora people Beatty discovered through research and travel. “Africa has a rich and interesting culture around how beer evolved in the United States and around the world,” she said. “It’s exciting to see we do actually have a very rich brewing history in Africa and America.”

On a recent visit to Shaw, Beatty talked to Shaw’s Director of Alumni Relations, Valentino Bryant, about ways to “reconnect with Shaw and share my experience, and invite students and alumni to be a part of what we’re doing,” Beatty said. “I’d be pleased,” she added, to expand to Shaw “The Art of Brewing: From Africa to America,” a class on brewing Beatty will teach this fall at City College of Harlem.

Already, Beatty shares her story and life’s passion to celebrate and preserve memories of family, community, institutions and culture. She has hosted a tasting, for instance, in Idlewild, Michigan, which boasts the first black resort; and Sugar Hill Golden Ale, Beatty’s signature brew, remains on the menu at Sylvia’s, the legendary soul food restaurant where Sugar Hill made its Harlem debut.

When Beatty thinks of even wider distribution and impact, she also has the example of Madame C.J. Walker in mind. “I’d like to expand the footprint of Harlem Brewing Company beyond brewing beer to create opportunities for people who want to tap into this industry,” she said, describing her vision as an “advocacy company.”

“It gives us an opportunity to go into markets we haven’t previously been able to go,” Beatty said. “The brand has been an interesting way to become aligned with many of these communities, the Harlems of the world.”