By Michael Tedder
Celeste Beatty traveled the world to study beer before making her first brew. It was sour. Somehow, the brewing equipment she crammed into the kitchen of her studio apartment got infected with bacteria. Beatty’s friends drank her maiden creation anyway.
“Some of them were honest,” Beatty said, “and some of them just sort of encouraged me to try again.”
She did. And though Beatty’s botched batch would be only one disappointment she would have, she eventually figured out how to brew.
Beatty’s Harlem Brewing Company, founded in 2000, produces Sugar Hill Golden Ale, a name and flavor inspired by jazz great Duke Ellington and his standard, “Take The A Train (To Sugar Hill).”
“I wanted that cool, jazzy, cultural feel of what Harlem and Sugar Hill is about,” said Beatty, a saxophone player. “I wanted to try to have a beer that is smooth and drinkable and sort of flowed with that coolness.”
Harlem Brewing recently cemented a partnership with the major distributor Manhattan Beer Distributors, which claims to supply 35 percent of New York City’s market. The deal significantly boosts Beatty’s promotion budget, and is getting Sugar Hill Ale into bodegas, supermarkets and restaurants around New York City. Beatty is looking into distributing in other states over the next year.
“Last year (the company sold) less than 3,000 cases,” Beatty said. “Our projections for this year, we’re hoping to hit 10,000 cases. Our projections for the next five years (are for) doubling, tripling, quadrupling that.”
Birth Of The Cool
Beatty, 42, once worked for the socially-conscious Ben and Jerry’s, and, though Harlem Brewing has yet to turn profit, Beatty gives 10 percent of her company’s income to charity, usually to jazz organizations.
She once wanted to save the world (in the late 1990s she studied international relations at New York University), but now says she just wants to give everyone a beer. The cookbook “Clone Brews” piqued her interest in brewing. She duplicated recipes for American ales like Sam Adams, then expanded her palette by traveling to Europe, Central America and Africa as an exchange student, to study local brewing customs.
Born in North Carolina, Beatty has lived in Harlem since 1992, and takes pride in the neighborhood’s contribution to African-American and world culture. After experimenting with her recipe and knocking on innumerable doors, she sold her first case to the legendary Harlem soul food eatery Sylvia’s Restaurant, where it remains popular.
“A lot of people who haven’t heard of it order it because of the Harlem name, and once they’ve tried it, they order it again and again,” said Sylvia’s co-owner Crizette Woods. “One person even tried to take the bottle home with them, just so they could find it in their home state.”
Bumps in the Road
After developing the recipe in her apartment five years ago, Beatty outsourced brewing, bottling and marketing. Sugar Hill is now brewed in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., though Beatty’s son Khouri, 24, helps with computer work and promotion.
The company recently launched a commercial featuring the actor Antonio Fargas (best known as Huggy Bear from “Starsky And Hutch”). Beatty hopes to hire four to five workers soon, and aspires to open a Harlem brew-pub, to sponsor brewing classes and to create a lager.
Her goals have shifted since she started, when her main focus was staying in business. Her first venture, Mojo Highway Brewing Company, was scuttled after a stock market downturn. In June 2001, one of her earliest orders was cancelled midway through production when the distributor discovered Beatty wasn’t making malt liquor they way it expected. A few months later, on September 11, a batch headed for New York City was diverted to a warehouse in New Jersey, where it spoiled.
When Beatty first met with Manhattan Beer Distributors two years ago, the company declined to work with her, as the specialty beer market was declining then. Beatty then found a mentor in Pete Slossberg, founder of the national handcrafted brew Pete’s Wicked Ale. After Harlem Brewing got a boost from the Harlem-based foundation of ex-president Bill Clinton, and several local clubs and restaurants, Manhattan Beer Distributors relented. Spokesman Ender Berrios said his company was impressed by Beatty’s dedication.
“When we look at a brand, we look at the people behind the product,” Berrios said. “When it’s someone (like Beatty), we are more encouraged to take a chance.”
Beatty has invested $400,000 of her own money in the company so far. She had no startup capital, and though she said it was a crazy move, she mortgaged her house and cashed in her investments.
“I liquidated all of that. It’s all in the bottle,” she said. “Whatever you taste when you taste it, that’s where it came from.”