The Black woman-owned Harlem Brew South emphasizes community as well as craftsmanship to stake its position in the craft beer market.
The Summerlin House is legitimately shocking. Across the street from Rocky Mount’s train depot, Celeste Beatty’s latest residential project teeters on the edge of habitability.
“I’m doing it slowly, fixing it up,” she said, gesturing to the uninsulated walls stripped of paint and plaster.
Despite its current state, the bones of the hundred-year-old Victorian are breathtaking. Light dances through a leaded glass window, spilling over ancient floorboards as sure underfoot as the earth itself. Old as they are, they barely even creak. A life-size wooden horse stands guard over the curves of a French sofa, and one-of-a-kind antiques catch the eye over and over on floor-to-ceiling shelves. A hand-carved white bannister beckons to a second story.
Beatty has plans to turn it into a bed and beer, similar in concept to a bed and breakfast. As one of the very few Black women brewmasters in North Carolina – or the country – it’s clear she has a gift for seeing hidden potential.
“Some people can see beyond the surface, to the possibilities. When I look at so-called blight, I see what’s possible. I have a feeling that things can become what they were and even greater,” she told Cardinal & Pine.
The founder of Harlem Brew South, Beatty has made this insight a part of her business philosophy.
Recent years have seen an explosion in the craft beer scene. Even with the economic fallout of the pandemic, the industry took in $22.2 billion in 2020, according to Fortune Magazine. Still, it’s an overwhelmingly white, male space. There are about 8,000 US-based craft breweries, with less than 23% of craft brewers being women and 1% of owners identifying as African-American.
That’s led Beatty, a Black woman, to face more than the standard business challenges. It doesn’t matter, she insisted. More than being purely financially successful, she wants to take that success and make a difference in people’s lives.
“It’s a very different conversation as a Black brewer,” Beatty said. “Our task is not just a journey of entrepreneurship but bringing the community along the best way we can while we’re on this journey. … In white breweries, deals are being made, friendships, marriages, all that’s happening because they have these places. That gathering place, that place for equity and inclusion, that’s what I’m talking about creating in the Black community.”
Potential investors, mentors and peers weren’t confident she could pull the amount of resources required together to make the venture successful. They didn’t believe that Black people had any history in brewing. And she faced stereotyping based on old Billy Dee Williams’ ads for Colt 45.
“They said in so many words that we shouldn’t waste our time,” Beatty recalled. “They thought Black people didn’t drink craft beer, but malt liquor. And they thought white consumers wouldn’t resonate with anything named for Harlem – it was too Black.”
But Beatty persisted. She honed her craft, starting with an initial home-brew batch that exploded in her closet. Turns out, she’d bottled it too soon; it hadn’t finished fermenting.
“That was my first lesson. This isn’t something you rush,” Beatty quipped.
She studied the craft and traveled to Zimbabwe to experience ancient African brewing techniques, traditionally passed down by women using sorghum and millet.
“Given all the noise I’d heard earlier about Black people not having a tradition in beer, I feel kind of cheated. Here I was in a place where these traditions had been passed along for centuries,” Beatty recalled. “This wasn’t something we just fell into. It was part of our culture; we brought all of these skills, talents and abilities on the voyages when we came here. I was angry and excited at the same time, and inspired. Making beer, that’s easy. But how could we make a difference?”
Beatty’s foundation in brews and spirits began in childhood, growing up in Winston-Salem with four siblings, her parents and a lot of extended and chosen family. Her parents often hosted potlucks with fellow members of the North Carolina Black Repertory Company or Winston-Salem’s Human Relations Board. Their home buzzed with energy, ideas, art and activism, a welcoming place where even temporary boarders could crash for a few weeks until they got on their feet.
“I took lessons from that. The lesson was, yeah, you may not have a lot, but you always find a way to have enough to help someone in need,” Beatty said.
So much of life happens around food: celebrations, weddings, consolation. The diverse company of the house was reflected at the dinner table, from Asian and Latin American cuisine to Southern desserts and her mother’s peanut butter chicken prepared every year for Kwanzaa. And Beatty was the kind of kid who always wanted to taste everything. Her mother often used wine or beer as a base in stews and soups, but Beatty was not a big fan off the bat.
“I like the taste of beer in my food, but there really weren’t a lot of beers I liked. I like flavor!” she said. “I’m not going to grab a Bud Light. Samuel Adams lager was probably my first craft beer. I could taste the barley, it resonated with me.”
As she came of age, she enjoyed the social aspect of enjoying a drink with friends, but found her friends were more the bourbon type; many didn’t even drink beer. So she got into making beer cocktails, shandies and the like, to bring them along. The process of blending and experimentation appealed to her.
She graduated from Shaw University with a bachelor’s in international relations, then left North Carolina for New York in 1993.
As her interest in brewing deepened, so did her concern with improving the collective lot of her community. Through a mutual connection, she got to see up close how a business could embody a social conscience. The product, however, wasn’t craft beer – it was ice cream.
Ben & Jerry’s, the cultishly loved ice cream company, has a long-standing commitment to social reform. Beatty took part in one of their early programs, an ice cream shop that helped people coming out of incarceration get back in the workforce.
“Ben and Jerry really inspired me,” Beatty said. “The men ran the shop and we worked with them as they dealt with personal struggles and demons, to give them that base. I saw it make a difference in their lives. They all didn’t necessarily continue with the ice cream business, but it gave them a way to get their self esteem back and see what they could do.”
It got her wheels turning, and she rented a “brewdio” in 2000 and began holding classes and making beer. Collaborations with other brewers abounded, bars stocked her products, and accolades began pouring in. Supporters included Dick Parsons, the former chairman and first Black CEO of Time Warner, and Rev. Calvin Butts, pastor of the famed Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Still, Beatty faced church opposition to opening her own brewery in Harlem. She decided to return to North Carolina and shortly thereafter, with business partner Briana Brake, was invited to be part of the Rocky Mount Brewing incubator.
Working out of a cotton mill built by enslaved Black people in 1818 that manufactured uniforms for Confederate soldiers weighed on Beatty.
“I left. They’re good people but those are facts that can’t be changed,” she said. “When people know, especially in this day and time, you have to acknowledge it and do something to honor that. And I know it’s not an easy thing to create recreation in a place of so much pain. I’m not the expert on how to do that, but it does need to happen so that all parties can grow and learn from it.”
Now Beatty is opening her own production facility for Harlem Brew South in a renovated tobacco warehouse in Rocky Mount. She brews everything from golden ales toIPAs. Her Queen’s Stout is brewed with Kenyan and Ethiopian coffee, as well as Haitian chocolate and features a stylized photo of her mom in a regal 1979 afro on the can. A lager called 1946 pays tribute to her grandparents, Wilmington tobacco farmers.
“That was the year 10,000 mostly women workers around the state voted to unionize for better working conditions,” Beatty said.
She continues experimenting to come up with unexpected flavors. Right now, she has some new favorites, such as her award-winning Belgian-style witbier.
“I love grains of paradise, which I didn’t know had African origins; it has an orange, peppery, citrus thing going on. Coriander, orange pill and grains of paradise are typical of witbier, and we added cumin. It’s really a special flavor,” she said. “That’s what I like about craft brewing, you can really be very experimental. It’s a canvas, you can just go where you want to go. A friend convinced me once to make a truffle beer. Disgusting.”
While she works, she also volunteers with youth. While “I’m not going to talk to teenagers about beer,” Beatty does talk about entrepreneurship and connects them to mentors in their fields of interest. It’s a must.
“Some people think you have to become successful before you do this or that. I don’t agree. You do things along the way because it’s something you believe in, something you’re committed to,” she said. “You cannot exist in a community like Rocky Mount and see the pain and do nothing. You better bring somebody along with you!”
This Saturday, Oct. 9, Harlem Brew South is hosting a performance of the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band for Thelonius Monk’s birthday at the warehouse. But before the evening’s events, Blacktober in the Garden takes place and features culinary, beer, and cultural experts.
“It’s an opportunity to connect with the community. We’re inviting people from the neighborhood to come out and meet one another,” Beatty said. And bring a dish, it’s a potluck.
Summerlin House is located at 430 S. Church St.
Harlem Brew South is at 515 N. Grace St.