How Two Black Women Are Changing The Craft Beer Game in Harlem (For The Culture)

Kimberly Wilson Aug, 20, 2018

There’s no denying that the beer industry (or just about every industry for that matter) is dominated by men. But it’s a new day, and a new dawn. Why? Because Harlem’s only 100 percent African American owned craft beer bar is owned and operated by women — Black women, y’all.

But in the words of Beyonce, it’s nothing to a… boss.

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Led by Kim Harris, Stacey Lee and their partner Kevin Bradford, Harlem Hops, which has only been open for a few months, has already changed the craft beer landscape in Harlem. Where craft beer options from local or Black brewers were once far and few between in the area, Harlem Hops is giving space to those who once found difficulty in being able to distribute their products. Here, many are able to find a home.

Want to know the best part about Harlem Hops? The trio, who are also all HBCU alums (Hampton and Clark Atlanta University, respectively), aren’t just making money in the historic neighborhood —but also plan to give back to the community they call home, both financially and culturally. In this interview with ESSENCE, owners Kim Harris and Stacey Lee share what’s it’s like to be black women in the beer game, and how they hope to further support the Harlem community.

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Tell us about your love for beer. Why beer, and why Harlem of all places?
Kim Harris: My passion for beer started when I was helping someone with marketing for a concept for a TV show about beer. In that time period I started trying beers, because I had never really gotten into it, but I wanted to help market the show. It let me know the product that I was working with. That’s when I started to feed my appetite for beer, and I became consumed by it. I was traveling to Brooklyn to pick up beers, etc and I always wanted to open a bar or restaurant. After venturing out discovering the beers, I started writing a business bar for a beer bar Harlem, because I knew that in Harlem I couldn’t find anything that I really wanted. Although there were beer gardens there, they were all European and traditional style beer gardens, and I knew I wanted to do something different. I knew that it was going to be a bit of a challenge because it was Harlem, especially in Central Harlem, but then at the same time, the industry is growing and it’s something that people who might not know about it, would like to learn about it. So then it became more of an educational component about putting it in the community.

Did you think that Harlem Hops would get the reception that it’s gotten? Was this anticipated?
Kim Harris: Not like this. Not in the beginning. We all hoped it would be. We were received far better than I ever even imagined. It was even a little overwhelming. The response was so positive, and continues to be positive. We want to continue to provide exceptional service to the clientele that we have, our regulars, the regulars that we will have. It’s important to us because everyone is so grateful that we’re there, and we’re so grateful that they are coming to patronize us.

How did your HBCU connections create the synergy for this partnership?
Stacey Lee: When we figured out that all of us went to HBCUs that was just the icing on the cake. It’s so important for us to let people know that we did attend historically black colleges and universities, and lets them know that we are unapologetically black. We can downplay that we went to HBCUs or that we’re black owning a business, but it’s something that we’re so proud of that we voice, all the time. The motto of Clark Atlanta was, “I’ll find a way or make one.” We literally started off starting off thinking, “how are we even going to pay for this thing?” So when we say we are 100% black owned, we are. We didn’t get loans from a bank. All this came from savings, from hard work and us really pooling our resources together. And our synergy is just awesome. The HBCU family has embraced us more than we ever even fathomed. It’s not just from Hampton and Clark Atlanta, it’s from any and all of our schools.

What’s been your experience so far, as black women in this predominantly white industry?
Kim Harris: We haven’t encountered any challenges. We have been well received by everyone in the beer community. Every brewery that we’ve visited has been helpful in the process. Helping us when we were building out our tap system, giving us advice and even down to referring staff. I know other people have had their own challenges in the industry, but In New York City it’s kind of different, because a lot of the brewery owners are from the hip hop industry — former music executives. Everybody is cool. When you go out to other parts like Long Island, it’s a little different but nobody ever was weird. We never felt uncomfortable.

How difficult is it to source brewers of color?
Kim Harris: It’s more of a challenge because it’s hard for them to have distribution. A lot of the black owned breweries aren’t distributed in New York City. And it has to make sense for them. There’s a brewery in Jersey that has pushed to make sure that there beer was distributed to us specifically. But it was a value for them because they knew we would be going through all these pegs. There are a couple that are big that are doing very well, and the ones that are, we definitely carry them.

What are you planning to do in order to currently serve the community that you are operating?
Stacey Lee: One of the things that we have coming is a scholarship for a graduating senior, who is graduating from a high school in Harlem, and attending an HBCU. That is something that all of us believe in — education, serving our community and serving our young brothers and sisters. When you come into the bar, it’s like family. So from an educational standpoint, we’re also all about educating people about beer. There’s just a way that our customer service is and something that we pride ourselves on, and really trying to educate people on beer.

Kim Harris: From the alcohol we serve craft beer, we serve craft spirits and small craft cocktails. Everything that we serve has natural ingredients, including our food. We’re trying to provide healthier options for people in our community. If we know you’re going to drink, we’re trying to give you education on the quality of what it is you’re drinking. You shouldn’t be drinking trash out here. They’ve tried to penetrate our communities with malt liquor, it’s really had a negative impact on us. These are things that we are trying to reinforce within our community and have them think different about not only the foods, but also healthier spirits, beer and wine options as well.

Harlem Hops is located at 2268 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Blvd, in Harlem, NY.