Beer maker Celeste Beatty, 45, generally has a steady hand when pouring samples for Whole Foods shoppers. But when she’s told Billy Strayhorn-the legendary jazz alchemist who swung Duke Ellington’s handwritten subway directions into the signature tune Take the A Train-used to cook red beans in beer, the news nearly wrecks her poise.
The brewmaster-or brewster, as Beatty calls herself- started making experimental batches of brew in her apartment on West 123rd Street back in the ’90s. After spending time in breweries throughout New York State and over in Europe-where some brewers spoke of age-old recipes born out of Africa-she founded the Harlem Brewing Company in 2000. Now, a decade later, her auspicious elixir has long since overflowed her old uptown bathtub.
At first the name was a hard sell. “Sugar Hill” fell flat in some focus groups while “Harlem Brew” seemed a more obvious choice. “They thought it was the Sugarhill Gang,” Beatty says, laughing at the mistaken reference to the popular rap group. But she held firm. The Harlem Renaissance, that period of exuberant music, art and literature that burst out of the 1920s Jazz Age uptown, was her muse, and Strayhorn’s immortal lyrics-You must take the A train to go to Sugar Hill way up in Harlem-captured the cultural history she wanted to evoke.
Sugar Hill Golden Ale quickly became the no-brainer beer of choice at iconic Harlem venues like Sylvia’s and St. Nick’s Pub. But her little craft brew also holds its own in specialty beer market aisles and at festivals within the city limits and in about a dozen states. And restaurants at cultural institutions-including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Opera House-have just started waking up their old-hat selections of domestic and imported beers with this fresh splash of local color.
The A train can’t take you all the way to Saratoga Springs, where Beatty makes the beer, but she’s got big plans to open a brewery in Harlem, natch. “One of the things that I want to do when we get the brewery open,” she says, “is to make it a teaching brewery, where we would invite people from the community to learn to brew.”
In the early ’90s Beatty managed the alliance of Ben & Jerry’s Harlem Partner Shop with a homeless shelter. Inspired by this experience-and by her extracurricular saxophone playing-Beatty wanted her brew to give back to musicians, so her company donates a cut to the Jazz Foundation of America, which helps musicians pay for instruments and other necessities like healthcare and housing.
Sugar Hill Ale also has an in-house beer chef. “He’s won a couple of local awards cooking with beer,” Beatty says of her 28-year-old son, Khouri. “And we’re working on a beer cookbook with some of our recipes.”
Strayhorn would surely approve.
Photo credit: Erin Gleeson