North Carolina loves its craft beer. I’m not sure what it’s like in the rest of the state, but on any given day in Charlotte, you can find a conversation telling you about a brewery that’s coming or what kind of beer is on tap for your post-work socializing. And when folks get really inconvenienced, those conversations can turn into dramatic comparisons to the ill-fated Fyre Festival. (Recall the social media “outrage” from this month’s Untappd Beer Festival.)
While much of the craft beer-loving crowd is melanin-deficient, there’s still a band of Black and brown brew lovers. More importantly, it’s not stopping people of color from trying to get a piece of the industry that’s estimated at an annual economic impact of $1.2 billion, according to the N.C. Craft Brewer’s Guild.
Last month, Charlotte waved goodbye to Three Spirits Brewery, the city’s only Black-owned brewery. But since the top of the year, Jamel Lynch of Harlem Beer Distributing has been making his way throughout the state, determined to get Harlem Brewing Company beer into your glasses.
If you haven’t heard of Harlem Brewing Company, you should know that despite its name, the company has strong Carolina roots. Its founder, Celeste Beatty, is a Winston-Salem native and Shaw University alumnae.
Untapped potential for people of color in craft beer industry
Beatty moved to Harlem, where she eventually began the company in 2001. Lynch, an electrical engineer who was working in Durham for IBM at the time, crossed paths with Beatty at an engineering conference. He was intrigued because he’d never heard of a Black-owned beer company.
“She told me that she grew up in North Carolina, and she was looking to get the beer here,” he recalled. “I said that’s not really what I do, but if I know people, I’ll help.”
What happened next was a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Boxing legend and North Carolina native Sugar Ray Leonard wanted Harlem Brewing Company’s signature Sugar Hill Golden Ale at his 50th birthday party in California. Lynch happened to be traveling to the west coast, and represented the company as an ambassador at the party where celebrities like Magic Johnson and Ving Rhames were in attendance.
“They all asked, ‘How do we get the beer?’ and that’s when I really started thinking about distribution,” he said.
Lynch served as a brand ambassador for Harlem Brewing for about 15 years before the distributing company became a reality. While the beers gained popularity and won awards, Lynch says they couldn’t get any distribution deals in North Carolina.
The challenge turned into an opportunity when Beatty asked Lynch if he would start a distribution company in Durham. Without much experience, he opened Harlem Beer Distributing last year. Within three months, he had 60 accounts. In trying to keep up with demand, he expanded to Greensboro five months later.
“It’s one thing when you talk to the exploding craft beer industry about consumer diversity. They talk a lot about how do we get more African Americans and Latinos to buy our beer, but what they don’t talk about is ownership,” Lynch said. He said after doing research, he’s yet to find another African American beer distributor in the state.
Harlem Beer Distributing wants to give African Americans more exposure to the industry, so he partnered with historically black colleges and universities like N.C Central University and N.C. A&T State University. Interested students are gaining experience to learn all parts of the business from supply chain and logistics to project management.
Expanding into Charlotte
With the economic growth in Charlotte, Lynch knew he had to build relationships in the Queen City. For example, during CIAA weekend, he held tastings at events throughout the city. He’s also partnered with the local alumni chapter of N.C. A&T for its scholarship brunch.
“What drives me is creating opportunities,” he said.
Eugenia Brown, who goes by the moniker Black Beer Chick, fell in love with craft beer years ago as a student at UNC Greensboro. The full-time healthcare professional/part-time “beertender” now lives in Charlotte and describes herself as “kind of a unicorn as a Black woman who drinks and prefers craft beer.”
Brown is excited that she can add a Black-owned craft beer to her list of favorites.
“Harlem Brewing makes great beer, and I think their beers are great for introducing people of color into the craft beer scene,” she said.
Want to try them out for yourself? There are several local stores and bars to get a sip of the brand’s beers, including Fire House Bar & Lounge, Whole Foods Market (Stonewall Street location), Urban Bricks Pizza Bar (Epicentre) and The Brass Tap. Visit harlembeernc.com for a full list of locations.
Katrina Louis is managing editor of qcitymetro.com who can always find something to do in Charlotte. She’s an offline hustler (and has the shirt to prove it) but when online, find her on Instagram and Twitter.