Pair brews up not just beer, but economic independence, empowerment
Celeste Beatty loves danger.
You can tell not only from the way she spends her free time, but also from the way she picked the last two places she's lived.
When I called her one recent Sunday to confirm a scheduled interview, her business partner, Briana Brake, and she were just making landfall after a morning of kayaking on the Tar River.
Hark! Is that banjo music I hear?
Beatty, founder of the Harlem Brewing Co. and co-founder, with Brake, of Rocky Mount Brewery, lives in Harlem but recently purchased a crib in Rocky Mount. We spoke at the shiny, pristine brewery they operate out of the business incubator at the Rocky Mount Mill and via telephone after she went back to New York.
She'd gone back to oversee a couple of events with 600 New York Times employees and at Gracie Mansion with Mayor Bill DeBlasio.
"When the opportunity was presented to open a brewery in Rocky Mount, I was very excited about it because of its history," she said. "It reminded me of Harlem because it's the birthplace of, among others, Sugar Ray Leonard, who has supported our brand over many years, and Thelonious Monk."
Beatty didn't even mention everybody's favorite Rocky Mount native: Phil Ford.
What really sold her on Rocky Mount - as much as the history, she said - were the warnings she received not to move there.
"When I moved to Harlem 26 years ago," she recalled, "I was always told 'It's dangerous up there. It's a bad place.'
"I was told the same thing about Rocky Mount," she said. "I've learned over the years that danger should not be a deterrent. I mean, you should use your common sense, but when 'dangerous' is used to describe a community, I've always wanted to understand 'Why do people have that perception?'
"I find that there's always an amazing story behind these stigma," she said. "I continue to meet amazing, passionate people in Rocky Mount."
Some of those people - young ladies from the surrounding communities - are working with the company, learning the business, operating the cash register, cleaning kegs.
"Unfortunately beer," she said, "has been stigmatized in our community... There are over 7,000 breweries in America, and very few of them have people of color - black, Asian or Hispanic."
Brake and she, she said, want to ensure that people of color are producers of beer, not just consumers.
She's trying to remove the stigma by, among other things, supporting charities and reaching out to universities - N.C. Central, Fayetteville State, Duke and N.C. A&T State universities - to forge alliances not only to address how best to distribute and market her product, but to develop a fermentation science program. The pair also hopes to eventually sell its craft beers on those campuses.
Surrounded by shiny vats of brewing beer inside Rocky Mount Brewery are co-founders Briana Brake, left, and Celeste Beatty. The fellow in the middle appearing to have had three too many is The Saunders Report publisher.
How, I asked Beatty, did she - along with Brake - become brewmasters?
Cooking, she said. "Coming from a Southern tradition, in my family I have pit masters, deer hunters, people who smoke stuff. We had the whole gamut of foods on our table. That was the original farm-to-table lifestyle."
Beatty was the first person I've met who knew that the current craft beer explosion in the country was sparked by a person who probably has never tasted of the sweet amber nectar, former president Jimmy Carter.
Carter in 1978, she explained, signed into law a bill that permitted people to brew a certain amount of beer and wine in their homes without the revenuers coming down on them. (Mr. Charlie in my neighborhood in Rockingham didn't need any presidential bill to grant him permission: I remember seeing him bottling up home brew in his family's bathtub 50 years ago.)
"A friend in Harlem," Beatty said, "gave me a home-brewing kit and said 'Why don't you make your own?'"
That was in 2000. The kit sat in her closet for weeks, untouched, before she decided to give it a go.
"I started making small batches in my home and discovered there's a whole community of home brewers across the country," she said.
Only thing is, they couldn't sell it: they could only drink it themselves or give it away.
Once friends tasted hers and told her she should start selling it, she faced another challenge.
"The churches," she said. "Having grown up in the Bible Belt, I didn't want to be disrespectful or do anything in the community to upset anyone.... I would not challenge a church if they told me not to put a brewery in a certain location. That would be disrespectful and inappropriate.
"I ended up having a meeting with the Rev. Calvin Butts," pastor of the world-famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "I was hesitant to do that," she said, "but he understood the community and economics and the importance of empowerment. He also understood the economic implications in terms of creating opportunities.
"He has a number of members who own bars and restaurants and he reached out to them personally and said they should 'support what she's doing'. He said he wasn't encouraging his members to go and drink the beers, but he didn't see any issues as long as we weren't brewing malt liquor.
"I never expected a Baptist minister to do something like that for me," she said. "That was a breakthrough."
Indeed it was. The pair's beers have broken through internationally - you can get them in Europe and Asia - which means that the next time you're feeling as adventurous as Beatty and decided to travel the world, chances are you can still get a taste of Rocky Mount brew.