Few African-American owned craft beer bars or breweries operate in New York City. For a variety of reasons including lack of access to capital, African Americans have been left out of the growing craft beer phenomenon.
But Harlem Hops, which debuted in 2018 and is based in the middle of bustling Harlem, epitomizes a craft bar that is succeeding and expanding. In January 2023, it was nominated for a James Beard Award for outstanding bar.
It is owned and operated by three African Americans: Stacey Lee Spratt, Kim Harris and Kevin Bradford. The three were friends who became business partners, and split the duties of running the bar: Bradford handles beer curation, Spratt manages PR and HR and its social initiative and Harris steers operations and marketing.
Harlem Hops in March 2023 opened its second location, at the trendy new food court, Market 57 at Pier 57 in Chelsea, along the promenade and West Side Highway.
Kim Harris noted that years ago many Black people drank beer, but “we were inundated by malt liquor in the 1990s. Once we got the idea of drinking malt liquor, we stopped drinking beer,” and lost out on the burgeoning craft beer trend.
An African-American owned crafts beer, Harlem Hops, is growing, building an audience and going beyond its Harlem roots.
Why Harlem was the perfect location
Harris described Harlem Hops as a “craft beer bar,” though she notes that it also sells wine at its new Chelsea location and cocktails in Harlem. Being located in Harlem is the perfect place because “we get tourists from all over the world that hear about us and know we’re a one-stop shop for the most sought-after brews New York tristate has to offer,” she pointed out.
The entrepreneurial trio raised $300,000 of its own capital to launch Harlem Hops, without requiring any outside investors. Harris emphasized that “not owing money to anyone” makes it easier to reinvest its profits in the business and reduces stress and worry.
Besides offering 16 draft beers on its menu, including its 5-ounce tasters, it also collaborates with other breweries on developing its own roster of craft beers. For example, it just partnered with Alementary to develop Pier 57 Lager, an Imperial Lager.
And it has also collaborated with Tin Barn Brewing, to develop the aptly named, Harlem Queen, dedicated to Stephanie St. Clair, one of Harlem’s inaugural millionaires.
Harris noted that in these collaborations Harlem Hops “gives input to the recipes and what ingredients are included, and we know what tastes our customers prefer.” She added that its partners are breweries, and Harlem Hops is a craft beer bar, and is content with leaving the brewing to them.
It also reaches out to African American craft breweries. During Black History Month, almost all of its Harlem taps were devoted to brewers of colors, and at most times, several Black-owned brews are represented.
Harlem Hops also offers light dining items or casual bar food on its menu such as Maroon Jerk Chicken Sausage, Guma Pies and Bavarian pretzels.
Asked to name its target audience, Harris replied that its mission is to “help guests find the beer that’s right for them, whether they’re a beer geek or a newbie; hence, our variety of styles.” But she added that it’s also aiming to reach “the community demographic that has not traditionally been pursued by craft beer companies.”
Its Harlem location opens at 3 p.m. and therefore doesn’t serve lunch, but its Chelsea spot starts at 11 a.m. “In Harlem,” she said, “our patrons aren’t looking for beer much earlier during the week.” On the weekends, it opens earlier.
Consumer reaction on Yelp was mostly favorable. For example, Amara from Brooklyn said it features “black-owned beers or locally owned and you can find unique brews on their taps. You can also get a five-ouncer to test the waters, and it offers cider. Harlem Hops is a great place for a small group, date or just to have a beer on your way home with great music and welcoming to all.”
But Randall complained about the slow service, though he noted that most of the local hipsters ignored the desultory service.
Why it decided to expand to Chelsea
Why did it want to branch out to Market 57? “The opportunity,” Harris noted, “was too good to resist. In that immediate area, there really aren’t any other beer bars serving what we do.” And Spratt added that it will be able to “reach a whole new set of people including tourists and other New Yorkers that live around the corner.”
Currently it accommodates about 15 people directly at the bar at Market 57, but Harris suggested that the number will likely be increasing.
But its owners also want to do good in its home neighborhood and inaugurated Harlem Hopes Scholarships, a foundation that serves Harlem students who are headed to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). It seems fitting since the three owners graduated from HBCU’s, and the program offers scholarships and craft-brewing seminars and lessons to let students know that these business opportunities exist.
It recently signed a deal to sell its Harlem Hops craft beers at one Doughboy, a pizza franchise in Atlanta, and is hoping that it leads to opportunities at more of its franchises.
Ultimately what effect has Harlem Hops had on its Harlem community? Harris responded that “Previously, it was a desert for craft beers in the city. Now it’s an opportunity for newcomers to have a place where they can enjoy beer. We call it ‘Cheers,’ because once you come in, it’s where everyone knows your name.”