Harlem evokes a beautiful history of artistic wisdom, community organizing and delicious food. So when a couple of HBCU grads learned that the neighborhood lacked spaces to come together, unwind, and savor delicious craft beers, they knew they needed to create one.
Beyond supplying libations, the founders wanted to push the boundaries of developing a social space. Their challenge involved answering the questions, “What does it look like to support small and local breweries? How do they tap into Harlem’s pre-existing community organizing? Lastly, how do they keep folks returning for delicious sips and bites?”
“It comes down to being more communal—we are rooted in ensuring we maintain a collaborative spirit,” Kim Harris, one of the co-owners of Harlem Hops, tells Cuisine Noir.
Bonding Over Craft Beer
Opting into a collective is how three HBCU grads’ first bar became a reality. In June 2018, owners Kevin Bradford, Kim Harris and Stacey Lee Spratt opened the doors of Harlem Hops. Harris and Lee graduated from Clark Atlanta University, while Bradford obtained his degree from Hampton University.
Harris and Bradford met through a mutual friend who understood that they both had a passion for opening a beer bar in Harlem. When they connected in 2016, they bonded over the excitement of the idea and began collaborating. At the same time, Harris looped in her colleague Lee, knowing they needed an experienced entrepreneur onboard.
They each brought unique assets to their newly formed team. Harris offers operational skills from previous hospitality and event planning roles—she also grew up in Harlem. Bradford, raised in Detroit, considers himself a beer enthusiast and prides himself in understanding which brews to incorporate into their concept. Lastly, Lee, who has roots in the Midwest, helps harness everyone’s ideas and keeps them organized and works on all marketing.
“We all share a common thread; we want to build community and support each other as entrepreneurs,” explains Harris.
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Establishing Harlem Hops
The Harlem Hops flagship bar made its home in the heart of Harlem on Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Boulevard—named after the first African American elected to Congress from New York. The founders continued this legacy of Black history by founding the first Black-owned beer business in Manhattan.
When establishing Harlem Hops, the first step involved sourcing beer from local breweries from people of color. “When you support local craft brewers, you’re investing in better flavor profiles, local farmers who provide the ingredients and small businesses,” says Harris. The brewery started with only a few Black-owned beers on rotation and now they have upwards of 14 to 16 varieties.
When it came to the design of the space, ensuring it was approachable was important. There are misconceptions that Black people don’t drink beer, and the founders want to discredit those false narratives. “Beer is ingrained in our roots; even historically, our ancestors would ferment drinks for celebrations,” shares Harris.
So, to ensure that there’s something for everyone to drink, they offer countless brews with different flavor profiles, such as the Vinyl Obsession, which has pineapple and peach notes, or the Mill Water, which carries hints of chocolate and coffee.
Lastly, as the business resides in a community that takes its food culture seriously, they knew they needed to show up and show out when designing their menus. Each dish pairs with specific beers, explains Harris. When you visit their bar, you’ll find smokey jerk chicken sausages, savory pies sourced from Guma Pies—a Black-owned business—and traditional munchies like pretzels with beer cheese.
Supporting the Community While Receiving its Flowers
For many small businesses, surviving the pandemic was a challenge in itself. Despite enduring obstacles, Harlem Hops stayed true to their community-building values. For example, they founded Harlem Hopes—a non-profit focused on closing opportunity gaps disproportionately affecting low-income Black students pursuing higher education.
The founders recognize the role education played in cementing their foundations and want the up-and-coming generation to have those same privileges. So, they provide scholarships to high school students who plan on attending HBCUs.
With all of their dedication to developing creative yet accessible menus and prioritizing their community, the beer enthusiasts caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation. The organization—which focuses on celebrating, supporting and elevating the people behind America’s food culture—reached out to the team with some good news. First, they were notified of their business’s nomination for the 2023 Best Bar Program award—which they later became semifinalists in. Secondly, they were offered the opportunity to join the foundation’s new food hall in Market 57, sitting on the waterfront in Hudson River Park, along with a grant to support their business.
“The shock of being recognized was a surprise to us; we weren’t looking for validation. But getting this opportunity put a battery in our backs to keep going,” shares Harris.
The Future of Harlem Hops
In the spring of 2023, Harlem Hops opened up its second location in Market 57 with the same mission of serving beer and building community. They hope to replicate their idea in other cities as well. Not only do they want to grow across locations, but they also want to expand and explore serving non-alcoholic beer options to have a broader menu offering. With growth, they wish to remain inclusive.
For more information on Harlem Hops, visit their website, Instagram, and Facebook. To sip their brews in person, visit their flagship brewery at 2268 Adam Clayton Powell Jr Boulevard, Harlem, NY, 10030, or their newest location in Market 57 at Pier 57 on 25 11th Avenue, NY, 10011.