Kim Harris noticed a problem: When it came to a certain item in her Harlem neighborhood, there was a drought.
“I started really liking beer and traveling all over the city to get it, except for the Hamlet of Harlem, [where] I live,” Harris said.
Kevin Bradford felt the same way.
“You just couldn’t really find a proper craft beer bar here in Harlem,” he said. “I always had to travel outside the city.”
Harris had already begun brainstorming a solution. As an event planning professional, she quickly tapped into her rolodex of resources and joined forces with Stacey Lee, who also works in event planning. In 2017, the final piece of their craft beer puzzle fell into place. A mutual business acquaintance connected Harris to Braford, and he hopped on board with the two women. A year later, the three co-owners opened Harlem Hops, Harlem’s first 100% Black-owned craft beer bar.
“The vibe of Harlem Hops is really like 'Cheers' where everybody knows your name,” said Lee, who’s based in Atlanta. “We're like family there.”
“One of our goals is always to make sure we have some form of Black or brown or woman-owned beer on tap at all times,” Bradford said.
On opening day, Harris knew they had a hit when she saw “a line around the corner for the whole day."
“We were definitely well-received in this community,” she recalled. “There was a drought, and we supplied the water.”
While craft beer brought the three virtual strangers together, they soon realized they shared an even greater bond: They'd all graduated from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Both Harris and Lee attended Clark Atlanta University, while Bradford graduated from Hampton University, and the foundation they gained from that experience is a huge part of the Harlem Hops now.
“I always tell young people, ‘Go where you're celebrated, not tolerated,’ and at our HBCUs, I truly feel like we are celebrated.” Lee said. “Without Clark Atlanta University, I know I would not be where I am today, and our motto at Clark Atlanta University is ‘I'll find a way or make one,’ and I use that in everyday business.
“I know that HBCUs truly brought Kim, Kevin and I together. We all three of us said we really want to provide education for young, Black and brown people. We really want to be an encouragement in the community, and that's what we're doing every single day with Harlem Hops.”
With community service in mind, in 2019 the trio launched Harlem Hopes, a scholarship program for Harlem students looking to attend HBCUs. Since its inception, Harris said they’ve already awarded six students with $2,500.
“It was important for all of us to give back to community because that's something that's kind of instilled in you when you go to a HBCU,” Harris said. “[This scholarship] is not paying your whole tuition, but it's something, and we continue to do collaborations with breweries to help support raising those funds for those scholarships.”
“We wanted to make sure that we gave back to our community through scholarships and for those students to attend HBCUs because we truly love our HBCUs, and we know that that type of education is important,” Lee added. “It's important to young Black and brown kids. It's important for them to see entrepreneurs who are graduates of HBCUs, and it's important for them to see Black people having business ownership.”
The Harlem Hops co-owners hope to continue inspiring not only future HBCU grads but also those in their Harlem neighborhood and the Black craft beer industry.
“I want people to see that three almost strangers put their money together to create something beautiful without hesitation or without fear, and that's quite often what stops us from being or taking it to the next level,” Harris said. “So [we’re] removing that doubt that we have among ourselves and trusting the process and creating some beautiful things together and ... collaborating with other Black breweries and opening them into the idea of working and organizing together because we make more noise together.”
“I feel that we are a lot closer just by doing these collaborations,” Bradford added. “It's almost like HBCUs in the craft beer industry.”