By Louis Livingston-Garcia, Photos courtesy Harlem Brewing Co.
Calypso barley has nothing to do with Calypso Afro-Caribbean music originating from Trinidad and Tobago, but Harlem Brewing Co. Founder Celeste Beatty can’t help but tie the two together. She sees the textures of the music and the textures of the grain as complementary rhythms. Calypso barley is how Beatty is going to honor her family’s roots as farmers, and how she and Brent Manning, co-founder of Riverbend Malt House, are pushing forward with a barley that farmers—especially Black farmers—can grow and use as a way to support the brewing industry.
Beatty’s journey began when she noticed the lack of diversity in the craft beverage industry. Since founding Harlem Brewing in 2000, she recently thought about how to add more to the industry, and paving the way for Black farmers to grow barley is just another step in her personal belief and mission in making the industry more far reaching and represented beyond a taproom and a brew kettle.
“My grandparents were farmers and I got an interest in Future Farmers of America,” Beatty says of her circular journey back to farming. “They grew tobacco, corn, produce, and raised a number of animals for food. And my journey as a craft brewer, I was grappling with the lack of diversity in brewing. I didn’t take a particular issue, I just thought, ‘wow, I know Black farmers. Are they growing grains?’ Growing soybeans, some grain, but for feed, not for the brewing industry.”
Harlem Brewing Co. began in New York but Beatty is from Rocky Mount where her second location is opening in the Tobacco Warehouse, a historic building where Black Leaf Tobacco Workers voted for better work and pay—a precursor to the civil rights movement known as Operation Dixie.
Rejoining the community and land raised questions of whether farmers were aware of the opportunity to grow ingredients for the craft beverage industry. She came up with the idea of Community Malt, a collaborative initiative for Black and BIPOC farmers. It’s a grain to glass program to look at grains as a viable crop, and a way to provide grains for not just Black brewers but the industry in general. With that mission in mind, Beatty hosted a farm to table dinner with local Black farmers, and Manning came with information and slides about Calypso.
Manning was a co-founder of the Craft Maltsters Guild in 2012 and was also thinking of growing the industry beyond the normal participants.
“At the time you could put all the craft maltsters around a dinner table, but we all wanted to disrupt the industry,” Manning says. “Small grains grown in different areas. When you’re an absolute beginner it’s a panoramic view. That’s pretty much what we had: an opportunity to serve a rapidly growing craft beer community.”
Inspired by the Flour Miller’s Guild, they put together best practices, safety, and general education as tentpoles of how to move forward. In the early years they operated in tandem with the Craft Brewers Conference with support from the Brewers Association.
Working with Beatty towards diversifying the supplier network, Calypso was chosen as the barley and seed that would be a catalyst that could bloom into change.
Manning recalls his supply chain being white and male at the time. There wasn’t really a supply chain for craft malt barley in the southeast to begin with. That is slowly changing, with the next phase of the growth being diversification. The first harvest of Calypso was in 2022, just an acre here and there across microclimates in North Carolina and Virginia, or the Piedmont area, which is good for growing 2-row winter barley.
The most successful test acreage came from farmer James Brown of Virginia. A farmer who has grown grain since he was a kid, Brown is now in his 80s and still wakes at 4 in the morning to get to work on his farm. The 2-row barley was grown and it was the greatest yield of anyone, “as he lives and sleeps this stuff,” Beatty says.
Met with a golden field of grain, Beatty was struck by the transformation from seed to fully-grown plant.
“I ended up on the back of a truck with the grain harvester. They were in my shirt, my underwear. Everywhere. I had the itch of my life. I thought hops were itchy. It became a harvest day for me and it was the most beautiful, amazing, itchy moment for me,” she says.
Beatty has a small collection of those grains at the North Carolina location; she plans to test batch them in the near future.
This initial batch couldn’t be harvested for a big batch of beer, as there are issues to overcome. Chief among them is seed cleaning, a process that’s important to sift out thin or damaged kernels and deliver a uniform malt size. 2022 was not a success in that regard, but Manning is pretty sure they’ve found a solution so that the very next harvest could be.
Manning and Beatty also want to donate more seed for the next harvest. It’s very much a growing phase right now, with a goal of 10 acres being within reach. Manning says this lack of infrastructure to overcome is mostly a symptom of the scaling of farming and its migration west.
“Infrastructure that supports seed cleaning has slowly withered away in the southeast,” Manning says. “As we try to resuscitate these supply chains, that’s a big link in the chain to rebuild because it’s not a 12-month of the year business. It’s an add-on. That makes this so tricky. If you want to work, support, grow family farms, this grain infrastructure has to come with it in some form or fashion. Typical growers don’t like to drive their bulk material more than an hour or two. That eats into your profits.”
Beatty hopes to invite more Black farmers to the list of growers and really get Calypso going as a viable part of the craft beer industry. The plan is for 2024 to be the year of fruition. Plus, the National Black Brewers Association, of which Beatty is on the board, is in talks to buy the Calypso and use it in beers across the country. The association fully launched this year and is a non-profit organization focusing on promoting the Black brewing community, increasing the number of African Americans in the industry at all levels, exercising political influence, and fostering understanding of the history and legacy of African American brewing in the United States.
Although this song is only into its first couple of bars and hasn’t quite hit its rhythm yet, Beatty expects a full beat to crescendo into a movement in barley very soon.