Sitting with Harlem Blue Founder and President Julian Riley, you get the impression that while he’s a novice in the beer game, he might already have a better grip on it than some of his peers.
While discussing, showing (and tasting) some of his beer at the Harlem Tavern on an October afternoon, Riley talked to the AmNews about how a former lawyer decided to get into the brewing business.
“The spark was literally just a late night phone conversation with a buddy of mine,” said Riley between sips of Harlem Blue. “I was still an attorney. I was sort of segueing out of being an attorney. I was kind of done with that, but I always had an entrepreneurial itch, and I was looking for a way to marry craft and community in and from Harlem.”
“Craft” and “Harlem” are words that the former contract attorney (who ran a boutique firm in lower Manhattan for 12 years) emphasized several times during his talk with the AmNews. Riley believes that what Harlem’s been praised for recently is fine, he believes those in the neighborhood are capable of more things.
Riley established Harlem Blue in 2011 not only with a desire to meet his enthusiasm for craft beer with his entrepreneurship streak, but to show that Harlem can make things.
“I just think Harlem is underappreciated, honestly, in terms of making things and not being praised only for hospitality,” said Riley. “You love the bar and the restaurant world, but I thought we could make some things as well.” Riley has some knowledge of the bar and restaurant business. A Boston native who moved to New York City in the early 1990s, some of Riley’s extended relatives ran a jazz club in the South End of Boston called Wally’s Cafe since 1947.
So how did Riley come up with the name “Harlem Blue?” Riley’s explanation can be found on the brand’s website. “While researching the history of 20th century Harlem and its under-recognized craftsmen, I discovered that renowned gangsters Dutch Schultz and Owney Madden were not the only local ‘bootleg’ brewers distributing during Prohibition,” read the statement. “In fact, there was a strong underground of regular Harlemites who liked to homebrew and served beer to socialize, from the Renaissance era and Prohibition, continuing through today. Notably, there was a speakeasy door of lore—for those in the know—that would draw the most attention when the exterior blue light was on, signifying a fresh batch of brew.”
The blue light is what inspired Riley. “Seeing that there was a history of breweries in Harlem since before Prohibition,” said he said. “There were up to 10 breweries in Harlem depending on who you talk to and who you ask. I love beer and sort of had a beer appreciation of craft beer. And I was like, why is Brooklyn having all the fun? We can do artisanal stuff here.”
Like any entrepreneur starting a company, Riley has big aspirations. But he also understands the power of patience and deliberate action. Riley doesn’t want to throw his beer at any place that will carry it. He wants to cultivate a devoted base of supporters. That means starting small and being mindful about the audience and the taste of the product.
“And I think that’s different than a lot of beers that just come up with a kooky name, some kooky styles and just run with it. That’s not to disparage anybody, that’s just where the opportunity is,” he said. “There’s only so many ways you can make a beer. Sure, there are hundreds of styles, but there are probably, like, five styles that most people drink. Lager is still the top selling beer in America by far. It’s not particularly flavorful, but it’s a good beer. There are fantastic lagers out there.
“Most of them just throw a lot of hops out there,” continued Riley when asked to critique the current craft beer market. “I like that. I think that’s great, but it’s not like anyone’s doing anything particularly different with that, like, ‘We got a lot of hops. We’ll put a frog next to this brand and some flying wings to this brand and run with it.’ I think for me, I have to work on what flavors I like and work on flavors that I would drink and hope that it connects with the customers. I want to make approachable beer styles full of flavor, well-balanced and appreciative of craft. I don’t want to try and ‘out-ingredient’ everybody.”
Riley said that he’s in local bars about two to four nights a week and tries to position himself as a fly on the wall. But he’s much more engaging than a fly. “I talk to bartenders, wait staff and customers,” he said. “What do you like? What do you not like? I listen to my social media. I try to be responsive to that. So for me, I can’t worry too much about what the other guys are doing, and it’s more about what beer do I like.
“It needs to be something that I personally like.”
Riley admits that he’s still a novice who’s learning on the job, but he’s managed in short time, through lots of hard work, to land a distributor (Union Beer Distributors) and become the first commercial beer in Harlem. Some of the other places he hopes likes his beer include bars in Harlem, the Upper West Side, west side of Midtown, Chelsea and his old stomping grounds of Soho and Greenwich Village, where his boutique firm was once based. All are areas that he still frequents.
“I can go into a bar and tell you if they’ll like my kind of beer,” said Riley. “I can tell you if they’ll be able to respond to our beer style and our brand. I’m going all in on this.”
With a Ginger Beer, Brown Ale and an IPA coming up, not to mention plans to set up a brewery in Harlem, Riley has a lot on the proverbial plate.
“If I’m blessed to have any success outside of New York, I won’t be able to have the hands-on ability. It would be a lot harder,” said Riley. “But while we’re just getting started, it’s important for me to be close.” Riley wants to grow at an organic pace, but if the taste of his beer is any indication, he might have to speed up his timeline.