Making History: Harris Family Brewery

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We interviewed Harris Family Brewery last month for our upcoming documentary, Poured in Pennsylvaniawhich debuts on April 20 at Whitaker Center’s Select Medical Digital Cinema. For details, join our email list or follow on social.


“We know we’re not going to be the first black-owned brewery in the country,” said Harris. “But we’re probably going to be the first in Pennsylvania.”

harris family brewery

Harris Family Brewery plans to be the first black-owned brewery in the state of Pennsylvania when — if all goes according to plan — it opens later this year.

Its founder, Shaun Paul Harris, admits he’s new to the craft beer game, but his passion for brewing is infectious and you can see he’s itching to get his beers into the hands of an eager community.

“For me, that second I realized I could make beer legally I knew I’d like to do this as a profession,” Harris said. “I didn’t even brew a batch of beer yet, but I believed I could do it.”

Harris started homebrewing in his backyard in 2014 and quickly grew to love the craft.

“Once all the beer drinking is done on brew day, I’m the one still checking fermenters, tubes, and ingredients,” Harris said. “It’s a love of the whole process for me and not just about the finished product.”

Harris Family Brewery is on the hunt for a taproom space and getting their beer out beyond their backyards.

“That’s where we’ve been for the last few years,” said Harris. “We’ve just been battle rappers in the dungeon spitting bars in a mirror, and we’re over that. We’re about to come out like B-Rabbit.”

Almost a distillery

When Harris talks about his introduction to brewing, he always mentions Moonshiners.

After catching a few episodes of the reality show, Harris said he started looking into how to distill, thinking there’s no way this could be legal.

“I was reading an article about making liquor and there was a big ‘but’ at the end that mentioned you could make beer legally,” Harris said. “I said, what? That’s a thing?”

Harris started doing his research. He knew he liked Blue Moon, a Belgian-style witbier, so he set out to make a clone to drink at home.

“I started to think about how I could make Blue Moon more appealing to me,” said Harris.

From there, Harris started to tinker with his recipe and learned how to coax more alcohol out of his beer.

“In doing my research, I started to finally realize what people meant when they talked about craft beer,” Harris said. “It wasn’t before long that I started adding new ingredients to make new recipes.”

Cookouts are for test batches

Harris isn’t alone in his endeavor to open the first black-owned brewery in Pennsylvania. His two friends and partners, Jerry “JT” Thomas and Timothy White, are along for the ride.

harris family brewery
Shaun, JT, and Tim during a recent snowy brew day.

JT helps Harris on brew days, while Tim takes on business and marketing operations.

Again, neither one of them had even known you could make beer, but now they’re all in.

“I live for brew day,” said JT. “I might be out late on a Friday night and still wake up early Saturday to text Shaun to say, let’s get some breakfast and brew.”

Tim was skeptical at first. He said he was a beer drinker but never knew you could make beer at home.

“Once again, the lightbulb went off, and I started to do some research, and I thought ‘hold up if they’re making beer, then we can make beer’,” White said.

Harris had known JT for a while, but the first time they all met was at a cookout, and the first time anyone tried Harris’ beer was at a cookout.

“Cookouts are a thing,” White said. “The summer is non-stop cookouts. You don’t even need a reason.”

Harris debuted his suped-up Blue Moon at a cookout back in 2014, and it was met first with skepticism and then praise.

“The first time we brought our beer we banged the tap on a tree and hung it over a branch,” Harris said. “The keg was gone in 20 minutes. We had about nine people there, and they drank it all.”

Harris said this is when the lightbulb went off again. Now, cookouts wouldn’t be the same without a Harris Family brew.

“People now say, ‘I know you have food but do you have beer too?’,” JT said.

Harris said that cookouts are how they build camaraderie and friendship and that the company is built the same way.

“We have our ups and downs, and we fight, but at the end, it’s all about family,” Harris said.

Being first

In craft brewing, there aren’t many “firsts” left in the industry.

“We know we’re not going to be the first black-owned brewery in the country,” said Harris. “But we’re probably going to be the first in Pennsylvania.”

harris family brewery
Tim White, Shaun Harris, and JT at HMAC.

That idea seems to mean a lot to the three guys behind Harris Family Brewing.

“When you’re the first, you’re the first, and no one can ever take that away from you,” White said. “For us to put this area on the map would be epic.”

“We might go out and buy championship belts,” JT said.

Harris echoed this by saying how much it would mean to be mentioned with the likes of Black Frog Brewery in Ohio, and Garrett Oliver, brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery.

“We don’t want people to buy the beer because we’re black, we want people to buy the beer because it’s good,” JT said.

Harris chimed in,  “No no no, buy the beer because we’re black, but come back because it’s good.”

Urban Brewing

Harris has been brewing in the backyard for friends and family for four years now but admits he’s still relatively new to the industry.

harris family brewery

“We’re so new to craft beer that we’re not specializing stuff,” Harris said. “But I know styles, and I know if something will ferment well within a certain style, so that’s the road I go down.”

Harris said that he starts developing new recipes using interesting fermentable ingredients.

For example, during the holidays they deconstructed a fruitcake as inspiration for a holiday brew.

“We went to look into what was fermentable in fruitcakes and found out that there was a lot that you can ferment,” Harris said.

After they selected the fruits they wanted to use, they picked a style and the hops that would work with the flavor profile.

Harris Family Brewery’s first brews are each inspired by its founders and include Formula 58 American Wheat Ale, HF Lager, and Bando Black Stout.

Climbing Mount Everest

Opening a new brewery isn’t easy. Challenges show up everywhere.

“We know this is Mount Everest, but we’re ready to climb it,” White said. “We always think about when are we going to hit that next roadblock, and we know we’re going to hit it someday.”

JT said that their team simply finds a way to overcome these barriers because that’s just the way they think and push forward.

While starting a brewery — or any business — is no easy feat, the partners are grateful for a day and age where there’s a lot of available help.

“We could go to Holland, Belgium, or Portland to learn, but we live in a time where all of that knowledge is at your fingertips,” Harris said. “You don’t need the crazy formal training anymore.”

Harris Family Brewery is ready to move forward. They want to get beer into the hands of the community, but they are facing their first major hurdle — financing.

“This isn’t easy when you don’t have the capital,” Harris said. “We’re just three dudes from the inner city with kids. We don’t have $100,000 just sitting around somewhere to just see what happens.”

Though they are at a critical point in the company’s story, they are excited about the opportunity it’s creating.

“The capital is a roadblock, but it’s a fun roadblock,” Harris said. “Once we get to that point to sell that first pint of beer, it will be groundbreaking and life-altering for us because that’s when it will be real.”

Find Harris Family Brewery

http://www.facebook.com/HARRISFAMILYBREWERY

Harris Family Brewery is currently looking for a taproom.

In the meantime, you can sample the brews during Harrisburg Beer Week and more:

Sara Bozich
Author: Sara Bozich

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