African American entrepreneurs launch a craft beer named after Harold Washington

Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale is named for the year Chicago elected its first Black mayor, Harold Washington.

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Sam Ross (left) and Jay Westbrook enjoy a Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale at Haymarket Brewing.

Sam Ross(left) and Jay Westbrook (right) having a Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale at Haymarket Brewing.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Craft beer makers Jay Westbrook and Sam Ross aren’t looking for a seat at the craft beer gatekeepers’ table — they’ve brought their own.

And, in time, they plan to establish their own table.

“It’s been crazy doing this [beer launch] in a pandemic because this was already a thing before COVID-19 became official in the city of Chicago,” said Westbrook. “And the fact that we had to work that much harder makes me feel so much better.”

Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale is poured at Haymarket Brewing.

Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale is poured at Haymarket Brewing.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

In March, as the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the city, Westbrook, a South Shore native, and Ross, a Harvey native, along with Haymarket Brewing, launched “Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale,” a beer named for the year Chicago elected its first Black mayor, Harold Washington.

Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale is comprised of Zuper Saazer hops, Vienna malt and clover honey.

“Beers have tricky names, cool names like Gumballhead and Anti-Hero,” said Ross, a Goose Island Brewery brand ambassador. “How do you get a tricky name and make it sound like a hero down the street? What Harold’s [location] do you go to?”

There’s also a social justice component to one of the ingredients of Harold’s ’83. The honey used in the beer comes from Sweet Beginnings, LLC, a North Lawndale-based nonprofit organization which produces beelove, a line of honey-based products made by formerly incarcerated individuals.

Jay Westbrook is photographed at Haymarket Brewing.

Jay Westbrook is photographed at Haymarket Brewing.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

The impetus of Haymarket adding Harold’s ’83 — and diversity — to its expanding roster of beers came from a friend of Michael Gemma, Haymarket’s director of operations, who attended a City Council meeting where George Blakemore, a longtime City Hall watchdog, mentioned the small number of liquor stores in the city of Chicago owned by African Americans.

A growler of Harold’s ‘83 Honey Ale (right) is photographed alongside The Defender American-Style Stout at Haymarket Brewing.

A growler of Harold’s ‘83 Honey Ale (right) is photographed alongside The Defender American-Style Stout at Haymarket Brewing.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Upon hearing how few African Americans are involved in the liquor business, Gemma knew that Westbrook, a bartender at Wrigleyville’s Nisei Lounge, would the perfect person to launch a new beer created by African Americans.Another of Haymarket’s beers is named “The Defender American-Style Stout” after the city’s legendary Black newspaper, The Chicago Defender.

“We got the conversation going and I said ‘hey, I’ve got this idea. I’ve got Jay West [Westbrook] and his friend [Ross] who want to brew a beer and bring this to light in a unique way through their passion for the beer industry and for brewing,’” said Gemma. “We’re all about those [who] want to be a part of what we do as a craft and sharing the experiences, and teaching.”

Gemma says amid the pandemic, Harold’s ’83 ranks No. 3 in sales out of the 20 in-stock beers at Haymarket.

“We are blown away ... because [Westbrook and Ross] brought in the passion that they did with such vision, and now we want this to be unapologetically Chicago.”

The craft beer industry, which has predominantly been a space for affluent white people to thrive in, is a place where Black ownership — or craft brewers— are few and far between.

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Sam Ross working in the brewery at Haymarket Brewing.

Brian Rich/Sun-Times

Ross wants Harold’s ’83 to be the catalyst for Black people to get involved in the making of craft beer.

“We wanted Black people to drink our beer; we want everybody drinking it, but our goal was to get more people at the bar who look like us,” said Ross. “We know how it is to walk into a taproom and just see you.”

Westbrook and Ross’ endgame has them achieving the coveted industry title of cicerone, a certified professional who has expertise in selecting, acquiring and serving a variety of beers.

Ross, who hosts a podcast named “Pass the Drink,” says he knew Harold’s ’83 Honey Ale was going to be special when he saw customers eagerly buying the beer, and, more importantly, knowing what its presence means for African American entrepreneurship.

“Before we got any attention on the beer, I was just looking around and being in awe of being named a maker of a beer,” said Ross. “I’ll always be able to say to my son, my grandson, I was a creator of a recipe of a beer. I just didn’t work at a brewery, or I was a bartender someplace. I helped create a recipe.”

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