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Trailblazing trio sets sights on bringing craft beer to Allison Hill

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For Shaun Harris, it all began with an entrepreneurial spirit and an affinity for a certain television show.

“I wanted to make a product that would keep people coming back for more and then one day it hit me after watching an episode of ‘Moonshiners,’” said Harris, citing the show that inspired him to begin experimenting with beer kits that he purchased online.

The Harrisburg man, who once ran a computer repair shop and is now employed by Coca-Cola, said his analytical mind kicked into overdrive when he failed at the first few attempts at making a palatable potable. After churning out a few less-than-stellar batches, he turned to the internet for information, visited craft-brewing forums and soaked up all the nuggets of knowledge he could via YouTube tutorials.

After tweaking the recipe here and tinkering with equipment there, Harris experienced his Eureka moment. Soon he was sharing his product with his friends at local cookouts. He knew he was onto something when even the most skeptical were impressed.

That inspired him to take his hobby to the next level. His friends Jerry Thomas and Tim White hopped aboard and the trio began setting the wheels in motion to open a brewery in Dauphin County. On Jan. 2 2014, Harris registered the Harris Family Brewery as a business and began laying plans for a brick-and-mortar business.

Making history

The journey has been filled with twists and turns for the trio and they’ve faced more than their fair share of surprises, including the fact that they would assume the mantle as the first black-owned brewery in Pennsylvania.

That was a big revelation for the men, who were once accused of appropriating white culture when seeking help from fellow brewers on internet forums. They were insulted, but undaunted and ultimately proud to assume the role of introducing a new demographic to the craft beer realm.

According to a Yankelovich Monitor Survey done in 2016, only 12 percent of the African-American population reported drinking craft beer. The good news for brewers like Harris and friends is that it represented a jump from 2 percent in 2015, a trend that bodes well for the men, who hope to capitalize on that upward trajectory.

“Our style will attempt to ease people in. If you can open your palate to what we have, then the floodgates might open,” said White, adding that the craft brewers he’s met in person have been extremely supportive and have welcomed them with open arms.

White said he’s been impressed with the sharing spirit in the local craft-beer community, citing a collaboration with Harrisburg-based brewer ZeroDay. The two businesses joined forces to create a beer called It’s A Poppin. The beer debuted at a screening of the documentary called “Poured in Pa.,” in which the Harris Family Brewery is mentioned.

Facing roadblocks

When Harris and his friends decided to start an urban brewing business, they had their eye on the Derry Street area, but were stopped dead in their tracks by rent that clocked in at about $3,000 a month.

Fortunately, a friend of White’s stepped up and offered them a second-floor space at 13th and Market streets and proceeded to give the men wide berth to tailor the space to their particular needs.

“That was a game-changer,” said White.

Because they are self-funded, the trio is taking on the task of renovations—a tall order since all three are working full time. “Sleep, what’s that?” asks White, with a chuckle. “I’m glad we can all swing a hammer,” he adds.

In the meantime, there are bureaucratic requirements that need tending to, from applying for approval from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau and Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board, which can take from six months to a year to come through, to applying for a variance. “It’s zoned commercial and needs to be industrial,” said White.

Coming up with the money for additional unforeseen costs, like $10,000 for a required set of blueprints and $2,000 for a sprinkler system, are additional challenges the group is facing at the moment.

They’ve explored borrowing money for some of the bigger expenditures, but discovered that the interest rates were too high. The men have a laugh as they briefly indulge in the dream of an angel investor, or two, stepping forward. But for now, they are determined to forge ahead alone.

A pared-down approach

The partners realize just how far they’ve come in manifesting their dream, but understand the importance of being flexible and tweaking the recipe as Harris did at the onset.

“We plan on starting small and growing fast,” said White, adding that there is a dearth of breweries in the area where they will be located, so competition and saturation aren’t issues at this point. Current plans are to open a nanobrewery with a three-barrel system sometime in 2019.

“It’s as small as you can be while being profitable and that will enable me to brew everyday” said Harris.

In the meantime, they’ve joined the Brewers of Pennsylvania to learn all they can about the business, while maintaining a strong social media presence to keep those who are rooting for them in the loop on their continued progress.

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