Harsha Maragh - Brewing for the cultureMonday, July 19, 2021
LIKE many children born to Jamaican parents in the United States, Harsha Maragh would always look forward to coming home with her family during holidays to visit her relatives. The immersion into the music, language, food and friendly, welcoming people in her parents' hometowns in Clarendon and St Catherine, was something that she treasured and anticipated every year. One of the most frequently used expressions on these visits was 'Wah gwaan?' — which is what she decided to name the Jamaican brewing company she founded in Denver, Colorado.
“Even while I was growing up in the Bronx, New York, I was surrounded by a lot of West Indian culture,” Maragh said to All Woman. “Not only from my parents, who are from Jamaica, but from the community that's there. So I've always been surrounded by the food, the music, the dress, and all the other aspects of our culture.”
Maragh, now 28, lived in the Bronx until five years ago when she moved to the University of South Colorado to pursue her graduate degree in sustainability planning and management.
“Craft beer is really such a big part of Colorado's culture,” she said, remembering how fascinated she was by the brewing process, and the number of small breweries around town. “I was very interested in that because it was very different from New York, so I just started trying a bunch of different beers. I met Jesse, who is now my husband, at a brewery, so it's kind of always been a part of our life together. Once we started dating we would go to different breweries and try different beers.”
Pretty soon the couple was brewing up a storm at home using home-brewing kits, but only for their own consumption. Until the pandemic hit.
“I was working remotely and doing renewable energy research, until I lost my job due to COVID-19,” Maragh said. “My husband was working at home as well, so we started brainstorming different ideas for businesses to see if we could start something. The brewery thing kind of came up naturally because it was something that we both loved, and something that we were both interested in.”
The newlyweds started doing their research. They bought books, took online brewing courses, and fleshed out a business plan. Deciding on the Jamaican concept was a no-brainer, since the culture was so ingrained in Maragh, and Jesse, who is part African American and enjoyed learning about it.
“When we did some research, we realised that there weren't any Jamaican breweries in the state, and there weren't any in the United States that we could find, so if we did this, we would be the first ones. We decided to go for it because we thought that it would be really different, and it would mesh well with the culture in Colorado,” Maragh shared.
After months of planning and trying earnestly to solicit funding for the start-up, the brewery finally began operating last month. Painted in bold, bright colours with large murals of Jamaican entertainers on the walls, and old-school reggae and ska music playing around the clock, the establishment is quickly becoming a favourite hangout spot for Jamaicans and other West Indians in the area.
“The use of the ingredients is where we want to incorporate a lot of the culture,” Maragh highlighted. “Right now we have a tamarind brew, a dark wheat ale, and we made one in collaboration with another brewery, a pina colada. Also, with the names of the flavours — like Duppy Conqueror, Washbelly, Jamrock — if someone from Jamaica were to come in here, we want it to be familiar to them so they can feel at home.”
As word travels around town faster than you can say 'wah gwaan', Maragh is keen on not only trying to sell a product, but also on creating a welcoming atmosphere for the Caribbean community in Colorado.
“We're planning a huge Jamaica block party for August 6 (Jamaica's Independence Day). We're going to release a lot of new beers that day,” she divulged excitedly. “Trying to bring the community together out here is really important to me, and making sure that the West Indian community has a place that they can go to and gather.”
In the medium- to long-term, she hopes to ramp up distribution in the States and the Caribbean, and to open new locations.
“This is not something that I thought was ever going to happen; it's not a dream that I ever had up until a few years ago,” she mused. “I would love to see it grow and see it expand, but I would also love to be able to travel and tell people about what we're doing, and inspire other people to start their own businesses. It's important to diversify this industry, because it's very homogenous right now. I want to be able to inspire other women and people of colour to start their own business.”
Maragh also hopes that before long, she will be able to give back to the culture that has given her so much, through expanding the business to Jamaica and working with charitable organisations to aid in the island's social development.
For right now, however, the young couple is still learning the ropes of running a business, a home, and a marriage.
“It hasn't been a year yet, we got married in October,” the wife shared blissfully. “That's been something that we're trying to figure out right now, where to put boundaries. Honestly, the business right now takes over everything, but I think once we move forward and find more staffing for our tap room we'll step away a little bit and get more of our personal lives back.”
Maragh, who enjoyed the impactful work she was doing in helping to make buildings and operations more energy-efficient in response to climate change, also hopes to be able to return to that area once the brew has settled.
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