Founders of Montclair Brewery Celebrate Culture Through Craft Beer
Denise-Ford Sawadogo and Leo Sawadogo are the married couple behind New Jersey’s Montclair Brewery. At the foundation of the brewery is a vision of connecting their diverse upbringings and cultures with the Montclair community through beer.
“Culturally, beer is a part of us,” says Denise Ford-Sawadogo, co-owner and general manager of the brewery. “My husband [and head brewer/co-owner] Leo is from West Africa, where there is just a wealth of culture.”
Ford-Sawadogo acknowledges that in West Africa, it’s traditionally the women who do the brewing. But her husband is a chef by training and has a vast knowledge of the fruits, plants, herbs, and ingredients that are unique to that part of the world. Ford-Sawadogo was born in Brooklyn, the first in her family to have been born outside their native Jamaica, and grew up on Long Island in a household dominated by kitchen smells of hibiscus and coconut.
“We and our beer are very inspired by our culture,” she says.
For evidence, look no further than Baobiere, a golden ale from Montclair Brewery which is a mainstay on tap and is packaged in cans. Baobiere is brewed with fruit from the baobab tree, a tree native to parts of Madagascar and Africa, and is often referred to as the “Tree of Life.”
“Only Leo would know about [brewing with] that fruit,” she says, laughing.
In fact, the brewery’s beer menu is typically full of beers that reflect their upbringing from Hibiscus Dream, a pale ale brewed with the flower. Kingston Porter is a beer named for Jamaica in honor of Ford-Sawadogo’s family history.
Denise and Leo recognize there aren’t many Caribbean or West African natives in the U.S. craft brewing world, but Denise says that motivates them to make sure everyone feels welcome and comfortable coming into the brewery.
“We pride ourselves on making our guests feel comfortable,” she says. “We are appealing to larger audiences.”
Montclair Brewery’s Black History Month Beers
Staying true to their vision to connect with culture through craft beer, Montclair Brewing is releasing a series of beers for Black History Month that pays homage to some of the black Americans that created lasting cultural legacies. For the husband and wife, Black History Month is a chance to “openly and proudly honor all the great accomplishments that people of African descent have contributed to the world,” Ford-Sawadogo says.
“We are aware of these great accomplishments all year round, but February gives us the platform to elevate the message.”
Sawadogo created Tubman Railroad Strawberry Ale as a nod to Harriet Tubman’s favorite snack. The brewery is also releasing a beer honoring Larry Doby, the second player to break the Major League Baseball color barrier when he was signed to the Cleveland Indians in 1947, a few months after Jackie Robinson started for the Brooklyn Dodgers. He spent the years at the end of his life in Montclair.
“Doby is a historical figure,” Ford-Sawadogo says. “He is not as well-known as Jackie Robison, but there are tons of achievements. Plus it is the Negro League 100th anniversary this year. We thought this is the year to honor someone from that league.”
Other beers Montclair Brewing is offering during Black History Month are the Motherland, a gluten-free beer made with sorghum, a traditional style of beer brewed in Africa, and the MB Pecan Stout, which connects the history of African-Americans and pecans. A former slave, known only as Antoine, is regarded to have developed the technique used to grow pecan orchards.
The husband and wife duo have also planned to honor their culture by hosting a series of events featuring weekly acts that celebrate music of the African heritage like reggae, hip-hop, and calypso. Ford-Sawadogo believes that music, like beer, can connect people.
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“We think our music helps [bring people together],” she says. “Musicians have a following, so they come into our brewery and get introduced to craft beer. For many people, it’s their first time in a brewery. It’s an opportunity for us to tell them about what we do.”
Music and beer can be the bridge between people who may not typically be seated at the same table, taking in a culture that might not be their own.
“And whether you’re a person who goes to breweries on weekends or if you’re a person just coming to see a band you like, we want everyone to feel welcome,” Ford-Sawadogo says.
In many taprooms, the beer can inspire the culture within the walls. At Montclair Brewery, the Sawadogos are intent on making the opposite true.