Globe-Spanning Ingredients and an Emphasis on Community: the Unique Flavors and Inspirations of Montclair Brewery

Sometimes, craft beer can start to feel like a sea of hazy IPAs and crispy pilsners, so we value the breweries that stand out at TapRm. We love working with breweries who weave novel ingredients, methods, ideas, causes, and stories into their beers, making brews that are exciting and memorable whether they’re inventing a whole new style or executing a classic with simple perfection.

That’s why we’re extra psyched to be helping New Yorkers get their hands on beer from New Jersey brewers Montclair Brewery. From culinary expertise to cultural influences, the beers from husband and wife duo Leo Sawadogo and Denise Ford Sawadogo are incredibly special. We know you want all the details, so we dug into all things Montclair Brewery beer with Denise.

What were you and Leo doing before you opened the brewery in October of 2018, and what made you decide to take the leap into beer?

Denise: Leo actually used to be in journalism before, in his country in West Africa, Burkina Faso, and he had a side business running a café. Here, he was homebrewing for more than 10 years in our basement and used to gift his beer to friends and neighbors all the time. He had the dream of opening a brewery because he wanted to turn his hobby into a business--it was his American dream.

I’m a marketer by trade, and I still have my full-time job on top of managing the brewery. I work for a global corporation, where I’ve been for the past eight years. That’s what I do while also doing everything other than the actual brewing at the brewery.

I got into beer from Leo’s homebrewing, and once we knew we were going to open a brewery, I took it more seriously. On vacations, we’d always go visit local breweries...Leo would always say, “We can do this, this is what Montclair needs.” He’d tell every brewery we were in proudly that he makes beer.

He started working with a friend writing a business plan, and then I got involved--doing business and marketing for a living for more than 25 years and having an MBA and marketing degree, I said, “You guys definitely need my help.” Eventually the friend came out of it and it was just Leo and I.

How does Leo’s background cooking and running a café influence his beer?

Denise: We’ve been married for 20 years and he does all the cooking. He brews beer as if it’s something that he’s cooking, and he puts everything into whatever he’s cooking. He does not go the easy route at all. For his Belgian ales, he makes homemade candi sugar instead of buying it. There’s a blueberry ale where he actually gets blueberries and makes jam and freezes it for when he needs it. He’ll do purees--we don’t do extracts for the most part like some breweries will do for adding flavor.

Many of your beers reflect and celebrate your cultures and backgrounds--can you talk a bit about that and how you interpret your cultures into your beer?

Denise: That was huge for us. When I was researching before we opened, I saw that was really lacking: many things in beer were all the same. I didn’t see anyone, or at least very few people, that looked like us in craft beer. We knew our cultures would be something that would really allow us to stand out. We said if we’re going to open a brewery, we’re not going to do the same thing as everyone else, that’s the whole point for us even opening a brewery. It’s very important for us to add our cultures to the beer, we’re very proud of that.

Leo is from West Africa and my family is from the Caribbean, Jamaica specifically. We’re very proud, and wanted to add those bits and pieces into our beers, mainly through ingredients, and also the names of the beer. We want to help educate people on different things. Two of our beers are made with baobab fruit, a fruit indigenous to Leo’s country. We also brew with hibiscus, which is big in both areas. We brew with coconut, which is big in the Caribbean.

And we named our brewery after our town because the town has such a strong culture, too. Some of our beers are named after things in town, like the Claremont Pilsner is named for what Montclair was once named. We pay tribute to important African Americans and people from the African-American diaspora. In February, we come out with our Black History Month beer series. Last year we had the Tubman Railroad Strawberry Ale in honor of Harriet Tubman; the Doby Major Leagues Caramel Pale Ale for Larry Doby, the second Black baseball player to break the color line and who lived and raised his family in Montclair; and we did the Anderson Ale for Al Anderson, one of Bob Marley’s guitar players who also happened to be from Montclair.

What kind of relationship would you say Montclair Brewery has with its community and why is that important?

Denise: We live in the town, and that makes it really nice that we were already a part of the community. We have lots of regulars who come all the time, coming to look at what’s new, but who also love our staple styles.

We do a lot of partnering with the community, too, with nonprofit organizations like Montclair Design Week, the Montclair Jazz Festival, Bike & Walk Montclair, and other groups. We partner with them allowing them to use our space as a venue for events, and we give back to groups like the Montclair Ambulance Unit, La Casa de Don Pedro, and City Green Farms, doing different types of fundraisers with them. Even with schools, we’ve done things like partnering with the local high school and having their different bands come play in our taproom, now our outdoor beer garden. We do a lot of things with the community and they really appreciate it. We love it when they come in, it’s wonderful. We’d always wanted to make sure we opened up something the town needed. One of our mottos is that we’re building community one beer at a time, and we take that seriously.

Can you talk a bit about some of the flavor profiles of Montclair’s beers on TapRm?

Denise: Our version of the Black is Beautiful collaboration has our spin on it, which is the baobab fruit from West Africa. Baobab is a little tart and a little sweet. It’s unique because it’s a dried fruit, it actually grows dry. We brew with it in a powder format, and it’s very intriguing in taste. That’s also the basis of our Baobiere Golden Ale, which won a silver medal at this year’s New York International Beer Competition.

The National Emergency IPA is a New England IPA that’s a little lighter on the hazy side--it’s still hazy, just lightly so. It’s made with traditional hops like Citra, Cascade, and Simcoe, so it has some tropical aroma and taste, and it’s nice and easy-drinking with a smooth mouthfeel. That’s one of our top sellers, that and the Golden Buddha Passion Fruit Ale. A taproom favorite, the Golden Buddha is one of our original styles from day one. People are surprised at what a perfect balance it has: it’s not too fruity or too sweet--it’s great for anyone looking for more than a traditional craft beer.

How is the brewery navigating this pandemic?

Denise: We opened up our beer garden to allow for more outdoor seating and we’ll do that as long as the weather allows us. I think we’ll can more because not everything we brew we can right now--we have 22 beers on tap now and only can a few, so with the pandemic, we will have to have more in cans so people can look forward to having more of our beer styles to enjoy at home. We’re excited that we’re in New York now so New Yorkers can get it. I’m from Brooklyn, I’m the first of my family to be born in the U.S., and I grew up in Freeport, Long Island and went to New York schools, so I’m excited that my family and friends in New York can now easily get Montclair beer.

What are your hopes and goals for the brewery in the future?

Denise: We want more people to know about our brand. We’d like to expand it, we’d love to have a larger space or something, but right now, that’s hard to know. We do want to get our own canning line, so we can be a lot more flexible on what we can and how much we can, and then we can get more beer to people and continue to grow the brand.

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