Denise Ford-Sawadogo and her husband Leo are moving into year three of owning and operating Montclair Brewery, and in that time, this pair has not shied away from embracing their cultures. Leo, from West Africa, and Denise, from Jamaica, both tie their backgrounds into the craft beers that they produce.
When Montclair Brewery first opened, it focused on creating a busy taproom that was constantly filled with beer lovers. When 2020 hit, or as Denise calls it, “the year of pivoting,” it was time to make some more-than-temporary adjustments. The couple began canning their craft beers on demand and creating flights to-go. In order to still connect with the community, Denise and Leo continued their events virtually, hosting online trivia and virtual happy hours.
“We just tried to do different things so that we can still be connected with our customers,” said Denise. This included a socially distant Oktoberfest, hosted in their parking lot, turned into an outdoor beer garden. With space between tables, live music, and lots of beer, Denise and Leo were able to safely continue what they hope will be a long tradition.
We caught up with Denise Ford-Sawadogo to discuss this past year, her and her husband’s specialty Black History Month brews, and what she loves most about owning a local brewery.
Table Hopping: What were some highlights or special moments for you this past year?
Denise Ford-Sawadogo: We had to focus on to-go sales, and luckily we were able to start canning things on demand. There was a lot of learning. We perfected it over time to be able to deliver a good quality product to our customers. People were so happy and I’m always happy to get their feedback.
TH: Your husband, Leo, was featured on the Discovery Channel’s Moonshiners: Master Distiller recently. What was that like?
DFS: He can make many things, beer and liquor are some of them. It’s just a hobby of his to make it. He’s been experimenting, and on the show he made a peach brandy. He had a fantastic time and met a lot of new people. He didn’t win, which is fine, but he learned a lot. He’s hoping to go back on a redemption series.
TH: How exciting to see him on TV!
DFS: Definitely! This past week we’ve had people say, “Hey, I didn’t know about the brewery, but I saw him on TV and had to come!” So we got new people to come in and a lot of our regulars were super excited about it.
TH: Being a Black-owned business, how have recent events and the Black Lives Matter movement affected your business, if at all?
DFS: After the George Floyd incident, we got a flooding of support. Everyone wanted to support our Black-owned business so much that we ran out of stuff. And the support is still there which is nice. I think people have become more aware of the injustices and unfairness that Black people and Black businesses face. Our community of Montclair is especially very aware of those types of things. Lots of people say they moved to Montclair because of its diversity. It’s been good and we just want it to continue. While it’s great to get attention, we want to make sure that people are still enjoying our product.
TH: How have you brought your culture into your business?
DFS: When we first opened our business, we wanted to make sure we were bringing something different to the craft beer world. My family heritage is in Jamaica and Leo is from West Africa. We knew we always wanted to bring pieces of our background into our brewery. We are very proud of our culture and wanted to share that with Black History Month. We decided to put together a Black History Month beer series and do some research as far as who we should honor.
TH: Who are you honoring this year?
DFS: Gil Noble is one of the people we are honoring this year with the Noble Like Its Porter Beer. He is an award winning journalist and had a TV show on ABC called Like It Is. His career got started in Montclair, it’s where he raised his family, and he died here. He’s known in the Black community, especially in the Northeast. We were able to get in touch with his son and interview him as well. This one is a collaboration with Harlem Brewing Company, which is Black-owned and woman-owned, because Noble was born in Harlem.
TH: What other beers are you doing this year?
DFS: We are doing the Boseman Wile Ale in honor of Chadwick Boseman, who unfortunately died at too young an age [at 43, last August]. He’s most known for his role in Black Panther, but he also played many other iconic roles such as Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King.
We are also a part of the Black is Beautiful global collaboration. We rally around causes and raise awareness and money to support them. This beer came out in response to the racial injustices after the George Floyd incident. They make it one time, but for us we thought this is not a one time thing. We have continued to make it and added peanut butter to it to honor George Washington Carver, an African American that made hundreds of products with peanuts.
TH: Tell me a little bit about the beers that stay on tap at Montclair Brewery.
DFS: We have other beers that are on our tap list almost year round that pay homage to our culture. Our Baobiere is made with the African Baobab fruit that we import from West Africa. We’ve also got the Golden Buddha, which is a passion fruit ale that pays homage to my Caribbean heritage.
TH: Do you have any other plans for this year?
DFS: Our plan is to continue developing new beers. To do that, we’re going to do something for International Women’s Day and we’ll try to see what we can do for St. Patrick’s Day in a safe way. We’re also focusing on distributing to more shops in New York and New Jersey to make it easier for people to get us in the tri-state area.
TH: What has been your favorite part of owning and operating the brewery?
DFS: Seeing people having a wonderful time in our tap room and enjoying our beers. We want to give people a great experience and educate them on our culture.
Montclair Brewery is located at 101 Walnut Street in Montclair. Order brews for pickup and delivery online or make reservations for a virtual event. Check out their Instagram page to stay updated on events and see their featured beers.Click here to leave a comment