Montclair Brewery Celebrates Black History Month With Special Brews

One of about 50 black-owned breweries in the U.S., Montclair Brewery is pouring new offerings made specifically with Black History Month in mind.

Denise Ford-Sawadogo, right, with customers at Montclair Brewery's tasting room. Photo courtesy of Montclair Brewing

Many breweries—especially young breweries—try to stand out with interesting flavor profiles, beers with sky-high ABVs or cheeky names. Montclair Brewery goes for some of that (see the Kavanaugh on their draft list).

But they also make beers like Rudd’s Dairyland Milk Stout, which honors a pioneering Montclair black businessman and great-grandson of a former slave; and the Baobomb Sour, brewed with the tart fruit of the sacred African Baobab tree. Both are part of Montclair Brewery’s Black History Month series, and both showcase the kind of creativity and wide cultural lens the brewery hopes to access year-round.

“We have three goals as a brewery,” says Denise Ford-Sawadogo, who opened Montclair Brewery with her husband Leo Sawadogo in October of last year. “Number one, we want to bring new people into craft beer. And being who we are, we’re in a unique position to help bring people in.”

Leo Sawadogo with one of his beers at Montclair Brewery. Photo courtesy of Montclair Brewery

Denise is a first-generation Jamaican-American. Leo, the hardcore amateur brewer turned Montclair Brewery head brewer, is from Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa. “The craft beer industry as a whole is trying to diversify the craft beer fanbase,” says Denise. “So we purposely use different types of flavors to appeal to different cultures, black or Hispanic, women as well. We want to make sure we’re welcoming all different types of people.”

Not that any craft beer drinker should feel left out. Montclair’s second goal as a brewery is to “never turn our back on the bigger craft beer market out there,” says Denise. “We have a lot of the IPA style, because we know they love their hops. We have our Poor Richard’s IPA—that’s a staple product. And we also have the Claremont Pilsner that’s also good for people not accustomed to craft beer. It’s more of a standard beer flavor.”

Five to six of the brewery’s 14 taps will always be devoted to staple beers, leaving plenty of room to play with new and seasonal expressions—like the current Black History Month beers, an idea the couple thought of last year. “We were in construction during Black History Month,” recalls Denise. “I thought ‘So when we do open, what are some of the things we can do to celebrate?’”

By November, the couple had some recipe ideas. One of them, the Rudd’s Dairyland Milk Stout, does double duty: “Our third mission [as a brewery] is tying into Montclair community,” says Denise. “The Milk Stout ties into Montclair history and black history.” John Rudd, who the beer is named for, was the great-grandson of a former slave who bought his own freedom. Rudd himself was prolific in Montclair. He ran a landscaping business, earned his real estate license (possibly the second African-American to do so in the city), and ran a dairy and ice cream parlor. “We wanted to honor that,” says Denise. “Black History Month has traditionally been [a way to] highlight a person, and we said ‘Hey, we’re a brewery. What’s our take?’”

One of the most popular beers of the lineup, the Motherland, was inspired by Leo’s homeland, Burkina Faso, and its sorghum-based (gluten-free) beer, dolo. It’s traditionally brewed by women; Leo remembers watching his mother brew it as a child.

“The recipe is an adaptation from what is traditional in [Leo’s] country. It was a huge hit,” says Denise, who also couldn’t help but notice its popularity among the gluten-avoidant. “The feedback was like ‘Wow, this tastes like beer.’ Other gluten-free beer doesn’t really have a flavor to it.”

For her part, Denise has the Kingston Porter, named after the capital of Jamaica, where her family is from. “It was inspired by a favorite beer we have when we go back to Jamaica,” she says. “There’s more beer in Jamaica than just Red Stripe!”

Photo courtesy of Montclair Brewery

Montclair Brewery is still young. But their ambitions are long-term and fixed in their home community. “We’re the first real traditional microbrewery in Montclair,” says Denise. “Everyone’s so thankful we’re here.”

Next up for their Black History Month series is a Pecan Pie Stout, which is connected “in two ways,” says Denise. “One, the person who actually popularized the method to propagate pecans was a slave in Louisiana, known only by his first name, Antoine. And then it’s also tied in because pecan pie is reported to have been Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite dessert.”

Meanwhile they’ll continue working on expanding within the community, including distribution in local restaurants and bars. They’re also planning a special beer for the Women’s Day in March. Leo will brew it, says Denise, but the idea was hers. “I’m the inspiration.”

Connecting beer to people, motherlands, or hometowns isn’t a gimmick for Montclair Brewery. It’s an outlook. “Beer is just a universal drink,” Denise says. “There’s just such a connection.”

Montclair Brewery is located at 101 Walnut Street in Montclair. Their tap room is open for tastings every day except Wednesday through Sunday; 973-850-0541.

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