In Montclair, New Jersey, a brewery that serves craft beers rooted in West African and Caribbean culture might be seen as an unexpected hidden gem. But to the residents of Montclair, this brewery represents a prideful staple in the community. In 2014, the married duo Leo and Denise Sawadogo established Montclair Brewery with the aspiration to create a community-centered hub where people could build connections, all while sipping deliciously crafted beverages.
A Jamaican Entrepreneur and West African Brewer Connect
What often gets neglected in the narrative of Montclair Brewery is the power couple that maintains its foundation. After meeting and committing to a romantic partnership in the 1990s, the two merged their talents to start a community-centered business. So naturally, the Sawadogos settled on a brewery. Leo's passion for experimenting and brewing phenomenal drinks has been at the forefront of his experience for years.
Leo comes from Burkina Faso, West Africa, which influenced his passion for brewing. “Every holiday, my mom was brewing beer,” he says. With his mom being his first brewmaster at an early age, he grew a fascination with experimenting with fermented fruits from local plants such as the baobab tree – which flourishes back in his home country.
In West African culture, beer represents more than a thirst quencher. It represents hospitality and celebration. “When we came back from church, everybody was rushing home to get the beer, and that's how I got introduced to brewing,” he says.
On the other hand, Denise was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised by a traditional Jamaican family. For her, being Jamaican was always a source of pride. While she did not grow up learning how to make beer from scratch, she did grow up with a family that also enjoyed Red Stripe and Jamaican Guinness beer as a part of their culture.
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When Denise and Leo decided to become entrepreneurs, Leo offered expertise on developing enticing beers to sell, and Denise took the lead in handling the brewery's operations. She adopted these savvy business skills at a young age. “A single mom raised me, and she was very much an inspiration to me and still is today. She owned her own businesses and was a big risk-taker. I worked alongside her and learned a lot about business earlier on from her,” she shares.
Building a Community-Centered Brewery
When it came time for the Sawadogos to rev up momentum for support in establishing their brewery, it was surprisingly easier than expected. They had already lived in Montclair for over a decade when they decided to launch the brewery. In addition, Leo worked in the community and served as a soccer coach, which opened up a natural pathway for him to get to know the youth and families in the area.
He shares, “We've been living in Montclair, and we were looking around, and there were no breweries.” A lack of taprooms in the area contributed to the excitement of locals. And the Sawadogos took advantage of this anticipation.
Having a deep understanding of the community, they knew that people from Montclair were very proud. So when it came time to come up with a name, the decision to name it after the town seemed fitting.
However, it wasn't all smooth sailings as they established the Montclair Brewery. While Denise navigated the complex paperwork, licensing and business identity, Leo concurrently developed the tap menu. “I didn't go to school for brewing. I learned as I went, really through trial and error. If I made something that didn't taste the way I wanted it to, I would restart again. And that's what it takes to become a master distiller,” he says.
Years of experimenting led to Leo developing award-winning concoctions that, most importantly, the community loved. On the menu at Montclair Brewery, one can find ales flavored with mango, stouts infused with coconut, and even beers made with the West African baobab fruit.
The founders decided to push the boundaries even further with their business. First and foremost, they prioritized West African and Jamaican ingredients represented across the menu, but equally important was ensuring that their business was involved with social impact.
Denise shares, “Our motto is building a stronger community one beer at a time, and we seriously live by it. We make sure to give back to the community in many different ways.” Montclair Brewery has supported organizations like IMANI, an academic success organization, Montclair EMS, and countless other organizations.
Denise continues, “Our taproom is a venue for many community organizations as well, where they can host fundraisers and events.”
Despite various trials, Montclair Brewery remains a pillar. For entrepreneurs looking to start businesses in their communities, Denise says, “I always advise people to do their homework before starting a business, do as much research as possible, and put together a plan.”
Denise is putting her advice into practice. She is now working to involve her son in the business and teaching him how to run operations. Similar to her relationship learning from her mother about how to lead a business.
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Leo shares, “Be open to learning. Right? If you're not curious, you can never get anything done. You got to be curious. You got to ask questions. Growing up, if I were not interested in my mom's process of making beer, I probably would have never become a brewer.”
For more information on Montclair Brewery, visit their website, Instagram, and Facebook. To try the delicious offerings at Montclair Brewery, visit them at 101 Walnut Street, Montclair, New Jersey, or use their beer-locator to find a brew near you.