Owners of Owners of Montclair Brewery, Left to Right: Leo Sawadogo and Denise Ford Sawadogo
Montclair is a very special, tight knit community located in the North East corner of New Jersey. To know it is to love it. There’s a little something for everyone to enjoy in Montclair— but the one thing Montclair was missing was a place for people to drink good beer.
Enter our main players, Denise and Leo Sawadogo. Leo grew up watching his mom brew beer, which brewed his passion to create his own delicious libations. As homebrewers first, Denise and Leo’s basement was filled with the formidable smells of science experiments and projects on the brink of exploding. Determined to take their home brewing to the next level, they put their expertise together and created the first brewery in Montclair, NJ.
Montclair Brewery draws you in with the delicious beers and, of course afrobeats, but everyone stays for the stories. With every aspect of their space born of Leo’s passion, Denise’s savvy, and pieced together with help of the community, it’s a space you want to keep coming back to. A place for beer lovers and beer novices alike, you will walk away knowing more about history and culture through the story of each beer. Read on to learn more about Montclair Brewery.
Nancy Trigg: Tell us about you. Who you are, your role in the establishment and how you found yourself in the brewing world.
Denise: I am the co-owner and general manager of the brewery. I own it along with my husband, Leo, who is the brewer. As general manager (because I gave myself that title… I was like, “Ok, what should I call myself?”) I do basically everything except for the brewing— all the marketing, the administrative work, hiring of the bar staff, scheduling, payroll, POS stuff… just about everything but brewing the beer. I wear many hats. My background is actually in marketing so like many other entrepreneurs, I still have my day job. I have an MBA and bachelor’s degree in marketing, and those skills are very helpful in running a business. Simply putting some structure behind things and trying to put different processes in place makes a big difference.
Nancy: Can you tell us the Montclair origin story?
Denise: Absolutely. So my husband, Leo, has been homebrewing for years as a hobby. He was doing it in our basement. I had the fortunate—or back then it was really the unfortunate— benefit of smelling his homebrewing! He would bottle and gift beer to neighbors and friends and would tell me, “You know we can do this, we can open up a brewery.” He always has a lot of ideas so sometimes I’ve got to know which ones he is serious about. But then he was working on the idea with a friend and they were trying to put a business plan together. After reading it, I knew I could help.
I did a lot of research, because that’s my background. I did a ton of market research in the industry to see if it makes sense to even do this. Is it something that is growing? Would we make a difference? After doing that evaluation, it was determined that this might actually work. Especially in the town of Montclair, there is no other brewery.
It really came out of Leo’s dream and passion, I just helped put a lot of the plans together. He is more of the dreamer and I am more of the practical one asking, “How are we going to make it happen and how are we going to make it work?”
A couple years later, our brewery came to be.
Nancy: What makes Montclair Brewing different and unique?
Denise: My husband is from West Africa. He has lots of different ideas based on how he grew up and how he was raised, like using African fruits like the baobab fruit in our beer. He loves telling stories about how in his country, as well as in other parts of Africa, the women actually brew the beer. He grew up watching his mom make beer.
My family is from Jamaica, so we also use things like hibiscus in our beer. We have a traditional drink in Jamaica called sorrel which is made out of dried hibiscus flowers.
We use our background and our culture in our brews.
Nancy: Tell me what I’m going to experience when I walk into your space?
Denise: When you walk into Montclair Brewery, we want people to feel like they’re on vacation. We’ll have reggae music or afrobeats playing— you feel like you’re not even in the US.
The taproom itself is very DIY craftsman as far as the look and the ambience. The community was very involved during the start-up of the brewery. We have reclaimed wood that was donated from a dad in town because Leo used to coach his son. We had paint donated to us. Leo made a lot of the tables, which were actually built from donated barn door wood. Leo put his soul and hard labor into building our taproom—
Everything is handmade from the beers to the furniture.
Nancy: Tell us about how you elevate the guest experience and make sure your guests have a great time.
Denise: We love telling our guests about the ingredients and also about the beer names. For example, we have a one pager that talks about the nutritional qualities of the baobab fruit in our Baobiere Golden Ale, which is made with the African baobab fruit. It’s a citrus fruit, and considered a superfruit, and the baobab tree is also known as the tree of life.
We talk about the Bartons Bush Coconut Stout. It’s called Bartons because that is the area in Jamaica where my family is from. Bartons has coconut groves and trees so that’s why we call the beer Bartons Bush.
For Black History Month we made a beer called the Doby Major Leagues Caramel Pale Ale. It’s named after a historic baseball player, Larry Doby, who lived in Montclair. He was the first African-American baseball player to make it to the American League.
We also made the Tubman Railroad Strawberry Ale back in February—named for Harriet Tubman and a low ABV strawberry beer. It was strawberry because, through research, we found that strawberries were one of her favorite treats. It was low ABV because she was a very small framed woman who probably didn’t drink much.
“We love telling stories about the beer, that is a big part of the education.”
Nancy: I know there are two initiatives that you’re working very hard on right now—The Covid Relief Fund and the Black is Beautiful campaign. Tell me about what you’ve been doing.
Denise: Those are both beer collaborations we’ve been involved in to support causes we’re passionate about.
The All Together IPA—a New England IPA— is actually led by Other Half Brewing and was launched to help out the hospitality industry rebound from Covid-19 closures. A portion of the proceeds are going to The Beverage and Crisis fund— a fund in New Jersey which helps hospitality workers. Another portion goes to the Montclair Ambulance Unit that is steps away from our brewery. Covid-19 threw them in a tailspin and they were already on a very very tight budget so we wanted to give something.
The second one is the Black is Beautiful beer collaboration that was started up by Weathered Souls Brewing Company in Texas. It supports all the organizations that are fighting against racial injustices.
But even before either of those and before Covid-19, in March we did a collaboration that’s not on our website anymore— the Strongest Woman on Earth beer collaboration. It was brewed on behalf of International Women’s Month. A few of us went down to a brewery way out in South Jersey, Forgotten Boardwalk Brewing, which is also a woman-owned brewery. Each brewery received the recipe and was able to brew it or put their own spin on it so we brewed 2 different styles from that recipe. One was more traditional-style, it was a Belgian Trippel, The Strongest Woman on Earth, and then we added cinnamon to it and we called that one The Strongest and Spiciest Woman on Earth. At the time, all our beer servers were women and we all brewed it together. We don’t normally brew, myself included, so Leo helped us and gave us instructions, told us what to do… We were kind of out of our element but that was a really fun day. Proceeds from selling that beer went back to our beer servers.
Nancy: Let’s talk about your team. What makes you proud of the people you work with?
Denise: We’re a pretty lean team. Up until recently, we had four beer servers, Leo and myself, and one part-time office person. We were happy to keep them all employed during shutdowns. Even though there were fewer hours we found work for them— we trained them on how to can beer, some of them worked from home on administrative stuff, and some of them even helped by setting up products in the Arryved Portal. It was great that they were able to be flexible enough to learn new skills.
Nancy: How do you invite people into your taproom?
Denise: We’re big on social; Instagram, Facebook. We do at least one post every day, weekends it might be two or three. We try not to overdo it but we want the frequency so that the algorithms keep us relevant to our audience. We also have a newsletter. Before Covid-19 it was a monthly newsletter. During shutdowns, we felt like people needed more communication so we did a real short mid-month letter. We share press releases to local or craft beer press, whenever we’re doing anything that we think is exciting and newsworthy— we’ve been getting some nice coverage because of that.
We’re also big on being present in the local community. Montclair is filled with many different artists— photographers, videographers… and they’re always looking for a subject so they ask if we’re open to working with them.
Nancy: If you had to look back at your journey over the last year-and-a-half you’ve been open, what are the things you’ve done right?
Denise: Really connecting with the community. People love Leo, he’s a really friendly, friendly person, very social. He will talk and talk and talk and talk all day, so I think it’s important that people get to connect with the brewer and the owners. They may have seen us in the paper or on the local news and they feel like they’re seeing stars— it’s funny because we are not stars, but ok. We are very present in the business.
There is an organization called Bike&Walk Montclair and we’ve opened up our space for their events. There was another organization called Save Lackawanna which was a group aimed to save a historical train station in Montclair from being torn down. We opened up our space for them to have a fundraiser and we even named a beer after the cause, Lackawanna Ale. The town sees us around, they know we’re approachable, and I think that has a lot to do with our success.
And of course the beer, too. I can’t not mention the beer because they are different. People love the beers we have because we have a balanced menu for all, whether you are a huge craft beer fan or new to craft beer. At one point I used to be new to craft beer and I knew how I wanted to feel if I went into a brewery. We want to make sure, and we train our staff members to make sure everyone is helped. Sometimes you can tell when people are new and we make sure to give extra attention describing the different beers and finding out what type of tastes they like so we’re making the right recommendation.
Nancy: How do you see the craft industry evolving over the next couple of years?
Denise: I think more will be diversifying. We are really trying to bring new people into craft beer. Whether that’s women or different races, going after a new audience is important. I think more craft makers will start doing that because if they keep going after the same white men with long beards, you know… what you think of when you think of craft beer… there’s only so many people out there like that. If the new breweries popping are all going after the same customer and speaking that same language, they won’t grow. To grow and be sustainable, you must find out what that new audience is interested in and what will make consumers continue to come back.
For the most part, people just want to drink and have something that tastes good. We love it when people say, “Wow! I didn’t know beer could taste so good!” The future is going to be more along those lines of changing things up and offering things to new and expanding audiences.
Nancy: Tell us what’s awesome about Montclair.
Denise: The people are number one. That’s why we have a beer called the People’s Republic of Montclair. We consider ourselves an entity. Giving back and helping one another, that’s been huge. We’ve lived in the town for almost 14 years now and it’s really about giving back. They do a lot of fundraising so that every child has the same experience, whether you have a lot of money or you don’t have a lot of money. Fundraising for teachers, having a foundation where there’s money being raised so that teachers can do more in their classroom and that grants can be given to them easily. It’s a whole spirit— giving back and trying to do what is right.
Come for the stories, stay for the beer.
That’s great! I’m going to use that. But yeah, I wanted to thank you, Arryved has been great. We always talk about it very highly to everyone. And I think there’s a new brewery that is using it not far from us. When they were opening, they visited us and they asked us what POS we were using and I told them about Arryved. You guys have been great. We’ve been using the app a lot. We call it our app, our Arryved app. We have the little QR code. We’re doing outdoor seating luckily we’ve been able to pivot and still be able to service customers during this time. We really appreciate you all being able to turn things around quickly and we look forward to the future advancements because I know you are continuing to work on more. We have people calling us all the time telling us about how we can save money and I tell them, it’s more than just the rate, there’s a lot more to it. I tell them we’re not switching POS.