for Montclair Local

Around 22 years ago, first generation Jamaican-American Denise Ford met West African immigrant Leo Sawadogo while she was shopping for tiles. When they got married, the couple pooled their strengths, career experiences, finances and entrepreneurial spirits to open Montclair Brewery, the first microbrewery in the town they call home for the past 10 years. Through Denise’s expertise in marketing and Leo’s master brewer skills, the microbrewery aims to attract a diverse customer base.

During Black History Month, Leio Sawadogo will be concocting a new brew every week for their Walnut Street business.

“We want to connect to our culture and share it with others, take it seriously and honor our roots,” said Denise Ford Sawadogo. “People come in and ask for the series of craft beers we have for February. We can’t forget where we came from especially this month. I hope this helps us diversify our customer base and encourages more people to stop in.”

The new microbrews are inspired by the African and Caribbean diasporas. The Motherland is a gluten-free ale made from sorghum or “dolo” grain as it’s called in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa. The Baobab Sour is a tarty amber ale that contains the dry fruit of the baobab “tree of life.” The Kingston Porter is dark and roasty and named after the Jamaican capital. A coconut stout, ginger ale and pecan pie ale are also on tap to be made.

Denise Ford Sawadogo said the place also offers live music events every Friday to connect to the theme of the brew.

The Rumberos, a Latin band with Cuban and African roots will perform on Feb. 15. The soul music of Rasha Jay will be featured on March 1.

African dance, beer yoga and trivia on black history are also planned.

READ: Montclair History Center highlights Black History in Montclair

Getting the business running was a steep climb. The Sawadogos got their federal brewer’s permit state ABC clearance last year. But they hit snags with the local planning board that required an extra $25,000 investment, including changes to the exterior, more parking and other details.

Now the couple can focus on brewing and building their business.

Leo Sawadogo spends most of his time perfecting his micro-brewing methods, reading up on the subject and networking with other brewers. The micro-brewing process can take anywhere from two weeks to two months. The equipment includes a fermenter, boil kettle and mashtun.

“The timing depends on the type of craft beer, the size of the barrel, the ingredients and the fermentation. A seven-barrel batch can produce 217 gallons or we can do smaller 10-gallon sizes. It takes a day or two to combine the ingredients. First you mill the grains. You get the water temperature boiling and there’s lots of temperature checks throughout the process. Then you transfer to the fermenter. There’s a lot of waiting time after that step,” Denise Ford Sawadogo said.

Born in Burkina Faso, Leo Sawadogo observed his mother mixing herbs and grains to make dolo, the gluten-free beer he recreated with Motherland. “He was inspired by what he had seen and started perfecting his own style of dolo,” Denise Ford Sawadogo said.

Leo Sawadogo operated a restaurant/bar called Dekamus, in Burkina Faso for eight years. He has also worked as a pastry chef in Ivory Coast, a radio personality and a journalist. A master brewer, he has honed his home-brewing hobby skills for 20 years.

Aside from the African diaspora craft brew creations, the Sawadogos plan to offer a rotating menu of 40 craft brews.

“Craft beer is made from scratch with natural ingredients. It’s like making your own cake versus buying it in a box. We hope that people who are unfamiliar with it will give it a try,” Denise Ford Sawadogo said.

Montclair Brewery is located at 101 Walnut St.