At this N.J. brewery, Black culture is always on tap

Posted Nov 18, 2020

What part of the world do you first think of when you think of beer?

For Montclair brewer, Leopold Sawadogo, it’s Africa; the continent he was born on and the place where he first learned to brew.

At an early age, his mother taught him all about the brewing process. It made him somewhat of an anomaly in his native land of Burkina Faso, he says.

“I’m probably one of the first men from Africa who tried brewing beer,” Sawadogo, who goes by “Leo” for short, jokes. “It’s just not a custom for men to brew beer in those countries.”

Here in the U.S., there are more than 8,200 breweries serving up craft beer across the nation, many of which are run by men, according to the Brewers Association. Moreover, Sawadogo and his wife, Denise Ford Sawadogo are part of what they hope to be a growing trend of Black-owned breweries. Only about 60 breweries in the country are Black-owned, according to a New York Times report. The Sawadogos say they’re the only majority Black-owned brewery in New Jersey.

Located in a lively section of Walnut Street, Montclair, Black culture is ingrained in the Montclair Brewery. You can see it in the establishment’s taplist -- beers like the “Black is Beautiful” stout and the “Black Mamba” dark lager immediately catch the eye, stamping a menu that boasts more than 22 beers.

The former’s sobriquet affirms uninhibited Blackness, appreciative of all hues and backgrounds, its owners say. The latter pays homage to late NBA legend, Kobe Bryant, part of Montclair Brewery’s “Black History” series of brews.

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Though it’s currently adhering to coronavirus restrictions that limit the number of patrons inside, the brewery -- at its annual Jamaican Independence Day celebration, community-centric events or even on a regular weekend -- is usually popping.

It’s a great place to hear reggae, afro beats, jazz and bluegrass.

Simply put, this microbrewery’s vibe is unlike any other in the Garden State.

“It is important for us to add our culture into our beer,” Denise Ford Sawadogo, whose family heritage extends to Jamaica, tells NJ Advance Media. “That was one of the reasons for opening. We said we didn’t want to open and just be like every other brewery and do what everyone else is doing.”

Many beers here are brewed with ingredients native to Africa and the Caribbean — fruits and plants like baobab, hibiscus and coconut.

In a year rife with tensions over social injustice and racial inequality, sparked in part by the high-profile deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and others, the owners say they’ve seen an uptick in patronage.

“We were flooded that weekend and that week afterwards,” Denise Sawadogo says about the week of George Floyd’s killing. “We ran out of things because we had no idea that was coming. All of a sudden everyone wanted to support a Black-owned business.”

“We hope it continues, that is not just a fad or trend. We need to make this a part of every day. It needs to just be normal.”

Montclair Brewery opened its doors in 2018. And it’s managed to make the business work during a pandemic that at times can feel lethargic. It helps that the Sawadogos were essentially able to turn their parking lot into a makeshift beer garden, making up for state-mandated limitations on indoor seating.

Orders can also be placed online for cans and growler fills.

The brewery stays busy partnering with community groups like Mocha Moms and Link New Jersey, hosting small networking mixers and offering limited-time drink specials for members of those organizations.

Ultimately, Leo Sawadogo hopes more Black Americans will join the brewing industry, one he feels remains untapped in the community.

“It is very important. It is very sad for me to walk into the Brewer’s Conference, and I’m the only (Black) guy there walking around, or there’s few of us,” he says.

Like many Black business leaders, he believes Black ownership plays a huge role in community building and the fight for racial equity.

“There’s a saying in my country: ‘You’ve got to learn the man’s game to beat him at his own game.,’” he says.

“We’re going to go from (owning businesses) to fighting every injustice around the world.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-11-19 02:34:37 -0800