Leo Sawadogo Is the Most Interesting Brewer You’ve Never Heard Of

March 06, 2020

By Gabrielle Pharms, March 06, 2020

Burkina Faso, West Africa is probably not the first place that comes to your mind when you think of craft beer destinations, but that is where Leo Sawadogo’s story begins. The co-owner and brewmaster of northern New Jersey-based Montclair Brewery is the epitome of a Renaissance man—a 22-year brewing veteran whose past lives include being a professional soccer player, pastry chef, radio personality, and journalist.

“People need to go back in time,” Sawadogo says. “Brewing started in Africa and spilled over into Mesopotamia that was Iran, Iraq, and all these places. In northern Africa—I’m talking about Egypt—when beer got discovered by mistake and even the people that helped build those great pyramids we admire today, there was no currency invented then. They couldn’t get paid. They ended up getting paid with beer. So, brewing always started in Africa.”

African women in particular brewed to keep their families together. In Sawadogo’s case, his mother introduced him to brewing. “Growing up and watching my mom brew on every holiday like Christmas and New Year’s, I was very fascinated watching her do that,” he says. Sawadogo learned his mother’s technique, which included figuring out which sugar is fermentable. His awareness of the importance of sugar in beer production was increased when he began studying to be a pastry chef. This deep understanding of sugar plays a major role in his recipes at Montclair Brewery, however, it would be another 20 years before the brewery would come to fruition.

After graduating pastry school in 1986, Sawadogo worked at a bakery in the Ivory Coast. His next career move would bring him back to his hometown as a radio personality and journalist at one of the first FM stations in Burkina Faso. In 1996, he moved to Canada for opportunities with Radio Centre-ville, Radio McGill, and Music Plus, with the latter putting Sawadogo behind-the-scenes iforn television production. The communication skills he picked up in both Africa and Canada would later prove crucial to the success of Montclair—giving Sawasogo the ability to navigate the many local, state, and federal laws standing in the way of new brewery owners.

“Prior to moving, I was interviewing all of these great artists, and I one day ended up interviewing Tracy Chapman,” Sawadogo says. Though multilingual at the time—in the languages of Bambara and Mooré—Sawadogo had to hire an English translator for the interview. “She was not very happy. She was telling me she wanted to speak to me directly. She thought [the interview] was lost in translation. She said, ‘Listen, if you have the chance one day, go and learn English in your profession. You should be speaking English.’ That’s the reason why I moved to Canada.”

Kate Lindquist

Sawadogo moved from Canada to New Jersey in 1996, where he started coaching soccer and became deeply involved in the local community. “Every day prior to starting the training, the kids and I would talk about our dreams, aspirations, and what we would love to do when we grow up,” he says. “To be honest with you, the kids pushed me to where I am today. So, I’m really thankful for those children that pushed me to do this.” Encouraged by youth, driven by passion and a love for all things brew related, Sawadogo decided to channel his rich culture, wisdom, and warm hospitality into a brewery.

For 13 years Sawadogo homebrewed for his family and friends before opening Montclair Brewery with his wife, Denise Ford-Sawadogo, in 2018. The taproom itself is quaint—a warehouse-style space that is designed to feel warm with distressed wood paneling and the occasional four-legged guest. While Sawadago built the countertops, plus some of the furniture with his own hands, the majority of the wood and furnishings were salvaged from a Calvin Klein runway show. Ultimately, the brewery is a fusion of the couple’s West African and Caribbean backgrounds, blended with a love for the northern New Jersey community.

“I don’t follow trends. I create trends,” Sawadogo says about the beer offerings at Montclair. “We tried to make life after IPA. That means create a beer that is less hoppier, with more flavor, and with different kinds of ingredients—ingredients from a different country.” For example, the hibiscus used in Hibiscus Dream Ale comes from Burkina Faso, West Africa. While the baobab for the Baobiere Golden Ale comes from Burkina Faso and Senegal and the weda, which is used in the Witch Hunt Sour Beer, also comes from Burkina Faso. 

Even more West African ingredients were injected into the brewery’s Black History Month series, released last month, that paid homage to the African diaspora and Black History makers. Sawadogo brewed beer inspired by Harriet Tubman as well as baseball hall of famer Larry Doby. Montclair Brewery also highlighted several returning styles as a part of the Black History Month series, which it first introduced last year, such as “The Motherland,” a gluten-free beer made from sorghum, and the ​Baobiere​ ​Golden Ale​, made from the fruit of the African Baobab tree or “tree of life”. Barton’s Bush Coconut Stout​ inspired by Denise Ford-Sawadogo's family heritage in Bartons, Saint Catherine's, Jamaica and its coconut groves. This special stout is brewed with coconut puree as well as chocolate and caramel malts.

Whether guests are on the hunt for their next favorite IPA or a beer that will introduce them to the tastes and brewing style of West Africa, they’ll find both at Montclair Brewery. 

ZX Ventures, a division within AB InBev, is an investor in October
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