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Montclair Brewer, Distiller Honors Ancestors With West African Fruit

It’s all about redemption. Just ask Leo Sawadogo, who reigned supreme in his second run on Moonshiners: Master Distillers.

Sawadoga, who co-owns Montclair Brewery with his wife, Denise, has been brewing for more than 20 years. In 2020, he appeared on Season 2 of Moonshiners: Master Distillers on the Discovery Channel. Though he lost, the show thought enough of him to invite him back for Season 3.

Sawadoga was given the title of Master Distiller in an episode that aired in January. He made a baobab brandy, which features the tangy, citrus fruit of his native West Africa. Baobab is also an ingredient in Montclair Brewery’s award-winning Baobiere brew.

“This was an homage to my ancestors,” Sawadogo says. “The Discovery Channel was a great venue to show the world how special this fruit is.”

Baobab fruit

Sawadoga poses with the baobab fruit. Courtesy of Montclair Brewery

As always, Montclair Brewery features new brews for Black History Month, honoring icons such as Chadwick Boseman, Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King Jr. and more. Guests can taste baobab this month in Sawadoga’s Black is Beautiful Stout. It’s brewed with peanut butter to honor George Washington Carver.

How did you get started brewing and distilling?
Leo Sawadogo: I watched my mom brew when I was a kid. In West Africa, it was custom for women to make beer for holidays. I watched and learned the techniques my mom used to use.

What was it like returning to Moonshiners for a redemption round?
In Season 2, we were distilling a peach brandy, which is an American icon, and I couldn’t produce a strong enough liquid for the judges. When I got there, it turned out the master distiller of Sugarland Distillery was the one preparing the liquid for us. I’m not usually accustomed to that, but had to work with what I had. But this time, in Season 3, they asked each distiller to bring their own product to work with. I was very happy to finally showcase the products from my country.

What inspired you to use a fruit from West Africa?
I’ve worked with baobab in the past. And I thought I’d use it because no one has ever tried making a spirit with it. The baobab is a super fruit. They call it the tree of life because it takes a hundred years to bear fruit when you plant the tree. This was an homage to my ancestors who planted the trees.

What was filming like?
It was long, I was there a week. The show is structured to test your knowledge. I made a bunch of new friends. Tim, the judge that selected me for the episode, made me feel comfortable. He would say, “Listen, this is a competition, but what’s the worst that could happen? Making liquor!” Everyone was so nice. That’s one thing I love about the brewing and distilling industry. There’s no competition, and everyone helps each other. When I got on the show, I didn’t have enough sugar, but my competitor gave me a bunch. That’s the kind of brotherhood that exists in the industry.

How did it feel to achieve redemption?
It meant everything to me. My mom just passed away in December, so I wanted to win this for her and make her proud. I wanted to show younger people in my country that anything is possible. They love to drink this stuff, but don’t know they can make it, too. I also wanted to show you can make alcohol out of any kind of fruit. Here in the U.S., we can help save some of the fruit that goes to waste every year. I would love to turn wasted fruit into hand sanitizer or alcohol so it doesn’t go to waste.

It’s special you learned your skills from your mother, and won in her honor.
Yes, so special. I always say listening is so important. It’s why we have two ears and one mouth. I listened to my mom religiously. When you listen, you can find something that you can work with.

Now your Baobab Brandy will be featured at Sugarland Distillery?
Yes! It will do a limited run at Sugarland. In the next year or so it will be available, and I get to share my own recipe with the distillery.

Do you and Denise have anything new coming up at the brewery?
Yes, we celebrate Black History Month every year. We are honoring someone from Montclair who inspired people throughout the United States—Thomas Sankara, the former president of Burkina Faso, and someone I grew up around in Africa who was an inspiring leader. We will also be doing a beer entirely brewed by women right here in the brewhouse.

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