New Jersey Breweries Diversifying the Industry One Beer at a Time

by Nicole Iuzzolino
new jersey black breweries

Even after the end of the Prohibition era in 1933, the brewing industry in the United States was still reeling from its repercussions. During the ‘70s, there were barely any breweries and those who decided to homebrew faced their own challenges. Until 1978, there was a tax code that stated only the head of the household could brew a maximum of 200 gallons a year. All beer brewed was also taxable. 

In 2010, the craft beer industry began to pick up again. Breweries were constructed in run-down locations, bringing these areas back to life. According to the Brewers Association, craft beer increased its production level from 4 percent to 7 percent in 2018 and the numbers of barrels brewed quadrupled. 

The craft beer boom touched every part of the nation, including New Jersey.

In 2010, there were only 14 breweries in the Garden State. In 2012, that number finally increased. The state saw a 43 percent growth in the brewing industry. Much of this increase has to do with the Craft Beer Bill signed in 2012 by former Governor Chris Christie. The law allows breweries to sell pints of beer to those on brewery tours rather than just samples. 

During 2012, more beer was being brewed throughout the state than before the Prohibition era. In 2021, Governor Phil Murphy signed a bill requiring the state Division of Travel and Tourism to promote brewery tours all around New Jersey. 

Even during 2021, the year of the pandemic, small breweries contributed $62.1 billion to the United States economy. In New Jersey, the beer industry contributes $6.7 billion to the states annually and contributes approximately 45,456 jobs.

However, while there may be more beer variety from just the lager and an influx in job opportunities nationwide, diversity in the taprooms is still something to be desired. Today, there are approximately 9,000 breweries in the nation, but only 1 percent are black-owned.  

This statistic is incredibly prevalent in the Garden State. There are currently 134 breweries in New Jersey and of those, only three are Black-owned. 

new jersey black breweries

Roger Apollon, co-owner of Four City Brewing Company l Photo courtesy of Anderson English

For Four City Brewing Company co-owner, Roger Apollon, being among those three breweries is something that he is proud of. Yet, the statistic still troubles him. “It’s an indicator of where we are as a society. When people think about craft beer or what’s considered luxury products…the reality is there are very few of us at the top.”

Apollon never thought he would become a brewer, rather the craft beer movement found him. “I really just planned on drinking beer with my friends…I just got bitten by the bug to the point where people thought I was a brewer.” 

Before Four City Brewery, there was The Brew Council, which he created 10 years ago. This council was an informal gathering of friends and fellow beer lovers. Soon, Apollon earned the nickname, “the beer guy.” From meeting to meeting each month, attendance only grew. Apollon and fellow co-owner, Anthony Minervino, began hosting beer-themed parties and tastings. 

Due to his growing expertise in the beer world, Apollon became used to the question, “Do you own a brewery?” After repeatedly saying no, he eventually decided to say yes. 

Similarly, Denise Ford Sawadogo, co-owner of Montclair Brewery alongside her husband, Leo, found their inspiration to open up a brewery right at home. “My husband has been homebrewing for years…he got a lot of positive feedback so we were like, ‘Hey, you know what, let’s do this.”’ 

Montclair Brewery is nestled in a town full of coffee shops and cafes. However, its owners didn’t only want to diversify the drink selection offered in the community, but also the brewing industry as a whole as the first Black-owned brewery to open in New Jersey in 2018. 

new jersey black breweries

Leo and Denise Ford Sawadogo, owners of Montclair Brewery l Photo Courtesy of Kate Lindquist

“It felt great to be the first…and in that case, we had to ask ourselves, ‘What does it mean to be Black-owned?’ and that meant for us to add to our culture.” Sawadogo’s family is from the Caribbean and her husband, Leo, is from West Africa. Both strive to implement flavors originating from their background into their beers.  

For the Sawadogo’s, it was more than just having a sign that said they were “Black-owned.” For them, they wanted to use their platform to highlight the African diaspora, specifically with the rollout of their annual Black History Month beer series. Every February, Montclair Brewery releases new beers to honor Black icons. This year, the brewery is featuring Kobe Bryant, Thomas Sankara, the former prime minister of Burkina Faso and Aubrey Lewis, the first African American to be captain of an athletic team at Notre Dame. This concept allows them to educate those that stop in for a beer.

Opening up a brewery was not the only struggle these business owners had to face. Sawadogo believes that one of the biggest obstacles for them was that customers were not used to seeing brewers or brewery owners that looked like them when they first opened. “We had to really, really, really prove ourselves to be more accepted.”

new jersey black breweries

Montclair Brewery in Montclair, New Jersey l Photo Courtesy of Montclair Brewery

This idea of credibility and working to be accepted in the industry is something Apollon knows all too well. “I feel like when some people see me, there is an automatic lack of credibility because of what I look like…this still happens in the craft brewing industry and to me.” Apollon is used to double and triple questioning, running through his credentials and people in conference rooms wondering, “How does he even know this?”

In Apollon’s eyes, the number of Black-owned breweries in New Jersey isn’t going to jump from three to 20 in a year from now. Although, it doesn’t mean the work cannot be put in to pave the way for that to happen. Many breweries across the nation are creating internship and apprenticeship programs for indigenous people and people of color. 

One particular brewery in Atlanta, Orpheus Brewing, is offering a six-month paid internship with health insurance, which gives interns a real look into what running a brewery is really like. A brewery in Seattle is offering a paid internship that includes a stipend for room and board. Internships like these are popping up at breweries across the nation, and they’re ready to make a difference in the industry. 

Still, on a national scale, the majority of the brewing industry appears to be limited to just one race and one sex: the white male. 

In the Brewers Association’s 2019 Survey, it was reported that only 7.5 percent of staff, out of breweries who reported to the survey, employed female brewers. Women mostly make up the brewery staff, which is 54 percent. Racially, 88 percent of individuals who own breweries are white, while Black brewery owners make up only 1 percent of the brewing industry.

4 City Brewing Company

Inside Four City Brewing in Orange, NJ l Photo Courtesy of Four City Brewing Company

This diversity issue within the industry is troubling. Especially to Apollon, who questions: why are we pretending that America was built on diversity? The United States is a nation built on a mix of cultures and people all from different backgrounds. The brewing industry should reflect what that version of America looks like. 

Breweries such as Montclair Brewing and Four City Brewing are striving to increase inclusivity within the industry. Moreover, Apollon believes it can start right in the taproom. “We call ourselves Four City Brewing because we are the four Oranges: Orange, West Orange, East Orange and South Orange…my taproom is an attempt to get all those Oranges back together…we don’t have TVs but we have music and beer, so you are going to have to talk.” 

This change is something Montclair Brewing Company is also ready to see. One day, they hope to be amongst more than just three Black-owned breweries in New Jersey.

About the Author/s

All posts

Nicole is a tea lover and aspiring journalist studying Journalism, Creative Writing, and Digital Video Production at Marist College.

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1 comment

Colleen Myers July 10, 2022 - 11:15 am

Why in the world would you tell us there are only 3 black-owned breweries in the state of New Jersey, and then proceed to only give names of 2 of them?


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