Doing Buisness: Southern Brew

back40

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Back Forty Beer Company leads Alabama’s craft-beer industry by cultivating a homegrown philosophy.

by RANDY GRIDER

Jason Wilson’s product line might be craft beers, but what he is really marketing is something deeply ingrained in his roots – Southern culture. The founder and chief executive of one of the fastest growing
businesses in his native Gadsden, Ala., and the first, and now largest, craft-beer packaging brewery in the state, enthusiastically eschews the philosophy behind Back Forty Beer Company to everyone willing to lend an ear.

His passion is the driving force behind the success of Back Forty – a leader in an industry that didn’t even exist in Alabama a decade ago. The name itself is derived from the idea that hard work and determination
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[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]“What makes Back Forty unique – and it really resonates in the story behind our name – is the idea that what other people saw as a barrier to entry or a deterrent from pursuing something, we saw as an opportunity,” Wilson says. “That’s where the name comes from – the idea of the back 40 acres is that it’s hardest to maintain, hardest to irrigate and, for that reason, most farmers don’t work it. It’s in a remote location and hard to get to and navigate. For so long it was never feasible to work the back 40.

“The irony of the back 40 is that if you are willing to put in that extra work when nobody else really wants to, the back 40 will produce a yield greater than any other acreage on the farm because it’s never been cultivated.”

Wilson explains that when Back Forty was founded, there were no packaging breweries in Alabama and only a couple of small brewpubs that quickly went out of business because of legal restrictions on how they could operate in the state.

“Everyone just kind of threw their hands up – and even national craft-beer brands didn’t want to come into Alabama,” Wilson says. “They said, ‘Why bother? Everyone in the Deep South is drinking this light, fizzy, mass-produced beer.’ The perception was there was a lack of culture in the Deep South or specifically in Alabama – that there was a lack of appreciation for the finer things like artisan-made products.”

Wilson, being a fifth-generation citizen of Gadsden, took exception to that notion.

“I know tons of farmers who are more than willing to pay $50 for a bonein, dry-aged rib-eye steak at a restaurant,” he says. “Just don’t make them wear a suit and tie to get it. What many Southerners reject is the pomp and circumstance that comes along with gourmet. We don’t like the idea that we have to dress or act a certain way to enjoy the finer things in life. That’s the mantra of the Southern culture. We live this slower pace of life and value quality over quantity. I feel when we started Back Forty, we had a unique perspective on this market, and it drives our product.”

The national craft-beer industry has grown tremendously over the past two decades. Alabama’s foray into the market, led by Back Forty’s startup in 2009, got a huge boost when Back Forty’s Truck Stop Brown Honey Ale won a Silver Medal at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival in Boulder, Colo. It made others take notice of Back Forty and what was beginning to transpire in Alabama. Today, there are 33 licensed craft-beer operators, and Wilson is president of the Alabama Brewers Guild.

At the time of the GABF honor, Back Forty’s only two beers, Naked Pig Pale Ale and Truck Stop Honey, were being brewed at the Lazy Magnolia Brewing Company in Kiln, Miss. On weekends, Wilson commuted from
Atlanta, where he was living at the time, to Mississippi and would meet with award-winning brewmaster Jamie Ray to collaborate on Back Forty beers.

“I was moving back to Gadsden the weekend of the festival, and I sent [chief operating officer] Tripp [Collins] to Colorado,” Wilson says. “I told him to only call me if we won an award. When my cell phone rang, my dad and I were moving the heaviest piece of furniture I owned, the sofa. I dropped it, and I remember my dad wasn’t too happy.”

Sipping from a glass of Naked Pig in Back Forty’s tap room (open to the public Monday-Thursday, 5-7 p.m., and Friday-Saturday, 3-8 p.m.), Wilson says he is still amazed at the growth his company has experienced,
but he is quick to credit his employees. Back Forty embraces an open-office atmosphere (one office, no cubicles) where employees can freely bounce ideas – or anything else for the matter – off each other.

“We believe the open-forum conversations and brainstorming sessions foster creativity,” Wilson says. “We use a term Google uses – animal learners. We are not about specialization. Our business-development manager is an attorney, our packaging director has a master’s degree in landscape architecture, our marketing director has a degree in management information systems, our procurement analyst has a degree in economics and political science. We want thinkers and learners.

“What we look for in employees is people who are passionate about something – anything. We’ll figure out later how to apply that value and that passion.”

We ask Wilson to tell us more about Alabama’s first craft-beer packaging brewery.

LA: When was the brewery in Gadsden opened?
Wilson: We acquired the building in October of 2010. The renovation was completed in December of 2011.

LA: What are the main beers Back Forty
produces?
Wilson: We produce four beers that are available throughout the year and two seasonal beers that are available during specific periods of the year. Our full-time offerings include Naked Pig Pale Ale, Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale, Freckle Belly IPA and Fence Post Session Ale. In addition to these styles, we also produce Paw Paw’s Peach Wheat in the spring and summer months as well as Kudzu Porter in the fall and winter.

LA: In how many states are Back Forty products distributed?
Wilson: Five states – Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and the District of Columbia.

LA: How many employees work at the Gadsden facility and elsewhere?
Wilson: 20 full-time employees in Gadsden and one in Washington, D.C.

LA: Tell us about the Gadsden facility.
Wilson: The primary production facility was built in 1942 and is approximately 27,000 square feet. The second building on the property is 12,000 square feet. Both properties are part of historic downtown Gadsden.
After a brief period of producing a small amount of our beer at another facility in Washington, D.C., Back Forty now produces 100 percent of our product right here in Gadsden. The Gadsden facility also operates as our home office.

LA: How has the company evolved since its founding?
Wilson: Over the last six years, Back Forty has grown to become the largest producer of alcohol in the state of Alabama. Today, Back Forty Beer Company is undergoing a $500,000 facility expansion project.

LA: Who are your primary customers?
Wilson: Craft beer appeals to a wide range of consumers. While a large portion of our sales are made to individuals in the 21-34 demographic, we continue to see impressive growth in many other age groups. Sales are split evenly amongst males and females across all demographics.

LA: How do your products support recycling?
Wilson: Innovation is very important at Back Forty Beer Company. We work hard every day to develop sustainable packaging materials and production processes that minimize our impact on the environment. Some examples of these innovations include plastic kegs that can be recycled as well as our recent shift to a new six-pack carrier design that minimizes waste and increases the consumer’s ability to reuse and recycle our packaging.

LA: What is the company’s guiding philosophy?
Wilson: We are committed to the community that we operate in and strive to continuously improve our processes so that we can deliver the highest quality product to our customer.

LA: What are the advantages of operating in the northeast Alabama area from a business standpoint?
Wilson: For a brewery, water quality is always a critical component of our operation. We are very fortunate to have a world-class water supply at our disposal here in north Alabama. Logistics also plays an important role in our success, and Gadsden is strategically located so that we can easily serve the entire Southern market.

LA: How do the area’s people contribute to the company’s success?
Wilson: I can’t say enough about the wonderful community that we operate in. The people of Gadsden and the surrounding area have been supportive from day one, and we wouldn’t be where we are today without them.

LA: What does this area offer employees in terms of work/life balance?
Wilson: The craft-beer industry is full of young, energetic individuals who are passionate about what they do. This same mentality is reflected in their time away from the brewery. Being surrounded by world-class hiking, climbing, cycling and boating areas is something that our employees take full advantage of.

LA: What role does Back Forty play in the community?
Wilson: We work hard to make as much of a positive impact as we can. It is the single most important aspect of our operation.

LA: What are the company’s plans for the future?
Wilson: Back Forty will continue to grow our presence in the Southern United States while also expanding our distribution outside of the Deep South and beyond. In the coming months, Back Forty will ship product to Canada, Sweden, Brazil and Japan.

LA: What else should we know about Back Forty?
Wilson: We were recently named the Small Manufacturer of the Year by the Business Council of Alabama as well as one of the editors’ 10 favorite new Southern breweries by Garden & Gun magazine. We were also recognized by Condé Nast Traveler magazine as one of the seven best local breweries in the United States.

 

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