Photos by Derek Bell
Step outside right now. There’s a crisp, entirely refreshing feel in the air as this fall season is in full swing. Cool breezes and golden hues beckon for outdoor activity by day; and by the night’s edge, bonfires begin!
Anyone who fancies a fireside seat knows that most southern bonfires aren’t complete without a few guitar tunes and, of course, the perfect brew. This fall season, V3 knows of a few koozies that may have found their perfect bottle of suds. But this isn’t just any run-of-the-mill, 30-pack of light beer. This brew is a pioneer of the pint, a brother of brewers, and a crusader for its community – it is “liquid folk art.”
In downtown Gadsden, Ala., just across a set of railroad tracks, the 1942 Sears and Roebuck Appliance Repair Center has been gutted and rebuilt. Parallel with the tracks on the building’s east side, in the style of a vintage painted ad, “Back Forty Beer Company” stretches across the face of the brick. Since 2012, these bones have been the home of Alabama’s own brewed art.
Founder and President Jason Wilson invited the V3Magazine crew onto Back Forty’s front porch at 200 North Sixth Street for a cold craft brew and a walk through his brew house’s backyard. Wilson, 34, is a fifth-generation Gadsden native, working with a 20-member family-oriented crew, all with an enormous passion for brewing.
A behind-the-scenes look into that passion begins with the repurposed antique-plow harness handles of the rustic wooden doors that open from the front porch into Back Forty’s taproom. Already, the community support is evident; in fact, it’s displayed across the walls. Back Forty welcomes junk art, folk art, illustration, and photography from members of the Gadsden community and beyond – for sale solely in profit for the artist; no commission is retained.
Hanging high on the wall behind the bar is a sheet of steel with the words “liquid folk art” plasma cut into the center; the brewery name above and the city and state below. “These are our neon signs,” Wilson says as he explains that the local trade school practices their craft by creating these signs, which Back Forty then distributes (with beer) to various accounts throughout its region. The custom tap handles below the sign are made of wood, hand-carved, stained and capped locally. One learns quickly that nothing inside these walls is impersonal.
Back Forty not only welcomes the community, they give back any chance they get. The use of the taproom is offered to local charities (free of charge) for hosting events; and to those who rent the room for other events, all proceeds are given directly to the charity of the brewery’s choosing.
Reflecting on Back Forty’s community involvement and use of local resources and artists, Wilson says, “Any one of those things [we do for the community] individually doesn’t really move the needle a lot, but the idea is that if you live a lifestyle in a culture that supports things like that, then you can move the needle in the end, and you can make a difference.”
Between the taproom and the expanse of the brew house, even the stretch of hallway displays a personal touch. Copious amounts of beer coasters are collaged and enclosed by recycled wooden pallet frames. Each one is different and they have come from all over the world. One side of each coaster says, in the style of a handwritten note, “This coaster belongs to Back Forty Beer Company, return for a handsome reward.” The side visible in the collage resembles a postcard with Back Forty’s address printed and ready for return. And return they did; some with words of praise for “liquid folk art” and some with art of their own.
Wilson laughs as he points out a tiny drawing in the middle of a collage of a pudgy, freckle-bellied cartoon man, an ode to their favorite brew, Freckle Belly IPA. And just what is the reward, you may wonder? A picture of brewer Tim Blevins – complete with his nearly-foot-long beard – standing inside the brew kettle holding a sign that says, “Handsome Reward.” A brew with a sense of humor seems to make the liquid all the more refreshing.
Back Forty’s origins are deeply rooted in southern soil, the forgotten soil waiting at the back of the barn to be exact.
Wilson props an elbow on the wood surface of Back Forty’s taproom bar as he explains the meaning and the significance in the name. An old agricultural term, the “back 40” refers to the 40 acres of uncultivated land furthest from the barn. These 40 acres are often dismissed and overlooked in the name of difficulty or distance from needed tools and supplies. Like the back 40, the craft beer industry in Alabama is largely overlooked and has been uncultivated for far too long.
Wilson wasn’t just naming a company; he was accepting a challenge.
Because the truth is, given the much deserved attention and a little TLC, the back 40 acres’ soil is actually quite fertile and has potential to produce a more-than-hearty yield. Wilson and his crew at Back Forty stand up to the challenge, and just in his six years of brewing, Wilson has pierced the soil and is sowing the seeds; the Alabama craft beer industry is growing.
“It’s ongoing but it’s come a long way,” Wilson says, “When we started, we were the only packaging brewery in Alabama. That was late 2008/early 2009, and today there are 33 licensed craft brewery operations. In six years, we’ve gone from two to 33. It’s pretty crazy, but every day we’ve worked on a piece of legislation that will move the ball a little more.”
As president of the Alabama Brewers Guild, Wilson is able to put hand and heart into the progression of his industry, and the Alabama State Senate has been receiving (and passing) legislation in the name of the craft beer industry at a fairly constant rate since 2009.
Persistence and support have paid off for the pioneers and pushers of change. Now, Alabama brewers raise their glasses to 2009, 2011 and 2012 – years in which the Alcohol by Volume (ABV) bill raised the legal limit to 13.9 from 6 percent, the Brewery Modernization Act allowed breweries to open taprooms and to sell beer off-premises through a licensed distributor, and the Gourmet Bottle bill allowed production of large format bottles, finally dropping bombers into the hands of Bama beer lovers.
The trailblazing and back 40 planting continues for Wilson and pioneers alike as, this year, a bill is introduced that would allow craft brewers to sell beer directly out of their breweries. This would mean that retailers wouldn’t be the only way to purchase an after-work six-pack or a pony keg for a party; patrons and beer enthusiasts could actually shake hands with their brewers over their liquid artistry. Consider the seeds scattered and the soil soaked.
While there is business to attend and an agenda to move forward, the gals and beards of Back Forty keep their environment light hearted and humble, and their southern appreciation flowing.
The brew house’s recipes were created with the help of world-renowned brewmaster Jamie Ray, and the names are a nod to Wilson’s appreciation for double entendres.
The first brew in the tank was a crisp, classic American pale ale. Named after the palest animal on the farm, the Naked Pig Pale Ale was released in June of 2009.
“We try to focus on great interpretations of classic beer styles,” Wilson says, “All I want is when someone buys a Naked Pig Pale Ale and pops the top on it, they drink it and say to themselves, that’s a pale ale.”
The response was exactly (if not more than) what Wilson had hoped for, and Back Forty kept on truckin’.
Local Alabama Wildflower Honey was added into the next brew, Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale, an English brown with an earthy hop aroma named for the little honey bear bottles commonly found in truck stops. Back Forty certainly gives new meaning to picking up a “truck-stop honey.”
Ray’s recipe wizardry brought in a boat-load of fresh hops with notes of citrus, pine and fruit aromas for Back Forty’s Freckle Belly India Pale Ale (IPA).
With their fourth year-round offering, Back Forty removes all divisive perceptions about the “fence post” and reminds the Deep South that this is the place where neighbors and friends come together for a chat – to have a “session,” if you will. Similar to a German Kolsch, Fence Post Session Ale is a light summer brew that pairs well with a slice of pizza and encourages folks to relax into the sweet seat of good ole’ southern socialization.
Back Forty offers up some local Alabama peach produce with a light spring and summer seasonal, Paw Paw’s Peach Wheat. And for those of us who prefer something with a bit more body, the Kudzu Porter weaves a little smoke with hints of chocolate and coffee into the flavor, and just enough citrus aroma to remain refreshing; Back Forty cleverly warns, “Careful, it’ll grow on you!”
In many ways, Wilson introduced Back Forty beer to the plate before the pint. In his beginning business quest to introduce and sell Back Forty to restaurants and bars, Wilson realized that his complementary personalities were to be found in the restaurant kitchens. He began by going straight to chefs who were open to incorporating his beer in their food, at which point the bar would, of course, be forced to carry the beer that battered the fish.
This initial culinary connection sparked the fuse of a foodie culture within Back Forty’s craft beer operation that has rendered the company well traveled.
“It defines our company, it’s what we do,” Wilson says, “We put food pairing suggestions on all our labels. We have amazing relationships with world-class chefs; we travel to New York and L.A. and all these great places doing beer, wine and food events.”
Back Forty and their brews even accompanied 2012 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef in the South Chris Hastings of Birmingham to New York for a southern-inspired dinner presentation. Any foodie knows that the Beard Awards are of the highest honorary recognition for food and beverage professionals, and that year, New York got a little taste of the Deep South.
Back Forty offers some guidelines on food/beer pairings as well as a few beer-infused recipes on their website, backfortybeer.com, using videos presented ever-so humorously called, “Beer Before Breakfast,” hosted by Back Forty’s business development manager, David Carn.
Wilson compares the growing craft beer industry to culinary travel, saying that just as travelers will order deep-dish pizza in Chicago and gumbo in New Orleans, they are beginning to request local beer selections upon their destinations.
“This isn’t a trend; it’s a fundamental shift in the way people drink beer in America,” Wilson says. “It’s not good enough in America anymore to have the cheapest price. That’s not what it’s about. People are less price-conscious and more quality conscious. They want to hear a story. They want to know where their money is going.”
The story of Back Forty began with inspiration drawn from countless brewery tours and a few late-night heart-to-hearts between Wilson and other brewers. With plenty of inspiration and a definite love for the craft, it was a talk with SweetWater Brewing Co. CEO Freddy Bensch that provided the last push over the rim of the glass. But Back Forty wasn’t ready for a place of its own; in 2009, Wilson reached out to a microbrewery in Mississippi for use of their space until Back Forty could secure its own home. The crew spent long nights taking over the brew house at Lazy Magnolia Brewing Co. – breathing life into the dream.
When Back Forty did establish its home in 2012, Wilson made sure that he and his crew lent their brewing brothers the same helping hand that they had received. At one point, Wilson says Back Forty was brewing beer to help six other start-up companies who are now established and filling orders. He has also passed on the goodwill by helping dozens of breweries get their paperwork filed and licenses applied for, employing the phrase “the rising tide floats all boats.”
“Right now in Alabama, all craft beer, no matter where it’s made, represents about 8 percent of the market share. Of that market, maybe 1 percent is Alabama craft beer,” Wilson explains. “My measly marketing budget isn’t going to do anything to change the hearts and minds of Alabamians about beer, but if we’ve got a small brewery or brewpub in every town in Alabama who are all preaching the same message of supporting a local brewery, then we can make a difference.”
Seeing the struggle Gadsden was having with current employment and new jobs, Wilson knew that establishing Back Forty Beer Co. in the heart of the Alabama city would add fuel to the fires of change. He also knew the power of proud employees.
“I could go out and buy a piece of automated equipment to do [a job], or I can go out and hire two employees. And when I hire those two employees, I’m not just hiring them. I’m hiring their family, their extended family and their friends,” says Wilson. “All of a sudden, there are more faces in my taproom because people are coming up to see their buddies. Their parents are walking the streets, proud because their son or daughter works here, and they’re preaching the message. There’s a value to having that kind people power.”
Written on a dry erase board on the command center’s inside door is a quote by John Quincy Adams, reminding the brew crew that, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” It seems that Back Forty rides the rails of that philosophy in every way.
Back Forty is located at 200 North 6th Street Gadsden, AL 35901