Interview with Back Forty Beer Co.’s Jason Wilson

Craft beer currently constitutes a genuine revolution in America as small batch brewing is putting the art (and flavor) back into the beverage that this country was founded on. It is no understatement that beer is as important to American independence as Paul Revere and the Liberty Bell. Without beer halls there would be no United States of America. And the Third Coast is no stranger to this movement with legendary regional breweries like Lone Star in Texas and Dixie in New Orleans or the delicious upstart Lazy Magnolia in Kiln, Mississippi.

On April 17th I attended the Supper on the Sand, a celebration of the volunteers who saved the Gulf of Mexico from the BP/Obama Oil Spill. On hand was Governor Robert Bentley, Congressman Jo Bonner and Food Network star Guy Fieri but they were not the only stars of the show. That illustrious designation also belonged to the menu of Alabama products like cheese from Elberta’s Sweet Home Farms, strawberries from Loxley’s Burris Farm Market and beer from Alabama’s own Back Forty Beer Co.

I tasted both of Back Forty’s offerings.  First was the Naked Pig Pale Ale, I have to admit I was drawn in by the name.  Naked?  Good.  Pig?  Good.  It was a refreshing and crisp beer with a hoppy finish.  Then I tried a Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale.  Then I tried a second Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale.  Then a third.  Needless to say I was smitten.  It is so smooth and full bodied that Truck Stop may just be my new favorite beer.  At the very least it is in the top three with Lazy Magnolia’s Southern Pecan Nut Brown Ale and Dos Perros American Brown Ale from Nashville’s Yazoo Brewing Company.  Hey, look at that all three of my favorite beers are brown ales.

I’m not the only one enamored with Truck Stop.  Back Forty Beer Company has been awarded a silver medal for their Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale at the 2010 Great American Beer Festival in Denver, CO. This is the second year that they have entered the competition and the first year entering Truck Stop.

I recently caught up with Jason Wilson the co-founder of Back Forty who agreed to answer my questions despite being in Curacao on his honeymoon.  Now that’s devotion.  Check it out:

So when did your love of craft beer begin?

I’ve always had an appreciation for craftsmanship of any kind. From home builders to chefs, I really love the idea of someone putting hard work and effort into something they love and then presenting it to the public for criticism.

My love for craft beer specifically started about twelve years ago while visiting my brother in Crested Butte, CO.  We made our way to the local brew pub one afternoon and it turned into something way more than dinner and a pint. That night I sampled every style of beer they offered and ended up hanging out with the brewmaster until the early hours of the morning.

It was on my 1600 mile drive back to Alabama that I began developing the concept of Back Forty Beer Co.

For the un-indoctrinated, can you explain how small batch craft beer differs from the beer produced by macrobreweries?

It’s pretty simple really:

Craft Beer is brewed with fresh barley, hops & yeast. That’s it.

Depending on the style of craft beer, you may also see natural spices or other fresh ingredients that add to the complexity. (i.e; Honey, Blueberries, Pumpkin, Etc.).

Mass produced beers are primarily brewed with rice syrup extracts and concentrates.  You also get a lot of adjuncts and preservatives that effect everything from color & taste to alcohol content & shelf life.

Craft beers also tend to be higher in alcohol than mass produced beer, which is important when making a decision on the beer aisle.  Just because that six pack of light beer is a little cheaper doesn’t mean your getting a better value.

What motivated you to start Back Forty?

I always knew that I wanted to start my own business and after my trip to Colorado in 2001, I knew that it was going to be a micro brewery.

Following graduation, I spent six years in corporate America learning as much as I could about Business & Finance.  In 2008 I founded Back Forty Beer Co. while continuing to work my full time career.  After 24 consecutive months of growth, I was finally able to leave my corporate career and concentrate on building our new facility in Gadsden.

Until recently, Alabama has been notoriously puritanical when it comes to beverage laws.  Were there any bureaucratic roadblocks on the way to establishing Back Forty?

We definitely had our share of issues, especially considering that we were the first contract brewery ever formed in Alabama.  But we knew what we were getting in to when we started, so it wasn’t something that caused us a lot of stress.

Most of the state and local government officials that we dealt with were really excited once we showed them the economic and cultural impact that our operation would have on the region.

At start up your batches were being brewed at Lazy Magnolia (Kiln, MS), how close are you to actually brewing in Gadsden?

Really close, maybe 60 days or so.

Almost all of our equipment has arrived at the facility in Gadsden, except the brew house & fermentation vessels.

The large stainless steel vessels are custom fabricated, so they take several months to be completed.  In the meantime, we’re busy setting up the bottling and kegging lines so that we’re ready to go as soon as the tanks show up.

It seems Back Forty has been isolated to North Alabama, how long before beer lovers in other parts of the state will be able to enjoy it?

Our beers are actually available at over 1000 retail locations across the state of Alabama. You can find us at grocery stores, restaurants, bars and convenient stores in Florence, Muscle Shoals, Huntsville, Gadsden, Birmingham, Anniston, Auburn, Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Dothan & Mobile.  But like any artisan product, you have to look for it.  You’re not going to see a billboard on the Interstate for Back Forty Beer.

We also have pending distribution agreements in GA, FL, MS & LA that will begin as soon as our new facility comes on line later this year. This is significant for the Alabama Craft Beer community because it will be the first craft beer ever brewed in Alabama and sold outside of the state.

Right now you brew two beers (Naked Pig Pale Ale and Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale), can we expect a new brew anytime soon – a stout perhaps?

Our brewmaster, Jamie Ray, has been brewing beer for over 20 years. He’s been awarded six medals at the Great American Beer Festival in Denver, CO and one medal at the World Beer Cup.  So we definitely aren’t short on beers that we want to bring to the market. Capacity is the only thing limiting us right now.

The fermentation vessels that we initially ordered are already maxed out with our current production volumes, so we’ll be ordering another round of tanks as soon as the first truckload arrives.

Once the first round of tanks show up, we’ll roll out an IPA & then our Porter will be next. In the meantime you’ll probably see at least one seasonal release that will be hand bottled and very limited release.  We’re working on a peach wheat recipe right now that utilizes fresh peaches from Chilton County, AL (the finest peaches in the world).

What effect has participation in the Supper on the Sand had on your business?

Events like Supper on the Sand are how we’ve built this business.  There’s not a weekend that goes by that we aren’t somewhere sampling our offerings to the people of the South. It’s our driving business philosophy and is quite literally the only marketing we do.  We wouldn’t know what to do without events like this.

And having the Governor getting to see what we’re all about didn’t hurt either….. :)

Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Benjamin Franklin.

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Stuart is a celebrity chef, food activist and award-winning food writer. He penned the cookbooks Third Coast Cuisine: Recipes of the Gulf of Mexico, No Sides Needed: 34 Recipes To Simplify Life and Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor." His recipes have been featured in Current, Lagniappe, Southern Tailgater, The Kitchen Hotline and on the Cooking Channel.

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