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SaveOnBrew Exclusive Interview: Back Forty Beer Co. Founder Jason Wilson

03.26.2013 09:15 AM

Alabama is not the likeliest location for a craft brewery. "Alabama is widely seen as the wasteland for craft beer in America," according to Back Forty Beer Company's website. They took their name after the "back 40 acres of land, furthest from the barn," which are "historically the most challenging land to maintain and often overlooked due to their remote location." Yet, the farmer that is willing to dig a little deeper often finds the most fertile land here.

The same may be said of Back Forty Beer which, despite all odds (and archaic laws), has found surprising success in a market largely dominated by mainstream brew, not to mention a few totally dry counties. The company currently offers four flagship beers: Naked Pig (Pale Ale), Truck Stop Honey (Brown Ale), Freckle Belly (Indian Pale Ale), and Kudzu (Porter). After winning the 2010 Great American Beer Festival Silver Medal, this craft brewer has grown to over 930 distributors throughout the southeast.

This week, we picked the brain of Founder and President Jason Wilson to learn more about brewing beer in Gadsden, Alabama...

SaveOnBrew: You guys faced some unique legal hurdles in Alabama. As recently as 2008, it was illegal to produce beer at greater than 6% ABV, illegal to operate a tasting room, illegal to sell directly to the public, illegal to package beer in containers larger than 16 oz, and illegal to seek out investors. How has the landscape changed over the past 5 years, and what challenges are you still dealing?

Jason Wilson: It has certainly been a challenge, but we knew that before we started. Some people see a tough legal environment as a barrier to entry, but we viewed it as an opportunity to have a front row seat in the development of a new industry in this State. As a fourth generation Alabamian, that was something I felt very strongly about.

As President of the Alabama Brewers Guild, I have always been a fan of the slow and steady approach to legislative issues. In 2009, Alabama increased the limit on ABV% and paved the way for countless new breweries. In 2011, the State passed the Brewery Modernization Act, opening the door for on-site tap rooms at the Brewery. In 2012, we successfully passed the Gourmet Bottle Bill, which allowed breweries to package their product in bottles up to 750ml.

One of the biggest challenges our industry still faces is access to capital. Because we operate in what is known as the '3-Tier System,' it is illegal for wholesalers to hold any financial stake in a brewery. It is also illegal for a restaurant owner to have a financial stake in a brewery. The intention of the law is to prevent monopolistic practices by large players in the beer industry, but the unintended consequence is that many small breweries can’t reach out to the businesses that know their products the best when it comes time to raise additional capital for expansion.

SOB: What was your approach in creating beers that would appeal to a Southern population used to light macro-brews?

Founders Zach Folmer (L) and Jason Wilson (R)JWWe have always been focused on great interpretations of classic beer styles. We try to bring approachable beers to the market and encourage customers to explore the many varieties of sessionable craft beer that are available.

We’re also very focused on our approach to Southern customers. Southerners have always held a very strong appreciation for artisan products and sustainable business practices; they just don’t care much for the pomp and circumstance that come along with it.

That’s why we have so much fun naming our products. We like to laugh at ourselves and have fun with all of those stereotypes about the Deep South. The result is a sense of ownership by the customers who support our business.

Photo: Back Forty Beer Co. Founders Zach Folmer (L) and Jason Wilson (R) pulled their pig taps early when they ran out of beer at the Magic City Brewfest.

SOB: Your website features a lot of really cool recipes. Yet, aside from beer batter fish, we never really think to use beer in cooking. What can beer add to a dish that nothing else can? How can we get people to warm up to the idea of cooking with beer?

JWMy experience with beer and food really began as a sales strategy. I was driving all over the State trying to get different bars and restaurants to carry our products. I was having a tough time because the big breweries dominate the retail space. One day I was tired of hearing the same answer, so I decided to bypass the bar manager and walk to the kitchen to have a talk with the Chef. I have always had an appreciation for culinary professionals and I knew there would be a mutual appreciation for what we were trying to accomplish with craft beer.

Five years later, it’s the defining characteristic of our company. We have great relationships with chefs all over the country and have gone as far as designing custom beers for a couple of James Beard Award-winning chefs.

One of the most unique things about pairing food and beer is the variety of styles and flavor profiles available to choose from. Unlike wineries, Craft Brewers have an almost infinite list of malted barley, hops, yeast and spice combinations that can be adjusted to produce flavor profiles that are very specific and much easier to pair with food.

Beer has been around for thousands of years and it has been used in the kitchen from the beginning. I recommend starting your journey at www.craftbeer.com. Begin with something easy like a beer bread mix and work your way up to some more complex beer-based sauces and reductions. And if you’re in the mood for a good laugh, check out our “Beer Before Breakfast” web series.

SOB: Share with our readers how you created one of your most popular beers from start to finish – from coming up with the concept and label design, to selecting the ingredients and brewing.

JWWe are really fortunate to have one of the most highly decorated Master Brewers in the South here at Back Forty Beer Company. Jamie Ray has been brewing beer for over 20 years and has received multiple medals from the Great American Beer Festival and the World Beer Cup.

Jamie and our assistant brewers have the freedom to brew whatever they want, whenever they want. Our tap room serves as a great starting point for the process. If our customers respond positively to the test batches, we will brew a larger batch and send samples to the Chefs that we work closely with.

After the Chefs give their feedback, it’s time for us to start thinking about refining the recipe and designing the packaging. When it comes time to designing a label, it’s all about the name for us. We start thinking about Southern-inspired names that might get a good laugh, but also do a good job of telling the story of the beer.

For example, we use local wildflower honey in our award winning Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale. We named the beer 'Truck Stop Honey' because the beekeeper we were sourcing the local honey from primarily sold his product in truck stops throughout the State. But there’s also an inside joke there for Southerners. Anyone who has spent time in Alabama knows that the term 'Truck Stop Honey' can have an entirely different meaning!

SOB: We imagine that the test batches you make are some of the most enjoyable parts of your job. Can you tell us about the best and worst experiments you’ve done?

JWWe just finished a batch of Sweetened Cuban Coffee Stout that turned out great. We use real Cuban Coffee and the aroma is just unreal. We also just finalized the recipe for our new wheat seasonal, brewed with local peaches from Chilton County, Alabama.

As for the worst, there are too many to list! We brewed a beer with peanuts once and it was awful. We also tried a chili pepper beer once that made everyone in the brewery very sick. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it!

SOB: What’s the most interesting feedback you’ve received from one of your beers?

JWI remember getting cornered by a very passionate homebrewer one time at a beer festival. He started off by telling me how the 'Kudzu leaves' in our Kudzu Porter were way too overpowering. He then proceeded to spend the better part of the next hour explaining how we could go about fixing the issue. I never had the heart to tell him that we don’t actually put Kudzu leaves in the beer.

Probably the most interesting thing to me is how proud people are when they see our products outside of the home market. We get tons of emails from locals who have seen our beers in Miami or Atlanta and they are always so proud of their home brewery.

SOB: Is there any way for people outside the southeast to get their paws on one of your beers?

JWWe sell our beers throughout Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia, and Florida. And if you happen to be on vacation in Grand Cayman, make sure to stop by Michael’s Genuine Food and Drink. They have all of our products.

We will also be participating in a special edition mixed 24-pack of American Craft Beer that will be distributed throughout Canada later this year.

If all else fails and you can’t make it to the Deep South, you can always catch us at the Great American Beer Festival held each year in Denver, Colorado.

SOB:If a beer lover were in Gadsden, Alabama for just 24 hours, where do you recommend they go?

JWOur tap room, of course! But if you knock on the door and nobody answers, make your way across the railroad tracks of our historic downtown and grab a pint at the best beer bar in Gadsden, Blackstone Pub.

SOB: What would people be most surprised to learn about the secret world of brewing?

JWI think most people would be surprised how much cooperation there is in our industry. Unlike most industries where you have competitors that are constantly trying to put you out of business, the craft beer industry is a very tight community.

It’s not uncommon for breweries to loan each other raw materials to bridge a gap in supply. It’s also pretty common to see brewers drinking other local beers while they are out in the market. It’s just a really great environment to do business in.

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