Back Forty celebrates new chapter

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Brad Wilson, Jason Wilson, Hatton Smith and Tripp Collins celebrate Back Forty Beer Company’s official ribbon cutting on Tuesday, April 20. Will Mackey/The Chamber of Gadsden & Etowah County

By Katie Bohannon, News Editor

Gadsden-rooted Back Forty Beer Company is brewing a new chapter in its successful legacy. Founder Jason Wilson joined fellow stockholders, staff, community partners, family and friends for a commemorative event on Tuesday, April 20 that shone a bright light on its promising future while paying homage to its innovative past.

Back Forty celebrates its 12th year in business this May, with over a decade of paramount achievement under its belt. Guests drifted pleasantly throughout the newly renovated brewery, the event showcasing the building’s latest improvements. Additions included a 600-square-foot front porch that seats 30 to 35 individuals, providing visitors with sufficient space to social distance, fresh paint, better lighting and updated bathrooms, hallway and kitchen, which features new equipment. Back Forty also eliminated an existing wall inside, to create a greater sense of openness for dining and socializing.

Chief operating officer Tripp Collins shared that the inspiration for the renovations arose amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, when people were confined to their homes and indoors. Following a decrease in sales during Back Forty’s closure due to COVID-19, the brewery adapted to serve its community in a different way: selling hand sanitizer.

Collins wanted guests to feel safe and secure while visiting Back Forty, designing a space that reflected the time. The new open floor plan and extended outdoor seating allows visitors to enjoy all Back Forty offers – without compromising their health or peace of mind.

“Back Forty has always been a very easy place to hang out,” said Collins. “It’s family-friendly, the food is great and it’s safe as well. We want people to feel comfortable when they’re here. The public has responded really well.”

Updates to the structure coincide with additions to Back Forty’s menu, which features favorites from the brewery’s Birmingham location alongside daily specials and a kids’ menu. Irresistible selections cater to all palettes, with a mouth-watering Korean grilled chicken sandwich, kale salad, confit chicken wings, all-beef gourmet hot dog and Back Forty cheeseburger granting guests satisfaction for all cravings.

“I hope [guests] have a great experience [at Back Forty],” said Collins. “We harp on customer service. We hope they enjoy the food. The backbone of the business is beer, so we hope they enjoy the beer as well. [We have options] for people who like beer or people who don’t; we have nonalcoholic beverages, we have some cocktails. [Overall] it’s a good place for everybody to come. I have two kids who grew up here. We have games and live music on Fridays and Sundays – it’s a good place to just relax. [With the new outdoor seating] it’s springtime in Alabama…it doesn’t really get much better.”

Though the brewery debuted at historic 200 North 6th Street in Gadsden in 2011, just two years after its inception, Back Forty never celebrated a ribbon cutting. The private event changed that, with The Chamber of Gadsden & Etowah County honoring Back Forty’s contribution to its community.

While the event welcomed supporters to witness the changes unfolding throughout the taproom, it also signified a major milestone in Back Forty’s rich history – founder and original CEO Wilson’s departure from the company. The announcement followed Wilson’s decision to pass the torch to former Royal Cup Coffee CEO Hatton Smith two years ago, who took on Wilson’s role for Back Forty.

“You’ll never know what this community means to me and what your support means to me,” said Wilson to friends and family at the event. “Thank you all for being here for chapter 2.0 of Back Forty Beer Company.”

Though Wilson will remain involved with Back Forty as its second largest stockholder and on its board of directors, when he realized the time arrived for a change, he felt confident leaving the company in both Smith’s and Collin’s hands. An instrumental figure in Back Forty’s development since the beginning, Collin handles the day-to-day operations at the brewery and understands all necessary elements to ensure the company runs smoothly and maintains its culture. With Smith’s seasoned experience and exuberant personality, Wilson foresees their partnership as the perfect blend to take Back Forty to the next level.

Wilson shared that after 12 years, he began to reevaluate his contribution to the company. An active participant in all his endeavors, Wilson never wanted to become a distant CEO in a room, mindlessly scrolling football message boards rather than focusing on bettering the company. As a gifted innovator and creator, he thrives when it comes to transforming ideas into realities, just as he did with Back Forty in 2009.

Following a trip to Crestview, Colorado to visit his brother, Wilson discovered a world of craft beer untapped in Alabama. Though the beer culture in the Centennial State proved unlike anything he had ever experienced, business administration professional and Auburn University graduate Wilson began brainstorming how Alabama could weather such uncharted territory.

Though mass produced light beer is a preferred drink of choice for residents throughout the South, the craft beer market in Alabama was almost nonexistent before Back Forty’s arrival. In 2008, it was illegal to sell or produce beer in Alabama that exceeded six percent ABV. Despite the challenges, Wilson pursued his dream, reaching out to neighbors at Lazy Magnolia microbrewery in Mississippi. With Lazy Magnolia’s assistance, Back Forty produced its first offering, Naked Pig Pale Ale.

After a state law passed raising the legal alcohol limit in Alabama from six percent to 13.9 percent and Back Forty’s original Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale won a silver medal at the Great American Beer Festival, distribution offers flooded in. This moment served as the perfect catalyst for Back Forty’s success, securing a small business loan for the brewery and its very own Gadsden facility in a 27,000 square-foot Sears & Roebuck warehouse built in the 1940s.

The rest is history.

“It’s kind of like watching your kids grow up,” said Wilson. “It’s crazy to think when I had this idea there were no breweries in Alabama…nobody was doing this. Now, it’s such a big industry here. I think the brewing industry represents over $750 million in economic impact for the state of Alabama now, and that was zero 12 years ago. At the same time, I’m so proud that [several] of our former employees have left here to start their own entrepreneurial ventures. A lot of people like me don’t live to see the second generation of employees in their business, to see the amount of pride and ownership. It’s weird because you actually get to observe a business that is operating without you, which is bittersweet, but at the same time it’s really cool to see what it’s become.”

Since its inception, Back Forty surged. The company opened a second location with its original brew master Jamie Ray in Birmingham at Sloss Docks, overlooking dramatic views of Sloss Furnaces and the nearby railway. The breweries each offer popular original recipes to accompany Naked Pig Pale Ale and Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale, coinciding with the culture Wilson strove to create initially.

Though Back Forty provides its guests with a unique and entertaining experience, it also emerges as a company that supports its community. Rooted in uplifting local residents, organizations and fellow small businesses, Back Forty’s dedication to Gadsden and surrounding areas proves paramount. Whether its service manifests in brewery-hosted programs like Feed the Need, giving families food for the holidays, partnerships with projects geared toward benefitting the community or sponsoring little league baseball teams, Back Forty nurtures its neighbors through ceaseless generosity.

“In the beginning, you have to create a culture of an organization,” said Wilson. “That culture is going to last for a long time – decades, centuries hopefully. I think I’ve done a good job of instilling that in the people who are part of this family here…how important public service is, how important community service is, how important it is to volunteer your time, to help your neighbor. Even though I’ve stepped back from the day-to-day operations, it’s awesome to see that continue. We’re still the Back Forty we’ve always been when it comes to that. Nothing like that is going to change.”

Wilson commended Back Forty’s employees, who share he and Collin’s passion for extending compassion and replenishing the community. He noted that Back Forty’s staff understands the value that resides in assisting their community, creating a sustainable culture and a positive social impact.

“That’s the reason I’m such an advocate for small businesses and a tourism-based economy in this community because I’ve said all the time, we serve beer here, but the difference is we actually care about the people we serve beer to,” said Wilson. “These are our neighbors, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. That’s what I love about it, and I think it applies not just in the alcohol sector [but to all locally owned businesses]. You walk into The Alabama Gift Company and it just feels different than if you walk into another store that’s not locally owned. The reason why is because if I need something, I know I can call and they’re always there. [Local] people understand.”

Throughout the years, Back Forty’s cultural impact poetically mirrored its namesake, charting the course for many more prosperous decades to come. Coined after the agricultural term that refers to the 40 acres of land situated furthest from the barn, those remote and disregarded back 40 acres might appear challenging to cultivate. Yet, the untouched soil often proves the most fertile, with an endless possibility for growth just beneath the surface. While Back Forty Beer Company transformed the craft beer industry in Alabama, recognizing a worth once overlooked, its legacy remains fruitful in its compassionate nature and generous efforts to encourage, inspire and better its community. Though the company is writing a new chapter in its novel, its roots are stalwart, aspiring to bountiful harvests as it remembers the first seed that once sprouted it all.

“After 12 years, I hope it’s the next generation of people [who enjoy Back Forty],” said Wilson. “I hope they see we’re an innovative company. That’s what we do – we built our brand off of innovation and doing stuff nobody else had done before. I hope [people] realize this is just the next chapter of that. We hit the reset button and totally refreshed the place, and now it’s time for another run until we get ready to tear it all down and do it again.”

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