Its Bama-brewed beers with funny names are making some serious inroads in Alabama, throughout the U.S. and now around the world. Not bad for a brewery that’s in a former Sears repair center a stone’s throw from the Coosa River.
Jason Wilson, the CEO and founder of Back Forty, believes the company is successful, in part, because it is in Gadsden, and he hopes Gadsden’s current revival is due in some small way to Back Forty’s success.
With its location in the Appalachian foothills and on the Coosa, Gadsden was once a logistical and economic hub for the state. But the loss of manufacturing and the decline of the steel industry that began in the 1980s took a toll on the city.
“Gadsden kind of struggled for a while to figure out what kind of community it was going to be after that reality set in,” Wilson said. “Was it going to be a retirement community? Was it going to be a tourist town? Was it just going to be a sleepy little quiet town in the foothills?”
The people who would help decide Gadsden’s new direction had to find their way back to Gadsden first.
“The single best thing that happened to Gadsden, I think, was the economic collapse of 2008, because so many young residents of Gadsden that had moved away and were living in big cities or living in other parts of the country – what happens when things get tough? People come home,” Wilson said. “They come home to what they know. They come home to what’s safe to them.”
That reverse brain-drain made the difference and opened Wilson’s own eyes as to the possibilities.
“For that reason, we got this huge influx of brilliant minds and great entrepreneurs who came back to Gadsden,” he said. “I was in Atlanta working a full-time job. I’m a fifth-generation Gadsdonian, so I’d come back and visit family and friends every so often, and over the years I started to feel that pulse kind of come back to the city and you felt a little bit of an energy here.”
By the time Wilson was ready to take the plunge into the exploding world of craft beer, there was one place he could imagine tapping into.
“When it came time for me to start Back Forty and I was looking for a home, we knew we were going to be an Alabama brewery so we could have located anywhere in the state,” he said. “But it just made sense to come back to my roots and try to be a part of a movement that was happening here in Gadsden.”
That’s what Wilson did in 2009, contract brewing beer in Mississippi while setting up shop in historic downtown Gadsden in the aforementioned empty Sears repair center. Production began in Gadsden in 2012.
A downtown that was once virtually empty is now 98 percent occupied, with many of the new owners those young entrepreneurs who came back home to Gadsden or just decided to put down roots there.
For Wilson and Back Forty, the move has been magical. Back Forty has grown and become a leading brewer in the state and the region.
“We’ve just completed a $2 million expansion. That doubled our production capacity here to about 25,000 barrels, roughly,” Wilson said. “We added a new bottling line and a bunch of new really exciting components. We added a new pilot test batch system, so we will be able to do a lot of small batch, experimental stuff in the months and years to come. The brewers are really excited about that and I know the public will be too.”
Back Forty is found throughout Alabama and in Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi.
“We have some ongoing conversations that continue that kind of natural wave of expansion,” Wilson said. “New Orleans; Little Rock, Arkansas; the Carolinas are next on the short list for us.”
But one of Back Forty’s biggest moves to date is turning the Coosa River into an international waterway of sorts.
“We just launched an export development program which will take us into Canada, China, several different countries in South America, several parts of the Caribbean, Puerto Rico, so we’re really excited about that,” Wilson said.
The first shipment to China went out of the brewery in late June.
Truck Stop Honey in Tianjin? Paw Paw’s Peach in Puerto Rico? Naked Pig in Newfoundland?
“Most people don’t realize that 85 percent of the beer sold in the world is sold outside of the United States, so we’re excited to take an Alabama brand and export it to different parts of the world and let them see what that Southern hospitality is all about,” Wilson said.
“Just like when we started Back Forty in Alabama when there were no other bottling breweries and everybody else said, ‘Why bother? That’s a lot of work,’” Wilson continued. “The same thing with export development – it’s a lot of work. It’s very daunting. There are language barriers, currency barriers, all of these regulations that you have to overcome, but if you’re willing to put in the hard work and you’re willing to grind it out, it’s a real competitive advantage for a company in the long run.”
Besides, how else would Wilson discover that Gadsden qualifies as an “exotic” locale?
“There’s some extra label requirements associated with China. We told the importer there, ‘Look, we can redesign the labels specifically and go ahead and have them reprinted,’” Wilson said. “They asked us not to. They said, ‘No, no, no! You don’t understand, in China when you import a product, especially from a place exotic like Alabama, that we prefer to have the original label on there and then we will add an import label to it so that everybody knows this is the original product.’”
So now, the beer from Gadsden is being enjoyed in places the company’s founder never dreamed it would be.
“The most surreal experience I’ve had as a business owner was the first time somebody tweeted from China that they were drinking one of our beers,” he said. “Just last week, actually, there were several tweets from a small pub in Newfoundland where they had just received our product.”
It’s something Wilson never tires of seeing as Back Forty beers continue to grow in popularity and reach.
“To this day, it’s still surreal when I walk into a Publix or a Walmart in Atlanta or Nashville and see our beers on the shelf there,” he said. “I just love that as we’ve expanded this export development program, we’ve kept that placard on the box and on our labels that says ‘Proudly brewed in Gadsden, Alabama.’”
This story appears in the current issue of Shorelines magazine.