That’s because an award-winning chef with a fine dining background helms this open kitchen (next to the open brewing production) and is turning out dishes that are delicious and inventive, seasonal and locally sourced and perhaps more than you’d expect.
Owner and CEO Douglas Brown says the full restaurant is one thing that sets Back Forty Beer apart from other great breweries in the Magic City. That was part of the plan from the very beginning, and executive chef Russ Bodner has led the restaurant since before Back Forty Birmingham opened in summer 2018.
Bodner, a St. Louis native who studied at the French Culinary Institute in New York City, worked in the kitchen of the Michelin-starred, haute Greek restaurant Anthos with celebrity chef Michael Psilakis and restaurateur Donatella Arpaia. He was the sous chef with James Beard Award-winning chef Gerard Craft at Taste in St. Louis. Bodner honed his unique blend of fine Southern comfort food and exciting global influences on Lake Martin at SpringHouse (with acclaimed chef and Hot and Hot Fish Club alum Rob McDaniel – a five-time James Beard “Best Chef: South” semi-finalist) and then at Kowaliga as executive chef.
“Our goal here,” Bodner says, “is to provide not just regular brewery fare but to have a restaurant that brews beer or a brewery that has a restaurant.”
Either way you look at it, it’s working.
Chef Bodner has created an impressive yet casual farm-to-table menu that is more than just pub food. Most everything here is made from scratch – the pickles, the mustards, the sausages and sauces. Bodner relies upon local growers like BDA Farm near Tuscaloosa and Ireland Farm for his seasonal produce. He visits farmers markets for smaller, specific quantities, and he turns to locally owned Evans for most of his meats and Gulf seafood.
“We try to take my fine dining experiences that I’ve had, whether it was in New York or at Lake Martin at SpringHouse, and take that same approach to the food here.”
So you’ll find a beet salad that’s colorful with mustard greens and radishes, or local butternut squash soup topped with pickled golden raisins and homemade crème fraiche. Pan-seared jumbo scallops might come with caramelized bok choy, local sweet peppers, carrots, shiitake mushrooms and radishes in a homemade dashi broth. The Niman Ranch pork porterhouse is paired with sweet potato hash, Benton’s ham, peppers and onions. Pastas are homemade, and Bodner is excited about the Asian noodle bowls and ramens guests can enjoy during the cooler months.
It’s comfort food, Bodner says, “but done in a really nicely presented way and using the best ingredients that we can.”
That approach gets you wings that are confit-cooked and perfectly spiced, whether you choose the mild Naked Pig sauce or Puck’s smoky-sweet heat.
Thin-crust pizzas are popular and range from a simple margherita with San Marzano tomato sauce, fresh mozzarella and basil, to a bright, flavor bomb of a pie topped with pancetta and broccolini, mozzarella, garlic, fennel pollen, Calabrian chilies, chili crunch and preserved lemon.
Back Forty Birmingham rotates several versions of the nap-inducing Quebecois bar snack poutine. Sometimes there’s braised beef in this dish, sometimes there’s duck confit. When we visited, the fries were simply smothered in cheese curds and beer gravy and studded with scallions.
The Burger Throw Down-winning Back Forty cheeseburger is the most popular item on the menu. It has two patties, American cheese, homemade aioli, housemade pickles, and onions sliced so thinly they cook on the burger. They’ve sold about 50,000 so far. It comes with some of the best fries in this city and more of that homemade aioli for dipping.
Then there are beer dinners on Mondays – usually five or six courses all paired with a beer. “It’s a pretty big hit,” Bodner says. “Sometimes we have beers that aren’t necessarily on the menu, that we have smaller quantities of, that we can pour.”
Master brewer Tosh Brown, who trained with Back Forty Gadsden’s master brewers, is responsible for those. He freshly brews popular core, year-round Back Forty beers like Naked Pig, Truck Stop Honey, Freckle Belly and Paw Paw’s Peach Wheat Ale, but he also brews a steady stream of new, experimental beers you’ll only find here. Beers like Hop Tosh West Coast IPA, Unbridled Passion Wheat and “Hike Out” Hefe.
“We focus on hyper localization in all aspects of what we do,” Douglas Brown says. That means offering beer and food that you cannot get anywhere else. And these offerings are always changing.
“We are constantly fine-tuning new recipes,” Brown adds. In the first year of operation, Back Forty Birmingham brewed 52 different recipes and marked the fact with a special T-shirt. “My dream is to be one of those breweries where people line up the night before for a release of a new beer. We’re not there yet, but there are a lot of craft breweries in America that are there, and that’s what we strive for – to create something that people are clamoring to get.”
Douglas Brown credits his staff for the brewery’s success – from Diane DeBord who manages the tap room, to Tosh Brown who makes the beers that flow there, to Bodner and his kitchen staff, to the friendly servers who deliver the food.
“We’d like for people to walk away from here with this feeling that they were welcomed from the beginning, they were treated well, and they got served great food and great beer,” Brown says. “We ask our employees to ‘act like an owner, experience like a customer, create like an artist, and also take care of our environment and our community.’”
All that creates an electric environment with a comfortable feeling of openness. The brewery has hosted special events for Magic Moments and Kid One Transport. You’ll hear lots of live music. Mondays and Wednesdays have discounts for first responders. There are bingo nights and trivia nights and corporate cornhole tournaments. During the spring, summer and fall, there is yoga on the porch. They have activities for pups in the garden on Woofday Wednesdays.
Back Forty Birmingham is uniquely located with dramatic views of historic Sloss Furnaces and within sight and sound of passing trains. There are rocking chairs on the porch and plenty of green space outside in the beer garden for families to gather and for children to play. Inside is just as interesting, with beautiful farm tables and high-top bar tables made by Brandon Bowers of Arcadia Salvage; busy kitchen and brewing spaces just beyond the bar; and colorful pale ale pig-themed murals by local artists Sean Gilder and Marcus Fetch.
Douglas Brown set out to create the kind of interesting and inclusive atmosphere he saw in brew houses in Europe. He wanted something that was family friendly.
“I’m most proud of what you see here on a Saturday,” he says, “with just hundreds of people coming through here … from toddlers up to great-grandparents. I saw a grandmother throwing a ball with a 10-year-old out in the field. It warms your heart to see that. Of course, it’s always nice if they’re enjoying the food and the beer; we’re always happy for that. But I’m just happy to see the people here enjoying themselves.”
Back Forty Beer Company Birmingham
3201 1st Ave. N.
Birmingham, Alabama 35222
Taproom & Kitchen Hours:
Wednesday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Thursday: 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
Friday-Saturday: 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
Sunday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.
Monday: 11 a.m. – 9 p.m.