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Alabama People: Jason Wilson

When the “Free the Hops” bill passed the Alabama Legislature in 2009, it removed some of the major hurdles restricting beer production and ushered in a new era of Alabama brewing.

Fast forward to 2017, and there are currently almost 30 craft breweries here, and they’ve all tapped into the energy and interest created by industry trailblazers like Back Forty Beer and its founder, Jason Wilson.

Started in 2009 and based in Gadsden, Ala., Back Forty has been a major player in Alabama’s beer boom from the beginning and is now the state’s largest craft brewery in terms of production volume, turning out the equivalent of approximately 350,000 bottles of beer about every two weeks.

Wilson shares his company’s story and stresses why even non-beer drinkers should be excited by the fact that for Alabama breweries, business is hopping. – Jennifer Kornegay

What does “craft beer” mean?

It means a commitment to quality and process over profits and efficiency. Craft beers – and the rise of their popularity – prove that there is so much more to experience in beer than just the classic American light lager. That beer has its time and place, but I really encourage people to branch out.

When did you discover “craft beer”?

I had just turned 21. (laughs) No, I promise. I’m not saying I’d never had a beer before that, but I was visiting my brother in Colorado in 2001, and we went to this small, local brewery and started sampling their stuff. I had this great beer and said, “Man, this is amazing!” A guy popped up from behind the bar and said, “Thanks.” He was the brewer. I stayed up into the wee hours of the morning talking to him; we were sitting on kegs, and he was telling me all about the beer he made.

How did Back Forty get started?

When I left Colorado, I came back to Alabama, went back to college at Auburn, graduated and ended up working in logistics for Georgia Pacific, which meant I traveled a lot. Everywhere I went I sought out the local craft brewery. In 2005, I met Jamie Ray, the brewer behind The Montgomery Brew Pub, and we became friends.

By 2008, I had developed a full-fledged passion for craft beer, and my boss at GP could tell. He actually encouraged me to pursue it. Breweries were uncharted territory in Alabama at that time, and I didn’t think a bank would loan me money for a facility, but I raised money from friends and family, and reached out to Lazy Magnolia brewery in Mississippi. The timing was right; they had just expanded and had room to brew and package my beer, so we did a contract brewing arrangement. With Jamie’s help, I got my recipe down, and in 2009, we put out our first beer and Back Forty was born. We operated that way for 18 months. In 2011, we started brewing in our own place in downtown Gadsden.

Where does the name come from?

Back Forty is an old agriculture term. The “back forty” acres on a farm are the furthest from the barn, the hardest to irrigate and work. They’re under appreciated. But if you ever take the time to clear that land and nurture it, you get a great yield. It’s virgin ground. That’s how I saw the brewing industry in Alabama. I felt like the phrase just fit what I hoped we were going to do.

Why base Back Forty Beer in Gadsden instead of a larger city?

I’m a fifth-generation Gadsden native. But, like most kids, when I left for college, I said I was never coming back. When the steel plant shut down in the city, it hit the area hard, and there just wasn’t much to come back to. But by 2007, I sensed a renewed energy in my hometown. I saw other young people coming back.

Downtown was revitalizing, with new businesses opening up down there. I realized that from a logistics standpoint, with a major interstate (I-59) right beside it, it made plenty of sense. And I saw an opportunity to make a positive difference there, to be a part of the change that was needed.

Why should people who don’t even drink beer care about the craft beer boom in our state?

Jobs and tax revenue. Craft breweries generate both. We now have more than 350 people directly working in the industry in the state, and Alabama breweries have an annual economic impact in the billions of dollars. Plus, we bump up the state’s image to visitors, and tourism is crucial in the state.