Back Forty Beer Company Birmingham: Where the Food is as Popular as the Beer

Photo by Russ Bodner

Invariably, whenever someone mentions Back Forty Beer Company at the Sloss Docks in Birmingham the talk turns to food.

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.

 I visited Back Forty Beer Company Birmingham recently for Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire story here.

Owner & CEO, Douglas Brown says the full restaurant here is one thing that sets Back Forty Beer Company Birmingham 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 the summer of 2018.

Photo by Russ Bodner

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. He 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 way 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 or Ireland Farm for his seasonal produce. He visits the farmers markets for smaller, specific quantities of things, and he turns to locally owned Evans for most of his meats and Gulf-fresh seafood.

photo by Russ Bodner

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 chef 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.

Beautiful, 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.

The Burger Throw Down-winning Back Forty cheeseburger is the most popular item on the menu with two patties, American cheese, homemade aioli, house-made pickles and onions sliced so thinly they cook on the burger. They’ve sold some 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.

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 foods.

“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.’”

Douglas Brown intentionally 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. 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 Avenue North
Birmingham, Alabama 35222

​205-407-8025

https://www.backfortybeer.com/birmingham

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.

Tuesday: Closed

Fox 6 Books: October

Let’s get cooking! It’s not too early to think about holiday dinners with friends and family. A new batch of cookbooks is just what we need right now. I brought these with me to WBRC Fox 6 on October 1.

Seeking the South:  Finding Inspired Regional Cuisines by Rob Newton with Jamie Feldman is part inspiring travelogue, part user-friendly cooking guide. “There’s no genre of American cuisine as storied as Southern,” Newton writes. “It has the longest history, most distinct terroir, and the most pronounced traditions of any food in the country, built largely by enslaved Africans and their descendants. For these reasons and more, Southern food can be a tricky topic, with a tendency to rile people up both in and out of the geographic boundaries of the South itself.”

Newton, born in Arkansas, is the executive chef at Gray & Dudley in Nashville. This new book, with lovely photos of foods and places, showcases a new kind of South that draws from all corners of the world for its modern cuisine. Consider Hot Potlikker (a Chinese-style hot pot from Mississippi made with potlikker from cooking greens); boiled peanuts with lemongrass, star anise and lime; heirloom tomatoes with peanut chaat; charred okra with Sichuan pepper, garlic and green onions. Familiar recipes here include buttermilk biscuits, deviled eggs, BBQ Gulf snapper and fried chicken. But then there are lots of favorite foods prepared in a brand new way:  Raw collards with coconut and grapefruit; fried bologna sandwiches with chow chow; turnip and potato pancakes  with yogurt, dill and dillybeans.

The book is divided into five chapters representing different regions of the South—Upper South, Deep South, Gulf Coast, Coastal Plains and Piedmont, and Low Country and Southeast Coast. “I wanted to tell the story of the Southern food that I knew and loved:  dishes that went beyond the clichés and illustrated the diverse bounty across its many distinct regions,” Newton writes. Each chapter features appetizers, salads, entrees and desserts that define each region in beautiful, delicious ways.

Kindness & Salt:  Recipes for the Care & Feeding of Your Friends and Neighbors by Ryan Angulo and Doug Crowell features food and hospitality advice and prep techniques and tips especially for the home cook. Ryan Angulo and Doug Crowell are the owners of Buttermilk Channel and French Louie in Brooklyn. The book, with a fun retro cover, features 100 recipes for the foods and drinks that draw their passionate customers from around the corner as well as across the globe. They believe that every great meal starts with two essential elements:  kindness and salt. “Kindness,” they write, “is the spirit of warmth and hospitality that underlies every meal at their restaurants. Salt is shorthand for cooking carefully and brining out the best in your ingredients.” There are 21 foundational recipes from a chapter called Pantry that include aioli, parsley pistou, oven-dried tomatoes and hollandaise sauce. These are everyday items to elevate your dishes.  From there, you’ll find hundreds more for salads and veggies (radishes with butter and black olive salt), fish and shellfish (mussels Normande), birds and beasts (cast iron-roasted chicken) as well as baked things (cornbread with chile-lime butter). There’s an entire chapter devoted to cocktails and another for brunch dishes, reflecting the full range of what makes their restaurants popular. But everything is carefully explained, tips are given freely and techniques are detailed so the home cook can easily re-create this bistro cuisine, which is, after all, inspired by home cooking.

The Sioux Chef’s Indigenous Kitchen by Sean Sherman with Beth Dooley is a cleverly named James Beard Foundation Book Award winner that is all about real food. Namely, indigenous American fruits and vegetables, wild and foraged grains, game and fish. “Locally sourced” takes on a whole new meaning in this breakout cookbook by Sean Sherman, the Oglala Lakota chef and founder of The Sioux Chef, a group of people—from chefs to growers to food truckers and food lovers—committed to revitalizing Native American cuisine.  There’s no fry bread here. It does not rely upon European staples such as wheat flour, sugar and dairy products. The dishes are indigenous to the Dakota and Minnesota territories, but home cooks can find most of these ingredients quite easily. (There’s a list of suppliers at www.sioux-chef.com if you have difficulties.) A short guide to using this book lists straightforward techniques and simple tools such as a cast-iron skillet and a deep stockpot and essential ingredients including salt, honey, sumac and herbs. Each chapter features a short essay to explain the foods and food traditions of the recipes that follow. You’ll learn about and how to cook crispy bean cakes, deviled duck eggs, rabbit braised with apples and mint, autumn harvest cookies and real wild rice. Sherman shares space in the book with other chefs he met at the Native American Culinary Association’s “Native Chef’s Symposium.” You’ll find recipes like Chef Lois Ellen Frank’s Coriander-Cured Elk with Dried Chokecherry Sauce and Felicia Cocotzin Ruiz’s Two-Fruit Jam Scattered with Seeds. All in all, this book is a beautiful, thoughtful celebration of truly homegrown culinary traditions.

Buttermilk & Bourbon:  New Orleans Recipes with a Modern Flair is a new cookbook by Jason Santos, a Hell’s Kitchen runner-up and an expert on Bar Rescue. Turns out, a birthday trip to New Orleans inspired Santos to open his Boston restaurant Buttermilk & Bourbon. “I love everything about that city,” he writes, “the food, the people and the passion!”  In his restaurant and in this book, he relies upon food that is authentic in flavor and prepared in inventive, surprising ways. Consider Buffalo Duck Wings, New Orleans BBQ Shrimp with Jalapeno Grits and Flamin’ Hot Cheeto Mac & Cheese. The chapter on adult beverages is particularly fun with a Boston-Nola Hurricane; a Who Dat? made with chocolate-mole bitters and rye; a rum-fueled Lagniappe; and a Cajun Bloody Mary, of course.

I link to Amazon to show you exactly what book I’m talking about, but I love to shop locally at Church Street Coffee and BooksThe Alabama Booksmith, Little Professor Book Center, and I often visit my local library.

Opa, y’all! It’s time for Birmingham’s Greek Festival

It takes a village to put on Birmingham’s beloved Greek Festival.

For months before the event, now in its 47th year at Holy Trinity-Holy Cross Greek Orthodox Cathedral in downtown Birmingham, hundreds of people from this city’s thriving Greek community work together to prepare. They cook, they bake and they practice centuries-old dances. They are doing what they have always done – what people still do in villages all over Greece – creating a celebration and inviting people to join them.

Some 30,000 people will show up for this year’s three-day festival Oct. 3-5. Many are Greek. Most are not, and that’s just fine. “It’s a time,” says Sonthe Burge, “when everybody gets to be Greek for the weekend.”

This story originally ran on Alabama NewsCenter. You can read the entire piece and see our cool video here.

Burge is chair of a cookie committee that started working early in the summer with a series of cookie workshops to make a single kind of pastry – koulourakia, the twisted, buttery one.

“It’s a great cookie,” she says. “It’s just really nice … it’s more of a butter cookie that’s not super sweet. So it doesn’t go in the category with the baklava or the melos (melomakarona). They have a syrup and are so much sweeter. This is more like a biscotti. Like a Greek biscotti.”

By the time she and her teams are done, they will have made more than 1,600 dozen of these cookies. They will sell them for $10 a dozen, and they very likely will sell out of all 19,488 pieces by Saturday morning.

Burge’s crews of 50 or so volunteers for each two-day workshop include women (and some men) of all ages who work with a few church employees to measure, mix, roll, shape, butter and bake the sweets. Young mothers drop off their children at mothers’ day out and come to the church kitchen to work – and learn – alongside older women who could roll and twist these cookies in their sleep. In the banquet hall, yayas and papous, who no longer want to stand in the kitchen sit at tables and bag the baked koulourakia.

And this is just one variety of sweets that you’ll find at the Greek Festival.

“We have koulourakia, which we’re making today,” Burge says. “We have baklava; that’s what most people are familiar with, and we are really known for our baklava. (That committee will make nearly 25,000 pieces.) We have kourambethes, that’s a Greek wedding cookie (there are 9,034 of these), and then melomakarona, which is a honey spice cookie (more than 6,000 pieces of this labor-intensive pastry are made), and we have Greek donuts (these loukoumathes will be fried to order).”

There’s also chocolate baklava; almond crescents; and kataiffi, made with shredded filo, walnuts, honey and cinnamon.

Of course, there are lots more foods at this free, family-friendly festival.

Appetizers and entrees include pitas (filo triangles filled with feta cheese or spinach and feta); dolmathes (stuffed grape leaves); lamb souvlakia; Greek-style chicken; Greek salad; pastichio (a kind of Greek lasagna topped with béchamel); beef and lamb gyros; and a veggie plate with rice pilaf, Greek-style green beans, a Greek salad, spanakopita and tiropita. These savory dishes are individually priced. Everything is handmade.

All this is available to eat there or take away. You also can use the drive-through, which is available all three days from 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. No need to call ahead and place your order.

All-day entertainment includes the George Karras Band, DJ Disco Hristo and local dance troupes ranging in age from kindergartners to high schoolers.

“I always encourage people to go into the cathedral,” Burge says. “There are church tours that are guided, and also you can … just take one on your own.” This is the fourth oldest Greek Orthodox parish in the Southeast. The basilica features a stunning Byzantine interior with stained glass, and the iconography is beautiful.

The Greek Festival is lots of fun, but there’s a serious side to all this, too. The festival has donated more than $3 million to local and national charities, including The Bell Center, The Exceptional Foundation, Firehouse Ministries, The WellHouse and Greater Birmingham Ministries.

The Birmingham church has an active Philoptochos Society, which is one of the largest women’s philanthropic organizations in the U.S. (although men also can be involved). Just recently, Burge says, the national organization sent $25,000 to the Bahamas for disaster relief.

“We’re all part of something bigger … all across the country … we all belong to this national organization, and we’re just a little microcosm of it here in Birmingham,” she says. “So in Birmingham, our mission is to help the needy, to help the poor. And we give money to different sorts of organizations. We’ve paid for equipment and different things at Children’s Hospital. We also have a scholarship fund for members of our church – for children who are graduating from high school going to college.”

The local chapter’s biggest fundraiser is the sale of frozen pans of pastichio during the Greek Festival.