Ellis Colthorpe spent his internship surrounded by vats and cases of craft beer, which sounds like a dream scenario for a college student who happens to be of legal drinking age.
It was, of course, but not for the reasons you might assume.
Colthorpe didn’t spend his internship with Back Forty Beer Co. taste-testing its popular product line, which includes Naked Pig Pale Ale, Truck Stop Honey Brown Ale, Kudzu Porter, Fence Post Session Ale and Freckle Belly India Pale Ale. He carefully – and soberly – learned the ins and outs of the brewing industry while helping Back Forty get its product to the marketplace.
“It was literally one of the most incredible things I could have dreamed of doing,” said Colthorpe, a supply chain management major who will graduate in May 2014. “If I had done an internship with a larger company, I might have been one of 10 or 15 interns. I wouldn’t have had a project to work on and probably wouldn’t have seen as much of the business. I came into Back Forty and everything I did was an asset to the company. I was making sure orders were filled, and they left it up to me to make sure product was sent out the door.”
It’s safe to say Back Forty was pleased with his efforts. Colthorpe, the company’s first intern, will have a job waiting for him when he graduates.
He’ll be among friends when he becomes a full-time employee. Several members of the Back Forty team, including founder and President Jason Wilson, Director of Operations Tripp Collins and Business Development Manager David Carn, are Auburn University graduates.
Collins earned a degree in business logistics in 2003, while Carn is a 2004 international business graduate. Wilson earned a civil engineering degree in 2001.
The vision for Back Forty grew out of a 2001 trip Wilson took to Colorado, a journey that introduced him to a vibrant craft beer culture.
“Alabama is widely seen as the wasteland for craft beer in America,” Wilson said in a video message on the company’s website. “With mass produced light beer being the drink of choice for many Southerners, the craft beer market here has been largely ignored.”
Back Forty, named for the often-overlooked and hard-to-maintain agricultural acreage, faced a difficult time establishing roots in Alabama soil. It was against the law to produce or sell beer in Alabama that exceeded 6 percent alcohol-by-volume (ABV) content. The law was changed in 2009 and the Brewery Modernization Act was signed into law in 2011, easing previous restrictions on breweries’ abilities to house a tap room.
Carn said Back Forty began on a shoestring — $31,000 to be exact – but built up plenty of capital when it came to relationships with the right people. The company, which initially received help from a microbrewery in Mississippi to get its products to market, released its first offering, Naked Pig Pale Ale, to a regional audience in 2009. Back Forty moved into its current home, a 27,000-square foot facility in Gadsden, Ala., that once served as a Sears appliance warehouse.
While word-of-mouth and awards from the Great American Beer Festival helped Back Forty build momentum, the company also proved quite resourceful in building its customer base. Rather than deal strictly with bar managers or attempt to be one of 50 or more beers offered at franchised sports bars, Carn said Back Forty reps walked into kitchens and won over chefs. They also tapped into the burgeoning farm-to-table movement.
When someone like Chris Hastings, a James Beard Award winner from Birmingham’s Hot and Hot Fish Club, pairs your beer with particular dishes or uses it in recipes, other culinary masters will listen.
While Colthorpe went to Back Forty with the intent of exercising his supply chain knowledge, he learned plenty about entrepreneurship and marketing as well. The Harbert College of Business’ supply chain program is working to ensure all of its students will have the opportunity to transform internships into immediate career opportunities. The program is one of two nationally that requires its students to complete internships.
“Obviously, it wasn’t a large, established company,” Colthorpe said of his experience. “I was coming into a very small start-up business. I kind of got to see the good and the bad, every side of it, the balance sheets all the way up to shipping products. How many orders do I need to get out the door? Our processes weren’t as concrete as a larger company’s may have been. Everything we were doing was a new experience. I met great people and made great connections.”