Recently, Hi-Wire Brewing expanded its distribution into Middle Tennessee and it has been a welcome addition to the local craft-beer scene. Offering up both easy-drinking and high-ABV beers, the Asheville-based brewery with the circus theme has quickly won over the locals. Not long ago, on a road trip, I visited with Head Brewer Luke Holgate at the North Carolina brewery’s Big Top location.
In this Beer with a Brewmaster interview, we discuss Mr. Holgate’s brewing background, the brewery’s expansion plans and a powerful cure for those seasonal blues (hint: find out at Asheville’s upcoming Winter Warmer beer festival).
How did you get your start, as a brewer?
– “I went to school; Biotechnology was my major. I graduated in 2008 and no jobs were jumping out at me, so I ended up moving home to New York. There was a brewpub in town that I started bartending at and I started hanging out with the brewers. I realized all the Bio and Chemistry I learned in school could go to making something cool, besides pharmaceuticals. So, I started digging in, trying to learn as much as I could. I actually moved to Asheville six years ago, specifically to get into beer. It probably took me about a year and a half of pestering people and making my way in. I really wasn’t a big homebrewer. I brewed a few batches at the pub and that was the extent of my homebrew experience. I ended up getting an assistant brewing job for the now-defunct Craggie Brewing. They occupied the building that Hi-Wire took over. I knew all the equipment. My boss was a great guy and he recommended me for the job, when they were asking around. I felt a little overwhelmed, I mean, I still do, every day.”
“Hi-Wire had a couple of key things that we wanted to do, that we thought set us apart in the industry: Even though we were going to be doing 1,500 or 2,000 barrels, we wanted to go straight into bottles and we wanted to do an almost-macro type of lager, but on a micro scale. Those were the two things that we thought would differentiate us at first and I think it really did help launch us, to give us the springboard to be able to grow at the rate we’ve grown, so far.”
So, you were working for Hi-Wire, when it began, as a company?
– “Yeah. Basically, they decided to buy the building in December. I was out of work, because Craggie shut down, so they paid my rent while I brewed pilot batches for four months. I looked through my notebook a while back and I had 37 recipes that I had brewed in those months. I brewed everything over and over again, just trying to make tweaks to move them in the right direction. I finally landed on recipes that we liked and we jumped right in. It all kind of fell into place. Everybody thought we were crazy for launching right into six packs and trying to get distributed, but that crazy mentality got us where we are today.”
Do you think it was the six packs that initially spread the word of Hi-Wire the most?
– “Yeah. It set us apart. There’s already so many breweries in Asheville. Tap space is a premium in town and it’s a very competitive tap scene, but everybody’s got shelf space. Everybody’s got cooler space. To be able to get into restaurants that didn’t have big draft systems and to be able to put your beer in gas stations and places like that… the reach is much broader than if you’re just trying to sell it, keg by keg. It’s just a good way to spread the name. Really, the artwork drove that, as well. We put a lot into the hand-drawn art. We had a great artist who did all of the original labels and obviously we’ve got the circus theme. It’s something people can cling onto and that really helped getting us planted into the scene.”
How did the company decide on the circus theme?
– “It’s a mystery. I remember some of the meetings, chatting what our general ideas were for the brewery. Really, somebody threw out the name ‘Hi-Wire’ and then we started going down the road of, ‘What could we do with a circus theme?’ We didn’t want to completely pigeon-hole ourselves to where we can’t name a beer something else, but we wanted to keep a general theme. It helped the brand, immensely. Now we’ve got Death Defying Spring Ale and things like that. We’re stretching for circus themes, these days, and we’ve stepped back from them with Twice As Nice Doppelbock. It works, basically. The push-pull that we had going, between doing the theme and then pulling back from the theme helped us.”
Please tell me a little about your flagship beers.
– “We have four year-round flagships: The Hi-Wire Lager, Prime-Time Pale Ale, Hi-Pitch IPA and Bed of Nails Brown. We’ve always brewed four ale seasonals and this year we introduced another four lager seasonals. So, we have two seasonal programs going, which is real exciting, for me, as a brewer. We started with the Oktoberfest this year. We got a great response, but we didn’t make a ton of it — we made one 90-barrel fermentor of it — and it was gone before I was ready to stop drinking it. That’s usually a good sign. Our Doppelbock came out and it’s gotten a great reception. Next up is a Baltic Porter that’s been aging for eight weeks. After that, we’re doing our first IPL, which we did two test batches of last year and landed on a couple of cool, new German hop aroma varieties. It’s basically a Vienna-lager base, then we’re going dry hop it. A lot of late-addition hops really drive the aroma home.”
“We also have a series called our Hop Circus. The first one I did was the Single Hop Simcoe Session Pale Ale. I really, really liked it. It was a super-smooth, drinkable hop bomb. That led into what the next ones became. We did one with Azacca and El Dorado hops. That had a really fun stone fruit-passion fruit profile to it. The next one will come out in January: A white IPA with passion fruit. We’re going to really drive the hops toward the passion fruit.”
How would you describe the craft-beer scene of Asheville, North Carolina?
– “It’s obviously grown up, quite a bit, in the time I’ve been here, but it’s been a growing thing, for years. It’s the reason I moved to Asheville. There’s such a range of different breweries, different mentalities here. The best part of the Asheville beer scene is the camaraderie amongst us. It’s probably the only city on the East Coast, where you can run out of a hop, drive 10 minutes and pick up a box from your buddy. Nobody seems to be at each other’s throat. It’s a really good vibe in the beer scene, here, and then you start tacking on the big guys — Sierra Nevada and New Belgium — but they’ve totally embraced that mentality, where they’re helping the local beer scene continue to grow and continue to get better at what we’re doing. The community continues to move in the right direction, which is what keeps someone like me, happy with it. If it was dog eat dog and you had 15 breweries in a tiny town, like this, it wouldn’t be any fun at all… it would be like a war. The way that it works out, I’ve got good friends at just about every brewery in town. That makes it a lot of fun.”
Is the beer scene thriving?
– “Yeah. There’s more breweries opening all the time. The way that Asheville, western North Carolina and even Eastern Tennessee has accepted this kind of beer movement, there’s room for more breweries, especially for quality beer. I don’t think anybody’s going to survive making bad beer, but, at the same time, there’s plenty of room for good beer in town. We have good friends who are about to open up a spot, South of here. I know they’re going to kill it because they make excellent beer. Everybody’s got their own niche. That’s been the nice thing. Nobody’s come in and tried to bulldoze anybody else.”
What does Hi-Wire mean to you?
– “Personally, it’s an outlet for creativity, but the most important thing that’s happened with this company, in my mind, is that we’re very quality focused. I got into this industry through science… that’s what got me into beer. We really put a lot into maintaining quality and trying to improve quality, all the time. We have really great staff and we’re all like-minded. The end-goal is to constantly be better at what we do. That’s my favorite thing about being a part of this company. I’ve worked at other places where that’s definitely not the case and I’m very happy that’s our driving force.”
Have you ever visited Nashville?
– “Yeah. Just once, for the Music City Brewer’s Festival three years ago. When I worked at another brewery, Nashville was always a great market. Beer drinkers there have always been into trying new things. We sent some really weird beers out there that people really dug. It’s a really cool city. I’ve really been pushing for Hi-Wire to move to Tennessee as our first expansion of territory. The owners really got on-board with it and we’re really excited to be a part of what’s going on, out there.”
Hi-Wire Brewing is now distributed in Tennessee.
– “We just launched a month go, so it’s been kind of a slow roll. We’re with Lipman Brothers and they’re excellent. They’re really great to work with. We’ve hired a sales rep who’s based out of Nashville and she’s spearheading everything. We’ve already got pint nights lined up everywhere. Over the next three or four months, you’re going to see a lot more of Hi-Wire.”
Will Hi-Wire be canning its beer any time soon?
– “For me, as the brewer, it’s a back burner thing. I would love to be able to drink our lager out of a can. To go out into the woods or on the river, taking a 12-pack and not worry about breaking a bottle in your bag sounds great to me. We just put so much into what we started here… we’re probably going to do a tank expansion in the near future and when we start adding barrelage, we’ll need an outlet for that volume. That’ll probably be the next step, in late ’16 or early ’17.”
What does 2016 bring for Hi-Wire Brewing?
– “Hopefully, a little span of sanity, for us, in the brewery. We’ve been growing at this exponential rate for the last two and a half years. It’s been crazy. I think we’re all ready to do what we do and do it well, maybe give ourselves a little break before the next big expansion. Really, we want to improve on quality. That’s always our goal and that’s what makes this job fun, knowing that you can always do it better. Basically, I’d like to start working on some beers for a few years from now: I’d like to start a sour program. How to execute that and what’s the best way to go about it is next on my plate. I want it to be a small, very organic thing. It’s not going to be a huge marketing mechanism. We won’t make a ton of it, every year, but it’ll be available. We’ll probably do a few batches that are more widely distributed, but for now, we’re kind of messing around with different strains and trying to hone in what our program will be.”
Are there any upcoming events that Hi-Wire is scheduled to attend?
– “I think Winter Warmer is the next one, coming up in January. It’s always a good time. People tend to pour it on heavy, for Winter Warmer. It’s a good one to check out. We’ll have some 9 and 10 percent beers there, to get you through the winter.”