Oftentimes a name can convey quite a bit about a brewery: When we visited the Hi-Wire Brewing Co.’s 27,000-square-foot Big Top production facility in Asheville, North Carolina earlier this month, we discovered a place that embodies its brand on multiple levels, from the beer it produces to the people it employs.
“Highwire walkers are part of a circus; they’re a circus act,” Hi-Wire cofounder Chris Frosaker says when I ask him why he chose the name. “Circuses are traditionally fun and lighthearted; beer is supposed to be fun and lighthearted. A lot of breweries take themselves really seriously, and while we take our brewing process really seriously, it’s really just a bunch of goofballs having a good time. Asheville’s also kind of a circus, so it’s a bit of an homage to Asheville. And a tightrope walker is a bit of a balancing act. So coming in and balancing that, being happy in life, being successful, while also doing something you love, keeping all your employees happy. It’s a little metaphorical, but there it is.”
As we toured the facility and talked more about Hi-Wire’s history, we found this idea of balance and equilibrium all over the place, from the beers the brewery produces to the people who work there.
Hi-Wire’s commitment to lagers was in place from the very start, says co-founder Chris Frosaker. This isn’t a throwaway idea for a brewery that does close to 95 percent of its sales via distribution; lagers take longer to make than ales and can be more difficult to get right. While Frosaker calls Hi-Wire’s Lager the brewery’s flagship, it’s also the brewery’s third- or fourth-best-selling beer at any given time. (The top-sellers are Hi-Pitch, a Mosaic-hopped IPA, followed by the Bed of Nails brown ale.)
“It’s a slow burn,” Frosaker says. “We still sell a ton of IPAs. But the people who find our lager and really know what that means and appreciate it really really love it. It takes a while for people to discover it.”
Even so, the brewery has doubled down on lagers. Along with the flagship Lager, Hi-Wire produces a seasonal lager series to correspond with its seasonal ales.
“A lot of breweries will focus on one seasonal at a time; we have two seasonals, an ale seasonal and a lager seasonal. I think it’s awesome: A doppelbock in the winter, a Baltic porter in the spring, then a dry-hopped lager for the summer seasonal, and an Oktoberfest, which we won gold with at GABF last year.”
Head brewer Luke Holgate/Specialty brewer John Parks
Head brewer Luke Holgate was Hi-Wire’s first employee, hired from the now-defunct Craggie Brewing Co.; Hi-Wire took over Craggie’s equipment and brewery space in Asheville’s South Slope neighborhood in early 2013. Most of the brewery’s production beers are Holgate’s recipes, and the lager program is his baby. He’s also, according to Frosaker, a big nerd.
“He’s very analytical,” Frosaker says. “He has a degree in biochemistry, and he’s just extremely detail-oriented.”
John Parks, Hi-Wire’s specialty brewer, is the opposite. “He’s the guy who can’t stay organized, but he’s just a genius,” Frosaker says. “The two of them are very different, but their coming together has created something unique and special.”
Clean-fermented beers/Wild Ales
Introducing wild yeast and bacteria into a space that also house clean-fermenting beers is always a risky maneuver. But where’s the excitement if the tightrope walker is only six inches off the ground?
Hi-Wire converted its original South Slope brewery into a bacterial fermentation space and, after about a year of brewing, blending and waiting, officially launched the Sour & Wild Ale Program in November with the release of Wild Rye IPA and the red wine-barrel-aged Sour Blonde Ale.
“We’re lucky enough to have two breweries, so it was a natural fit. We didn’t have to try to force it into our production space and worry about cross-contamination,” Frosaker says. “The sours and wild ales are still a small percentage of what we do, and the word really hasn’t gotten out yet about it. The people who’ve tried it seem to really like and respect it, but it’s not an internet sensation yet. And I kind of like it that way. We’re a little under the radar. People who know, know it’s good.”