Brewing Up A Storm: Creating the Hi-Wire Label

| By Anita Riley |

There’s no question that labels matter when it comes to craft beer. Just walk the aisles of your favorite package store and take a good look at the variety of container formats and the images on them. As a beer buyer, I look at beer for hours each day. It’s like being the curator of my own gallery. I’m always fascinated by the creative genius that is required to bring these labels to life. I decided to peel back the label and take a closer look at one of the most art-centric, creative brands in Western North Carolina, Hi-Wire Brewing. It turns out that behind each Hi-Wire label there is not just one but two amazing women!

Abby Dickinson

Abby Dickinson

“The beer label is the new record cover,” says Abby Dickinson, who joined the circus as Marketing Director for Hi-Wire Brewing in February, after leaving Wicked Weed Brewing that she had helped open. Hi-Wire has recently completed a major expansion project called The Big Top in Biltmore Village that will allow for more bottles and kegs of Hi-Wire beer to go further in the market than ever before. That means some people are seeing Hi-Wire for the first time in their local bottle shops or grocery stores. Dickinson explains the importance of the label art.

“You have to find a way to stand out on the shelf. Your artwork has to communicate who you are as a company and create an experience for the customer where and when they are first introduced to it.” For Hi-Wire, that means a quick glance at their six-pack containers or bottle labels has to convey they are, in Dickinson’s words, “Light hearted and not taking ourselves too seriously. We aren’t the beer snobs; we are the craft beer enjoyers. We make approachable ales and lagers in Asheville, NC, which can be something of a circus town.”

No pressure. When Hi-Wire set out to find an artist to bring their vintage circus brand to life, they came across Charlotte Oden of Wilmington, NC through her website. A Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) trained, mixed media artist, Oden was already drawn to and working with the vintage circus theme. Having double majored in Illustration and fashion design, Oden says that character design is a large part of her work, which includes costumes and graphics for film and television, book and magazine illustrations, and freelance shows. She loves to make up characters and bring their personalities and stories to the viewer through her art. Currently working in the costume department on a television pilot called Good Behavior, she keeps a studio space in downtown Wilmington to work on mixed media projects, including the Hi-Wire labels.

On October 16th, she opened a show that included some of the original artwork for beer labels, among other works at Bottega art and wine bar in Wilmington. She recounts a project she did in school called Art for Wine Bottles, about walking through a local package store with a friend waxing about how fun it would be to design beer labels. When Hi-Wire contacted her, there was no hesitation. Even amid Oden’s already hectic work life, she is able to work quickly and allow the process to flow smoothly.

“The beer always comes first,” says Abby Dickinson. The process usually takes about three months from concept to completion, but the artwork is only a fraction of that time. “The brewers identify a style or recipe they want to add to the lineup. I have them planning in October what they want to be bottled in January. They decide on the beer, then a concept that fits into our vintage circus brand.” This information is then sent to the artist. “Then we step back and give her free range to bring the label to life. Part of the creative process is letting go and allowing [Oden] to explore her craft, also,” Dickinson says.

Artist Charlotte Oden

Artist Charlotte Oden

All the artwork Hi-Wire uses in their branding is created specifically for them in this way. Sometimes Oden gets involved with assigning a character to the beer, but usually there is already a concept for the character. Sometimes there’s even a name already picked out for the beer. At this point, Oden gets to work producing sketches. “I work pretty fast. I keep a list of circus acts for inspiration. Sometimes I already have an image in mind for a character because it’s been on my list for a while. I produce a lot of sketches, even though I may only show a few to Hi-Wire.”

From these initial sketches, Dickinson and the owners choose one, and a larger version is created. Oden works mostly with inks and water color for these large scale images, but will often combine other painting techniques, surfaces, or the use of fabrics. These pieces are then scanned into a computer for final editing. The entire art development process takes about two weeks, but Oden puts in only about twelve hours creative time into each label. The rest of the time is spent in communication, planning, and approval.

“While the art work is being finalized, we are busy at work developing the tasting notes and aroma descriptions. Then it goes to designers to put together as a label. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has to approve the label. Once that’s done, we can go to printing,” explains Dickinson.

I wanted to know what it is like for Abby Dickinson as a woman in a male dominated industry. “Craft beer is still 75% men and only 25% women. When you go to the big conferences like the CBC or the GABF, you have to be comfortable as a woman. You have to know twice as much as your male counterparts or you will be discounted by them. But, there’s definitely an advantage if you can turn that around and show that you know what you’re talking about. Then there’s a perking up that happens, and the guys start paying attention to what you have to say.”

She also points out that by and large women are not being marketed to by the craft beer industry. Which begged the question: Does having a female artist help reach a female audience? “I showed some of my artwork that I had in mind for Hi-Wire to some people at my local bar, and the consensus there was, ‘It doesn’t look like beer,’ or that it was too feminine. But when I do shows I sign my artwork as Char. Then I hear that people are surprised that I’m a woman. They assume by the artwork that I’m a guy.”

I asked Oden about her goals for the future. “I want to do more with clothing. I’d like to develop fabric patterns and do more graphics for clothes. I’d like to illustrate a children’s book and a graphic novel for teens. I’d like to work in more markets, including more work in Asheville. I want to keep moving forward, making new art, and working in different styles.”

When asked if she had any business advice for other artists, she replied, “Be working in and pursue as many directions as possible,” she said. “Send postcards with your artwork on it to as many people as possible. Keep it in front of them, and you’ll get more work.”

Anita Riley is Certified Beer Server Cicerone and a student of Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation at AB Tech’s Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast. She is the Beer Buyer for Metro Wines, and hosts a variety of beer tasting events at the shop. You can find her blog Brewing Up a Storm, which focuses on women in the beer industry at Anita is a Western North Carolina native.

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