Written by Jim Murphy | Photos by Anthony Harden
When Stephen Becker and Jerry Sewell assumed ownership of Asheville’s Big Bridge Design, they didn’t realize that they would soon become an integral force in the booming Western North Carolina alcohol industry.
This is not your father’s Bud.
The surge in craft breweries and the creativity of brewmasters has created a plethora of brands offering an overflow of flavors. Bryan Smith, manager of the Tasty Beverage Co. in Asheville, estimates his store carries about 300 brands, with no fewer than 800 flavors. Call it the beer shelf bottleneck.
All that variety leaves the shopper with a luxurious array of options—and a bewildering mass of choices. So, many shoppers simply make their buying decisions based on the beer’s label. As anyone who has recently perused the beer selection at their local shop or grocery store, those labels offer an amazing variety of colors, graphics, and themes. Compared to the Budweiser, Schlitz, and Pabst Blue Ribbon cans of yore, it’s like the difference between black-and-white television and color, or music recorded in monophonic versus stereo.
Are beer labels that important? A young woman, visiting from Richmond and shopping at Tasty Beverage, suppressed a giggle as she admitted, “Always.” Her preferred graphics? “Animals.” She began to turn red as she summed up, “I don’t think it’s smart; it’s just what works for me.”
A man from Fayetteville was more positive about his label choices. “Absolutely,” he said, with absolute conviction. And did it ever turn out to be a disaster? “Hey, we’re not talkin’ about buyin’ a car, we’re talkin’ about a beer. What the hell!”
Yes, the labels are important.
One of the companies producing those labels is Asheville-based Big Bridge Design, where co-owners Stephen Becker and Jerry Sewell focus their business on the alcohol industry, particularly beer.
Before they shifted from being a general-interest design firm, their clients included nonprofits and doctors, along with what Becker calls “a few breweries,” beginning with Green Man and then Hi-Wire. Now alcohol—beer, cider, and wine—accounts for about 80 percent of their business.
Sewell, who handles the business plan, explained why he began concentrating on breweries: “Since I’ve been in Asheville I’ve seen only one brewery fail. That was Craggy, and the reason that they failed—and I’m not afraid to say it—is they made horrible beer. You have to make good product, and these breweries in Asheville, they make the best beer in the country and in the world.”
But doesn’t a concentration on a single industry leave a lot of neglected opportunities? Becker disputes the notion. “We didn’t walk away from other clients,” he explains. “We just put a focus on the breweries. And because we put a focus on some breweries, we picked up other clients. It has caught people’s attention that we never realized we were going to.” He goes on to list a golf course, a bicycle component company, the city of Brevard, and a property management group as being among those clients.
On a steamy summer day, the business attire at Big Bridge runs to T-shirts, shorts, and sandals. The company works out of a 20-by-20 workspace in the RAMP Studios makers community on upper Riverside Drive. The design of their headquarters could be called “primitive indifferent.” A concrete floor and scant furniture set the theme, and the walls are bare save for a display of client beer logos. A shelf unit along the back wall holds several dozen beer cans—empty—showing examples of the many labels they have created, along with a number of unique beer tap handles. Over in one corner of the room they are building a complicated contraption called a CNCR (Becker explains the initials stand for “computer numerical control router”), and it will enable them to fabricate items such as the tap handles and signage. The hub of their design process is a back corner, where Becker and fellow designer Jacob Voigt stand at their computers, which sit on elevated tables. Mounted on the wall behind them hang three dry-erase whiteboards crammed with barely legible lists of things to do.
Big Bridge dates back to 2001, when founder Stephen Lutz started what Sewell says was “originally an old-school advertising firm. Usually print. That type of business was really outdated.” When the economy began to collapse in 2008, Big Bridge started taking on water and almost went under. “We weathered the economic storm, but barely,” Becker recalls. He joined the company during the down time in 2009, at a point when the company had given up its studio and was working from what he describes as a “virtual office.” Eventually, Sewell joined the firm in 2013, when the economy was gaining momentum—and, not insignificantly, when the Western North Carolina alcohol industry was also experiencing significant growth, with the regional brewery scene in particular starting to explode.
Business steadily improved, and he and Becker bought a majority interest the following year from Lutz (who remains a minority owner but does not take an active role in the day-to-day operations). They opened a small office on Eagle Street in downtown Asheville and, taking note of the business opportunities the area’s growing beer industry presented, began to specialize in beer, subsequently hiring Voigt as Art Director; Becker’s official title with the company, incidentally, is Creative Director, while Sewell’s is Director of Business Development. At the beginning of 2017 they moved to their present location in the RAMP Studios.
For Becker, the journey to Big Bridge began at Appalachian State, where he majored in graphic design. He worked for five years at a design firm in Durham, but eventually decided to relocate to Asheville because he already knew the area and, as he states simply, “It’s where we wanted to live.” Landing at Big Bridge while the economy was in the depths of recession, he hung on with the company until business began to pick up. Now, as both owner and designer, “I get pulled in a lot of different directions.” Combining his design and business responsibilities, he has evolved into what might be called an artpreneur. But does he miss full-time design? “Sometimes, but I’ve also been doing it a long time,” Becker says. “It’s still fun to dive in and work on projects, but I also like to step out and explore other avenues. Being involved with the different things we’re trying to do with the company allows me to do that without reinventing myself.”
Becker’s career path was straight and simple. Sewell’s was quite the opposite. He graduated from Louisiana University at Lafayette with a culinary arts degree then came to Asheville in 1999 to manage a restaurant—which folded. (“Not my fault,” he deadpans.) He and his wife decided to remain in Asheville, so he began exploring his options and ended up managing a print shop until 2013, when he got the opportunity to join Big Bridge. It was a year later that he and Becker bought the company.
“I had run a business for 12 years, so what I was bringing to the table was structure,” recalls Sewell. “When I came on they were just doing design and there was no real growth. So, in order for us to build the business and attract top designers like Jacob, we had to grow, and so we started focusing on the breweries. I brought over the same system that I used to get business in the print shop. It was more networking with printing and packaging guys, and that was a huge step forward for us.” The firm’s growth has been significant. “In craft beverage we have about 65 clients, representing thousands of products,” he says.
Voigt picks up the thought. “Hi-Wire brewery gives us a different can or label almost every week,” he says. “They need new designs for different series they have coming out: their sour series, specialty cans, their small batch. Their [account] is really fun to work on.”
He joined Big Bridge as a freelancer in 2014 and moved into full-time status the following year. The business was growing, and client demands were becoming too much for Becker to handle alone. A native of Asheville, Voigt had graduated from Appalachian State with a degree in commercial design. “Took many of the same courses as Stephen,” he says. He returned to Asheville, hoping to make a career in his hometown. Watching him work alongside Becker, it appears he has found a professional home as well.
Designs On Beer
As designers, Becker and Voigt describe a process that is loose and lively. But within their creations, they must remain aware of technical realities that could affect their design options. For instance, beer can labels are produced in three categories: shrink-wrap sleeves, pressure-sensitive labels, and pre-printed cans. Each of those categories imposes technical considerations that set it apart from the others. The designer has to keep those technical tidbits in mind. He also has to make room in his design for the mandatory government notices (such as alcohol content) that must be included on a label.
Big Bridge’s client base has grown steadily, to the point that in addition to Becker and Voigt creating designs, the company also employs freelancers for some of the work.
“The breweries fuel a lot of really good design,” Sewell says. “And it also creates work for some artists in town. We work with tattoo artists and illustrators.” Becker adds, confidently, “We’re picking people who are extremely talented.”
To initiate the design process, a freelancer usually presents a pen or pencil sketch, which serves as the launching point for Becker and Voigt to go to work at their computers. As an example, Becker offered a recent label for Hi-Pitch Mosaic IPA.
“We sat down around a table,” he says, “and concepted with the owners and the illustrator [then] sent her running to create an initial sketch.” The illustrator came back with an image of a hippopotamus roaring into a megaphone in front of color panels that suggested a mosaic. The final label was bright, colorful, and whimsical.
“The design often begins with the name of the particular product,” Becker continues. “Mosaic is the name of a hop. She took it from there.”
He recalls working with Hi-Wire Brewing, one of their original brewery clients. “With Hi-Wire we sat around a conference table in our small office on Eagle Street and concepted out in one session all four of their flagships beers. So, five years later, we’re still using all of that original art, but it’s just gone through tons of different changes.”
Voigt picks up Becker’s train of thought. “One of the fun parts of working in this industry is that these are all creative people, and so they’ve got an idea of a look or a theme that they’re bringing to us that might be something we wouldn’t have thought of. When they start talking about that kind of stuff, the wheels start turning in our heads and we start seeing something that we might not have come up with on our own.”
Sewell, the business-minded partner, sums it up: “They’re passionate about beer; we’re passionate about design. It’s ultimately collaborative.”
Becker agrees, saying, “One thing very specific to this industry is the breweries take on the personality of the owner and head brewer, and you have to tailor things to that. It’s not my product—it’s theirs. We’re trying to be as authentic as possible to our clients.”
Becker’s interest in his clients has led him to get involved with the proposed North Carolina Craft Beer and Beverage Museum, where he is a member of the board of directors. “Being on the board allowed me the opportunity to create a logo that will shape the museum’s identity for years to come,” he says. “The logo is a playful exploration of glassware shapes specific to beverages that fall in the category known as craft.”
The museum is aiming for a location in Asheville. It is still several years away, but the plans include exhibits on the many elements of North Carolina’s history with alcoholic beverages. Of course, North Carolina beers will occupy a prominent role. The museum’s executive director, Kimberly Floyd, notes that at the moment they are “still in planning, and focusing on traveling exhibits as we look for a permanent space; the focus is education for locals, tourists, and industry professionals. Our goal is to co-locate with A-B Tech’s Craft Beverage Institute of the Southeast and offer exhibits, programs, workshops, and events that will look at the cultural, social, and economic history of our state, as well as the science behind our craft beverages.”
“It’s Fun as Hell”
Big Bridge now occupies a prominent role in the craft beer industry. It has grown from its “virtual office” days through that “small little office” on Eagle Street to a thriving design firm in a booming industry. So, what’s next?
Sewell has been giving that question some thought. “It’s easy now to get caught up in beer,” he muses, “but what I like to look at is just beverages. So, the same idea that’s worked well for us in the craft brewing industry, it’s starting to work for us in different areas. We’re picking up wineries, cider companies, and we’re going to pick up some more coffee companies, so we’re starting to branch off. Ideally, I would love it to be a third of our business in each category.”
Big Bridge has Big Plans for the future, but in the meantime, they are all enjoying their jobs day-to-day and cite, in particular, the uniquely creative, one-on-one nature of their current client relationships that perhaps wasn’t that prominent prior to the company’s conscious pivot to the regional alcohol industry.
“It’s just a great atmosphere,” Sewell says. “The people we work with are great. The breweries fuel a lot of really good design.” Becker picks up the thought, saying, “It’s collaborative in a way I’ve never seen as a designer.”
He sums up the high they get, not from the beer, but from the people they work with and the work itself: “It’s fun as hell.”
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