BEER SCOUT: Highland turns 20

20/20 VISION: Leah Wong Ashburn, daughter of Highland Brewery founder Oscar Wong, Leah Wong Ashburn shows off Highland's new packaging, which is hitting stores now for the company's 20th anniversary. The brewery will also celebrate by offering 20 special beers, including brand-new recipes by Highland brewers. Photo by Alicia Funderburk
20/20 VISION: Leah Wong Ashburn, daughter of Highland Brewery founder Oscar Wong, Leah Wong Ashburn shows off Highland's new packaging, which is hitting stores now for the company's 20th anniversary. The brewery will also celebrate by offering 20 special beers, including brand-new recipes by Highland brewers. Photo by Alicia Funderburk

Raise a glass to the father of Asheville craft beer. When Highland Brewing Co. opened in 1994, North Carolina had all of 10 breweries; now there are more than 100. And when Gov. Pat McCrory signed the proclamation for North Carolina Beer Month, which begins April 1, we’d just cracked the list of the top 10 states for craft breweries.

“When Highland started, we just wanted to be the hometown brewery — you know, like the European model, where you walk into town and go to the brewery,” says Highland’s vice president, Leah Wong Ashburn, the daughter of founder Oscar Wong.

“But Asheville reacted so well to us and to our beer. We’ve been growing every year, and now here we are at our 20th anniversary this April!”

Starting with quality

Back in 1994, nobody knew what to expect from Asheville’s first brewery. If Highland hadn’t delivered very good beer, it wouldn’t have survived — much less paved the way for today’s thriving beer culture.

Oscar Wong understood that. “My dad was committed to making high-quality beer before we even opened,” says Ashburn. “We actually dumped our first three batches before we served a single beer in Asheville.”

To this day, beer drinkers throughout the Southeast know exactly what they’re getting when they order a Gaelic or an Oatmeal Porter. Yet according to Ashburn, the company’s solid reputation has led to something unexpected: Its seasonal beers are now Highland’s No. 2 seller, after Gaelic. “Our customers drive what we make,” she explains. “Their demand for beers like Little Hump and Thunderstruck has grown so fast, we’re now doing five seasonals a year, even though there are only four seasons.”

Over the years, Highland has released many iconic beers — rare sours, one-off imperial ales and, of course, the many editions of Cold Mountain. So as part of the 20th anniversary celebration, the company plans to highlight creativity past and present with 20 beers for 20 years. “Three beers will be collaborations with Asheville’s three other [longtime] breweries [French Broad, Green Man and Wedge], and we’ll brew 10 we’ve brewed before,” notes Ashburn. “But every one of our brewers will also design and release a brand-new recipe.”

The first four brews, including the signature 20th Anniversary Scotch Ale, will be available at a big blowout Saturday, April 19, from 2-9 p.m. The “Plaid Party,” says Ashburn, will be a supersize version of its 15th anniversary bash: great live music, delicious beer you can’t get anywhere else and a party that lasts all day.

Giving back

Quality aside, Ashburn also credits her father with building a company culture that makes giving back to the community a high priority.

Every seasonal beer gets a release party at the brewery that benefits the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. But this year, Highland is taking things to the next level, hosting the nonprofit’s 40th anniversary party at the brewery Thursday, May 15, with a special Elevation Ale brewed just for the event.

Highland also partners with the local Adopt-A-Stream program and MANNA FoodBank while offering support to countless local nonprofits both in and outside the tasting room. “Our hope is that we’ll remain a real sense of pride for Asheville no matter how far we distribute, not only for our beer but for how we operate — how we fit into the bigger picture,” Ashburn explains.

To that end, the company is hosting Night Flight, its first charity race, as part of the 20th anniversary festivities. On Saturday, July 12, Highland will partner with the city of Asheville and the Asheville Parks & Greenways Foundation to present a four-mile nighttime race ending with pints at the brewery, served in glowing glasses (for more information or to register, visit highlandbrewing.com).

Expanding in Asheville

Beyond the celebrations, there’s another reason 2014 is a big year for Highland: If all goes as planned, the company will be breaking ground on a $6.5 million expansion. The main goal will be to double annual capacity from about 32,000 to 64,000 barrels. But it will also mean more jobs at its Old Charlotte Highway location, notes Ashburn.

In addition, the brewery plans to continue improving the taproom and meadow, a popular East Asheville hangout. “The kids might be sorry to hear it, but the meadow has already been graded and sodded for this spring and summer, so no big mud puddles this year,” she reports.

“Seriously, though, we love that we have great beer and live music, but it’s so family-friendly. We like that everyone can come here and feel comfortable. We want to build on that, to always be a place people love. We still want to be a hometown brewery.”

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About Thom O'Hearn
Thom O'Hearn covers beer and brewery news for Mountain Xpress.

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