Much has changed in Asheville since Highland Brewing Co. started making beer in the basement of Barley’s Taproom 25 years ago. Today, founder and current Vice President Oscar Wong is amazed that the local industry has grown to over 30 breweries within the city, especially since he originally thought it would top out at two or three such establishments.
But as the Asheville market has expanded, Highland has remained at its forefront and will celebrate its silver anniversary on Friday and Saturday, May 3-4, at its East Asheville property with many of the area supporters who’ve been crucial to the brewery’s longevity.
Highland’s “single greatest accomplishment is the connection with the community. I was quite proud of the town to begin with, and I wanted the town to be proud of us,” Wong says. “Right close to that … is how our staff has grown, matured and how they feel about their time here. The ones who have moved on to other jobs and different professions all keep in touch, and they come back, and I feel good about that. They all felt like this is a special place for them.”
As for the key to Highland’s sustained success for a quarter century, Wong says it’s due to following three principles from the very beginning: quality in its products and operations; integrity in dealings with suppliers, customers and throughout the staff; and respect for everyone, including oneself. He also points to Skyland Distributing Co. as crucial in spreading Highland products to local restaurants, bars and grocery stores, plus the substantial role that current Xpress contributor Tony Kiss played in providing exposure from the brewery’s inception while reporting for the Asheville Citizen Times.
Still, persevering wasn’t easy. “Being the first one, we kind of took more slings and arrows than most. Pioneers get shot at more often, and that’s where we were,” Wong says. “[New local breweries] came along, and we were glad to work with them and help because the thing I felt strongly about, and still do, is that weak players hurt the whole industry. The craft brewing family needs to be strong because if you have some poor players, it just reflects on the whole industry.”
For the anniversary celebrations, Wong is looking forward to Highland tapping 25 small-batch and barrel-aged beers, including three new packaged products. He’s most excited about Rustic IPA (5.8% ABV), created in collaboration with Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., a brewery he calls “the grandaddy of them all” and “very good neighbors.”
Trace Redmond, Highland’s research and development brewer, created the beer with Matt Rozich, Sierra Nevada’s pilot brewer. Redmond views the collaboration as a representation of family and tradition in that it unites not only family-owned, independent breweries, but also suppliers such as Riverbend Malt House, Crosby Hop Farms, Roy Farms, CLS Farms and Briess Malting, the last of which he notes is Highland’s longest-standing professional relationship.
Also debuting is Slow Crush (5% ABV), which will join the brewery’s year-round lineup. The tart spritz ale was inspired by the Aperol spritz cocktail and features gentian root and cinchona bark sourced by Asheville’s Spicewalla. Another new release will be Silver & Steel, a 12.8% ABV imperial stout made with cocoa nibs, coffee, coconut and vanilla. Redmond calls the brewery’s first packaged barrel-aged beer “deceptively smooth.”
These and other fresh, innovative products have Wong optimistic about Highland’s future. He hopes the brewery will remain independent, and though he’s not looking to sell and thinks “the slowdown in the whole industry” would discourage any such offers, should a company pitch an obscene amount of money, he says the proposal would be considered. But those considerations and others are in the hands of his daughter, President/CEO Leah Wong Ashburn, whose values and business practices, thankfully, align with her father’s.
“My goal for Highland is to be a bold company that is rooted in authenticity,” Wong Ashburn says. “We should be challenged and even intrigued by our own work because we’re creating a path. And it is challenging, with 7,300 breweries in the country and daily changes in our industry. But we have an energized and dedicated team that keeps getting stronger, our hilltop property where we can do so much more, an amazing home city — and then there’s our beer. We are reaching further than ever before in quality and innovation. It’s exciting to be a heritage brewery, facing fully forward.”
The Carolina Beer Guy column is on a brief hiatus as writer Tony Kiss recuperates from some health issues. Look for its return early this summer.