The movies have the Academy Awards. Music has the Grammys. And for craft brewing, few honors are as prestigious as the Brewers Association Recognition Award for outstanding contributions to the industry.
Now the rare honor comes to Asheville and local beer pioneer Oscar Wong, who in 1994 founded Highland Brewing Co., the city’s first craft brewery.
Only 33 other men and women worldwide have been given the award, which goes “to individuals whose inspiration, enthusiasm and support have contributed to the craft brewing movement.”
Past recipients include New Belgium Brewing Co. co-founder Kim Jordan; Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. founder Ken Grossman; Fritz Maytag of Anchor Brewing Co.; Sam Calagione, president of Dogfish Head Brewery; and the late noted British beer writer Michael Jackson. The Brewers Association represents the nation’s more than 8,000 craft breweries.
The opening of Highland Brewing set in motion the craft beer industry in Buncombe County. There are now nearly 40 breweries of various sizes here and twice that number around Western North Carolina. Sierra Nevada, New Belgium and Oskar Blues Brewery all opened East Coast production breweries in the region, and the area is now known as the Eastern U.S. craft beer capital.
Wong says he was “stunned” to learn of the award. “I was taken aback. We were just in the right place at the right time,” he says, noting that he opened the brewery as a “retirement project to keep busy” after selling his engineering company. “My thought was there would [eventually] be two or three breweries in Asheville. I had no idea what would transpire,” he says.
The news equally surprised his daughter Leah Wong Ashburn, who is now the brewery’s president. “I knew how incredible this award is,” she says. “I knew he was joining only 33 other people in the world. It’s a very big deal.”
Her father “has always been very humble,” she says. “Everyone who knows him knows that about him. He has always tried to do something meaningful rather than to be someone important. I have learned so much from him.”
The Asheville Brewers Alliance sent along its congratulations to Wong as well. The alliance represents local craft breweries and beer-related businesses.
“He is a true pioneer of Asheville’s craft beer scene,” the ABA says in a statement. “We are grateful for his and Highland’s commitment to quality and community.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, there will not be a public presentation of the awards. But there is a video on YouTube of Wong Ashburn informing her shocked father of the honor.