Carolina Beer Guy: Oscar Wong receives prestigious award

THE GODFATHER: Oscar Wong, founder of Highland Brewing Co., has been given the Recognition Award by the Brewers Association, which represents the nation's craft breweries. Only 33 others have ever earned the honor. Photo courtesy of Highland Brewing Co.

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.


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Tony Kiss
Tony Kiss covers brewing news for the Xpress. He has been reporting on the Carolina beer scene since 1994. He's also covered distilling and cider making and spent 30 years reporting on area entertainment. Follow me @BeerguyTK

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.