Highland Brewing turns 30

MAKING HISTORY: Leah Wong Ashburn, left, and Oscar Wong have steered Highland Brewing Co. for a combined 30 years. Photo by Will Crooks

Oscar Wong’s activities in 1994 are the stuff of Asheville legend.

In a rented, 12,000-square-foot basement space below Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria in downtown Asheville, the retired engineer launched Highland Brewing Co. with head brewer John McDermott, producing craft beer on a system primarily made from retrofitted dairy equipment. There, they created such beverages as Celtic Ale (later Gaelic Ale), St. Terese’s Pale Ale and Oatmeal Porter, which were served upstairs at Barley’s and bottled by hand for local distribution.

But what was his daughter, current Highland President/CEO Leah Wong Ashburn, up to back then?

“I was two years out of college, working at a print shop in Charlotte as a graphic design typesetter,” she says, sitting next to her father in a conference room at the Highland offices. “And I liked it — I always liked design. And I remember I was sort of the social chair for the staff at this little print shop because there were probably six of us that were around the same age, so we started doing a lot of fun stuff together.”

And while she was settling into life as an independent adult, what did she think of her father starting a brewery in a city that had no such operations?

“It was Dad’s second business, so it didn’t surprise me that he started something. This one was particularly cool — cooler than an engineering company, to a 24-year-old,” she says, turning to face her father. “But I really had no concept of how tricky it was: how long it took to get the permits and how many conversations were had with city [of Asheville] folks and [Buncombe] county folks about utilities and being in this old basement. I’m sure I just know a sliver of it, but it took longer than you intended to get it off the ground.”

Wong replies, “It did — and it took eight years to break even,” cracking one of his iconic smiles. “Your mother did think I was a pretty smart guy when I was an engineer. But I lost credibility when I got into this.”

These humorous recollections and other memories are on Wong’s and Wong Ashburn’s minds this year as Asheville’s longest-running brewery celebrates its 30th anniversary. Before the weeklong festivities, which run through Sunday, May 5, the father-daughter team sat down with Xpress to reminisce about the past three decades and look ahead — well, maybe not another 30 years, but certainly with an eye toward continued success.

Predictably unpredictable

Today, Gaelic Ale can be found in nearly every area taproom, grocery store and even most gas stations. And considering how IPAs have come to dominate the craft beer industry, it’s all the more remarkable that such an unusual style helped put Asheville on the map.

Wong and McDermott liked the balanced flavor of the English brown ale base but didn’t know the creation would be “it” as far as a flagship brew went. Wong says that status came along more naturally and actually dawned on him a few years into Highland’s run when he was ready to try new things and possibly take the brewery in a different direction.

“But I changed my mind when I visited New Belgium [Brewing Co. in Fort Collins, Colo., circa 2000]. They said, ‘Fat Tire [Amber Ale] is 87% of our business.’ At the time, Gaelic Ale was two-thirds, maybe just over 50% of ours. And I thought, ‘Don’t shy away from it. If that’s what drives your boat, go with it,’” he recalls.

“So I came back with the idea that this is our champ, but let’s be open. I think we were slow to go over to IPAs — but it’s OK. You live and learn. If you don’t adapt to what your customer is looking for, after a while you’ll wonder, ‘Where’d they go?’”

That mix of consistency and innovation has proved key to Highland’s sustained operations in an ever-changing industry. Wong notes that the Gaelic Ale of today “is no doubt different from what it was.” His memory of the initial Celtic Ale is a brew that was “a lot more citrusy,” and views the current iteration — which he describes as “a lot smoother than it’s ever been” — as evidence of minute upgrades over time that have been all but invisible. One notable exception is the popular Cold Mountain Winter Ale, which intentionally evolves slightly from year to year with different ingredients.

“Once in a while, something new pops up where we touch it. But we rely on our brewers,” Wong says. “We give them guidelines: You can’t change it. You can tweak it, you can improve it, but it better be fine so that you might go three years down the road and it be fairly different, but you can’t tell. We don’t change stuff like that. We go with new stuff.”

Growing gains

Having maxed out brewing capacity at its downtown basement, Highland moved to East Asheville in 2006, taking over the former home of Blue Ridge Motion Picture Studios. The brewery bought the entire 40-acre property and gradually added more building space, renovating the industrial structures that had trees growing through the floor, as well as copious mold, asbestos and an indoor lake in what’s now the packaging area.

“We’re trying to get pictures together [for the 30th anniversary celebrations],” Wong Ashburn says. “We still have some of how bad it was in this building because our own staff doesn’t even know.”

THE GOOD OLD DAYS: Oscar Wong, left, hand bottles beer in the mid-1990s at Highland Brewing Co.’s original home in a basement space below Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria. Photo courtesy of Highland Brewing Co.

The expansion might not have happened without a largely forgotten piece of Highland history. Unsure if there was a market for the doubled brewing capacity that the East Asheville location offered, Wong contracted with Wild Goose Brewery in Frederick, Md., which produced roughly two-thirds of Highland’s bottled beer from 2004-06. During that time, Highland made and filled all kegs in Asheville, but the outside help allowed Wong to test the market without overextending the company’s resources.

“So when we moved in here, we were able to break even in the first year,” he says. “Most breweries can’t say that when they move to a new location. See, that’s more dangerous than starting out — that first move, because you can’t move incrementally. It isn’t worth it. So, we took a measured risk.”

Wong is quick to rattle off facts and figures from those early years but otherwise notes he isn’t much interested in revisiting the brewery’s past.

“I’m not a backward-looking guy. It was what it was. We worked hard to meet the quality and consistency as best we could. We’ve improved all that over the years and we continue to do that,” he says. “I’m a big one for moving on. You look around, and a lot of old farts like me are hanging on there — and [they] have no business hanging, and they don’t have a clue what’s coming up on the highway. And they get run over and they say, ‘What the hell happened?’”

The future is family

Not getting metaphorically flattened is part of why Wong Ashburn was brought in to succeed Wong as head of the brewery — though if she had her way, Highland would have been a true family business far earlier. Wong Ashburn made several attempts to join the company in the brewery’s first decade, including as a local beer seller, but Wong says he didn’t think it was the right thing for her to do at that time.

“In classic Wong approach, I didn’t say, ‘I would like to apply for a job,’” Wong Ashburn says. “I kind of gently nosed around, like, ‘I wonder what kind of opportunities there are?’ And, ‘How’s it going at the brewery?’ Things like that, and kind of got the message.”

She officially joined Highland in 2011 and became company president in 2015. Under her leadership, the brewery underwent a brand refresh in 2018, trading bagpipe-and-beer-toting Scotsman “Scott” for a crisp, clean, compasslike logo.

Her tenure has also overlapped with large enterprises such as Anheuser-Busch InBev and Kirin Holdings purchasing numerous smaller craft breweries. Wong and Wong Ashburn confirm that Highland has indeed fielded offers from so-called “Big Beer” and has received pitches to buy other breweries. Neither avenue is appealing to the Highland ownership team, and there’s also zero interest in establishing taprooms outside Asheville.

“That’s never been part of our culture,” says Wong, who’s stayed on as vice president. “We’re proud of Asheville, and we want Asheville to be proud of us. We’d hoped to be as integral to the area as possible. That was our goal — to just be a really good citizen and part of the community.”

In 2021, however, Highland made what Wong calls both a natural move, returning to its downtown roots with a taproom in the renovated S&W Market, and “kind of a defensive move.” He says that if they hadn’t taken the opportunity, fellow locally based, family-owned Ellington Realty Group would have partnered with another brewery.

Milestones aplenty

Rather than grow beyond their means, Wong Ashburn says Highland has focused on “making great beer” and staying in its four-state distribution footprint of the Carolinas, Georgia and Tennessee.

“I don’t see that changing anytime soon. The ‘deep versus wide’ [approach] has worked well for us,” she says. “We’ve invested in a smaller place and would rather be important and really part of what’s going on here versus less important in a greater space.”

That “here” has grown significantly, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic. Wong says the Highland team “dreamed about having a place that people would love coming to and relaxing,” and feels that the East Asheville property has become just that.

While the rooftop bar and events center were completed before 2020, the outdoor spaces now include popular volleyball, disc golf and cornhole areas. And with the move away from co-hosting large ticketed concerts with The Orange Peel — which now holds them at its Rabbit Rabbit venue in the South Slope — Highland’s grassy, tree-lined Meadow stays green and lush throughout the outdoor season.

CULT STATUS: Oscar Wong, left, and Leah Wong Ashburn celebrate the 2016 edition of Cold Mountain Winter Ale. The annual release has garnered a devoted following and evolved into a multiday celebration. Photo courtesy of Highland Brewing Co.

“The response to the activity has been awesome,” Wong Ashburn says. “This whole new layer of local folks that we get to have here — hearing them talk about what it means to them and how much time they spend here because they just want to be here and want to do the things that are happening here, it’s meant a whole lot.”

These spaces promise to be hopping on Saturday, May 4, for the brewery’s Big Bash celebration, during which multiple new beers will be available on draft, including OG Dub IPA, named in honor of Wong, and The Long Game tropical lager.

Also in the mix are four “throwback” releases from Highland’s past that are no longer in production: St. Terese’s Pale Ale, Little Hump Session IPA, Devil’s Britches Imperial Red Ale and Mandarina IPA.

“They might be modernized because we’re going to take that license and do what we think reflects people’s palates a little bit better,” Wong Ashburn says.

With the past and present aligning for a milestone accomplishment that’s a first for the Asheville craft beverage industry, it’s tough not to look to the future and wonder what’s in store. So, with three historic decades under its belt, is Highland already planning for another stretch of that magnitude?

“I can’t say that I have a 30-year vision, but it’s been so energizing to see what a rebrand can do and what developing our property has done and can still do,” Wong Ashburn says. “So there are other things yet to be unveiled. We have no commitments, but we’re looking constantly at other beverages. We’re not a ‘throw everything against the wall and see what sticks’ company. When we innovate, we do that with a lot of thought. So if something makes sense, then we’ll be open to it.”

To learn more, visit avl.mx/dll.


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About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for ashevillemovies.com and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

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3 thoughts on “Highland Brewing turns 30

  1. Chip Kaufmann

    I still miss the old Scotsman logo. The current one looks too much like the Houston Astros baseball team.

  2. Bright

    Is Ashburn an avid beer drinker? Rhetorical question…one wonders what her favorite beer style is.

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