It’s a well-known story in Asheville brewing lore that Oscar Wong started Highland Brewing in 1994 in the basement of Asheville’s Barley’s Taproom. But what’s really impressive is that the company is going stronger, and longer than, any other Asheville brewery — even after an incredible 25 years. In the world of craft breweries, that’s a very long time.
In the beginning
“The initial thought was that Asheville might support two to three local hometown breweries, and within one-an-a-half years of Highland starting there were three craft breweries,” Wong said.
Of course the movement took off, and now Asheville is known widely as “Beer City, USA,” boasting more than 30 craft breweries in the greater Asheville area and more than 60 in WNC.
Highland Brewing Company is a true entrepreneurial success story, founded by retired engineer Oscar Wong, and now led by his daughter, president Leah Wong Ashburn.
Many reasons to celebrate
Highland Brewing, the largest family-owned brewery in the Southeast, celebrated its 25 anniversary May 3 — 4, with a weekend of celebrations throughout the taproom, event center, roof-top bar and the Meadow — for craft beer enthusiasts and families, alike.
“The weekend of celebration is a big thank you to the community for 25 years of support,” said Ashburn. “Thanks to all who have raised a beer with us along the way.”
The festivities included exclusive beer releases, indoor and outdoor parties, music, opportunity to chat with Wong, Ashburn and the Highland folks, food from Sovereign Remedies, silver statue people roaming the parties and a Saturday full of children’s and family activities.
Party guests were beer-knowledgeable, and it must have been gratifying for Wong and Ashburn to know that Highland’s pioneering of the craft beer market has paid-off by creating discerning and appreciative customers.
Brewing has its challenges
Being the oldest and largest Asheville craft brewery has its continuing challenges.
“Highland’s track is a longer track than most area breweries,” Ashburn said. “We’ve had a lot of conversation about how to keep evolving. The challenge is to be ‘new,’ and keep up with beer drinkers’ evolving tastes, but also, to be authentic.”
In addition, in this day of nation-wide breweries gobbling up smaller craft breweries, there is the challenge of independence.
“While it’s necessary to be evolving, independence is a key element we treasure,” Wong said.
The brewery is known for its year-round beer line-up, including Gaelic Ale, AVL IPA, Daycation IPA and Starchaser White — plus seasonal favorites, such as Midnight Sun, Clawhammer Oktoberfest and Thunderstruck Coffee Porter. Highland’s uber-popular limited release, Cold Mountain Winter Ale, is a ‘get it before it’s gone’ must-have for craft beer aficionados.
Change can be revolutionary
Highland Brewing introduced an identity refresh in 2018 and launched a new visual identity for the brand — new logo, new packaging and a new taproom look.
The Scotsman logo was retired, a move that generated some debate among beer lovers.
“People over 60 lamented the logo change,” Wong said. “People ages 40 – 60, less so — and people below age 40 felt the change was clearly a better way.”
“We needed to have a fresher identity — to be more up-to-date and a forward-facing brewery,” Ashburn said. “It was scary, yet exciting to do something bold. The new logo is clear and iconic. It stands out when you go to the grocery.”
Highland celebrated its 25th anniversary milestone with a new release of Slow Crush, a refreshing tart spritz ale, unlike any other in Highland’s year-round portfolio.
Inspired by the popular Aperol spritz cocktail, Slow Crush, like the Italian aperitif, features all-natural ingredients, including gentian root, cinchona bark and hibiscus flowers.
“Highland R&D brewer Trace Redmond deconstructed the hottest cocktail of the year and brewed the refreshing taste of Slow Crush,” Ashburn said. “It has the beautiful color of sunset and the tartness of a spritz ale, making it great for summer.”
Also released on the 25th anniversary weekend was Rustic IPA, a collaboration with Sierra Nevada in Mills River.
Brian Grossman, Sierra Nevada Mills River family-owner and second-generation brewer, attended the brew’s mashing-in during March and came to the 25th anniversary party to show his support for Highland.
“When Sierra Nevada chose to build our second brewery in Asheville, Highland welcomed us with open arms,” Grossman said. “Being multigenerational, family-owned companies, we share similar values and experiences. We were proud to collaborate with Highland to brew a special beer to celebrate their 25th anniversary.”
The festivities also included release of Silver & Steel Imperial Stout, aged in Bourbon barrels for 18 and 24 months.
Wong said he feels Ashburn’s hiring (in Charlotte in 2011 and move to the Asheville brewery in 2013) is one of the most important highlights of Highland’s 25 years.
Under Ashburn’s leadership, Highland has remained ‘authentic,’ yet relevant for changing beer tastes.
“When I entered the business, Dad said, ‘make it yours,’” Ashburn said. “We’re always evolving.”
Ashburn is looking forward to more big things on the horizon. Walking trails will be developed on the Highland property, with the first trail to be completed this year. The brewery is also adding Asheville Bee Charmer beehives on the roof, in a further commitment to helping pollinators preserve the environment.
It’s clear the Highland Brewing crew includes people who invest in making Asheville better.
“We are proud of Asheville — and we wanted Asheville to be proud of us,” Wong said.
Cheers to Highland Brewing’s 25 years — and cheers to at least 25 more.
Highland Brewing’s beers are distributed in North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and parts of Virginia. Highland Brewing is at 12 Old Charlotte Hwy., Asheville. Free tours are offered seven days a week, and private tours can be arranged. For information, call 828-299-3370 or visit www.highlandbrewing.com.