Signifiers

Perfecting the Present — Highland Brewing in Asheville, North Carolina

It all started with, “Close your eyes.”

Leah Wong Ashburn and members of her team at Asheville’s Highland Brewing Company were told to start envisioning what their business would become in five years. Open since 1994, Highland’s management knows how to talk about its past as the oldest post-Prohibition brewery in a location often referred to as “Beer City, USA.” But 20 years makes a lot of difference. Highland may be the grandfather of Asheville beer, but the city’s grandkids are getting loads of attention these days.

On a daily basis, crowds flock to Burial, Hi-Wire, and Wicked Weed, the latter a quickly growing, five-year-old must-stop where a packed taproom often causes lines to form outside in order to avoid violating fire code. That’s the kind of image Ashburn and others started forming in their mind. A mental barrier of about five miles separating downtown Asheville and Highland’s brewery and taproom crashing down. Fittingly, and perhaps finally, Highland would become the destination younger breweries had been for years.

“Being the first place in Asheville is nice,” says Ashburn, family owner and president. “But being the place you have to go to for a beer experience is the whole thing we’ve tried to build here.”

The story of Highland is well known in Asheville and can’t be avoided in conversations focused on the growth of the North Carolina beer industry, which now consists of about 200 breweries across the state. But for a brewery so ingrained in the past, it’s time to look toward the future.

For Ashburn and others, eyes are wide open.

In terms of historical narratives, Highland is a relatively young business. But in the context of American craft brewing history, its 23 years can seem almost ancient. In 1994, when Highland started making English-inspired beer in the basement of Asheville’s Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria, there were little more than 600 breweries in the country. (Today, there are more than 5,000.) It was the first such business to open in the mountain city since Prohibition and the third in the state.

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“There was a challenge in getting people to accept the beer,” says founder—and Leah’s father—Oscar Wong. “I even had a good friend of mine at a party say, ‘Oscar, you’re going to go broke trying to sell this shit.’ That was the biggest problem—to get people to accept craft beer. People thought it was too strong or too bitter or too heavy because they were used to light Lagers. I just told them it’ll take them time and that’s OK. I’ll be patient and I’ll be around.”

By today’s standards, let alone the brewing industry of the mid-’90s, Wong is an outlier. The Jamaican-born son of Chinese immigrants first came to the U.S. for college at Notre Dame. While brewing “barely drinkable beer” during the 1960s, he worked toward an engineering degree that led to a career dealing with nuclear waste. Beer had been a fun distraction to pass his time, but when he retired early and wound up in Asheville, he says he decided to start Highland as a “hobby” along with experienced brewers John McDermott and John Lyda.

I had a good friend of mine say, ‘Oscar, you’re going to go broke trying to sell this shit.
— Oscar Wong

On modified dairy tanks, the trio started producing batches of Celtic Ale, later renamed Gaelic Ale, an Amber featuring a burst of floral hop presence. It continues to be the company’s top-selling brand today. A Porter, Pale Ale, Stout, and English IPA were included in the British-inspired lineup, establishing a niche with local beer drinkers in an era when malt-focused brands and balance were key to success.

Four more breweries would open in Asheville over Highland’s first five years.

“Highland’s success means so much more than what people may actually see on the surface of Asheville becoming a hotspot of craft beer and innovation,” says Ben Teague, executive director of the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. “None of what exists today would be here without Oscar and Highland. Someone needed to take a risk to prove the fiscal reality of brewing in Western North Carolina, and he bet his retirement to show that the industry can survive and thrive here.”

Highland grew to 6,500 barrels by 2007, prompting a move from their basement home to a full-fledged production facility and taproom on the outskirts of Asheville. The brewery had gone well beyond Wong’s “hobby,” with distribution across North Carolina and into South Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia. At home, Highland was entrenched in the culture of Asheville.

“It’s a foundation brewery,” says John McCarley, manager at Asheville’s Bruisin’ Ales beer store, indicating the important role Highland played in making the city a hub for the beer industry.

But as the catalyst for so many new businesses, Highland started to get left behind as drinkers looked elsewhere. Having proven its ability to survive as a business, the brewery has a new challenge among Asheville’s many upstart breweries: share of mind.

“In our shop, it’s not that often people ask about Highland,” McCarley says. “People mostly want to talk about Wicked Weed.”

The handful of miles that connects downtown Asheville to Highland’s location on Old Charlotte Highway comes across as a metaphorical roadblock. It’s easy to get there from right off Interstate 240—just 10 minutes.

But place a pin in Asheville’s center and there’s a dozen breweries to visit within a mile radius. Expand that to the greater metro area and, according to the Chamber of Commerce, the concentration of all breweries is 7.5 times the national average. All of which is to say: people don’t have to leave downtown to find whatever they want when it comes to beer.

“We feel that we’re in a very good location, even though we’re outside the buzz,” Wong says. “But those things kind of ebb and flow. We don’t have any regrets being where we are. In many ways, we have our future in our own hands because we’re not leasing a space that could get out of hand in price. We bought the property and building and we’re investing in a facility to upgrade it regularly. Sometimes there’s a little twinge of, ‘Oh shoot, I wish…’ But we’re doing all right.”

Local residents and visitors have an abundance of riches when it comes to drinking in the city’s center, but a short drive to Highland offers colorful views of blue skies and nearby mountain ranges from the Pisgah National Forest and Appalachians. People drive longer distances out of town for the same experiences every day, and it doesn’t even come with a beer.

But that’s not the only challenge facing Highland.

“There’s a lot of gray hair in here on a Friday night,” Ashburn says. “More than you can find at other breweries. My dad was 54 when he started the brewery, so our initial audience probably skewed a bit older than a typical brewery when today’s founders are in their 30s.”

It’s a reality accepted by staff throughout Highland. Smart and steady growth isn’t the problem—from 2014-2016, the brewery added about 7,000 BBLs in production to reach 45,000. It’s just about bringing on new beer drinkers.

Part of that has focused on opening up taproom space to the public. Highland now has five bars scattered across its 95,000-square-foot brewery, ranging from a 700-person capacity area just inside the brewery’s entrance, to intimate, private spaces, and a rooftop bar that can host 300. But most important isn’t about where you can stop and have a beer—it’s what’s being served.

“The potential to surprise people is what excites me the most,” Ashburn says. “We’re known for quality and consistency, but we’re not as well known for fun, unexpected distortion. So the question now is, how can we be Highland and be all those things people know us for, and still get people to turn around and think about us in a different way?”

In 2016, the answer started to become clearer. Highland, long known for its award-winning takes on Old World beer styles, started to modernize.

It had been 15 years since Highland added a new brand to their year-round lineup. Last year, they added three.

“We’re a lot of people’s nostalgic brand,” says brewmaster Hollie Stephenson. “They think of Highland, they think of Gaelic Ale and old times. Which is great. I love being a legacy brand. But it was time to speak to people differently. Our challenge now is turning the brand into something people see as new instead of something nostalgic.”

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There may be fewer people better to pull off that task for Highland than Stephenson. She came to the brewery after spending three years at Stone Brewing Co., where she started as assistant brewer and moved her way up to brewing supervisor. And her West Coast beer know-how has been pivotal to shifting expectations around what Highland’s future will be.

Her first recipe contribution was a seasonal beer, King MacAlpin, a Double IPA with 5.5 pounds of hops per barrel. Her first addition to the core lineup was, naturally, a West Coast-style IPA highlighting Citra and Centennial hops. Then came a Pilsner featuring Hallertau Blanc along with three other German varities. Then a fruited IPA made with 450 pounds of pureed mandarin oranges per batch. The new brands were part of an ages-old brewer adage of “making what you like to drink,” but they also checked the boxes of styles that many breweries use to thrive in today’s hop-heavy industry.

To be fair, they’re also good. The IPA transports you to tastes found every day 3,000 miles west of the brewery, its pine resin and grapefruit familiar flavors inoculated into California beer lovers from the time they first raise a pint glass. Mandarina IPA, with a lower ABV of 5.5 and packed with orange aroma, balances its malt and hop taste with jabs of tangy citrus. Pilsner is a classic take on the German style, with a new age Highland stamp of hops, this time earthy and floral.

Sipping from one to the next, it’s clear that Stephenson’s experience from one of the most hop-focused breweries in the country is going to pay off. If everyone needs to make an IPA these days (and some would argue everyone does), it can only help to have a brewer with that kind of pedigree.

None of what exists today would be here without Oscar and Highland. He bet his retirement to show that the industry can survive and thrive in Western North Carolina.
— Ben Teague

“The demographic we need to reach now is that beer tourist that comes to Asheville, and it’s the young craft drinker,” Stephenson says. “The styles are definitely speaking toward how people’s palates have changed.”

In the early lifespan of each new brand, drinkers are reacting positively. In its first year, IPA is the brewery’s number two brand, behind longtime leader Gaelic Ale, Highland’s 23-year flagship. Mandarina IPA has been third or fourth in sales since its July debut, and Pilsner was a top-three brand during the South’s hot spring and sweltering summer. 

Nearly a quarter of 2016’s production was devoted to the new core brands, a number that jumps to a third of all barrels if first-time seasonals and packaged one-offs are counted, too.

In recent months, Highland added a seasonal IPA featuring six different hops and a session IPA made with Ekuanot and Mosaic to its lineup. Its core brands aren’t going away—the Amber, Porter, and Stout are too beloved. But within 18 months, the year-round lineup will have expanded multiple times, now half-comprised of hop-forward brews. What Highland’s brewer likes to make now closely aligns with the full breadth of craft customers, young and old.

Stephenson’s own vision for where the brewery is going is becoming clearer. While Ashburn focused on bringing people directly to the brewery, she’s thinking toward what will keep them at the bar.

“We’ve accomplished so much this year and I still feel like I’m running in place, waiting for someone to let go of me,” Stephenson says of the success of the brewery’s new direction. “It’s having specialty programs, it’s spreading the brand out far and wide, it’s reaching the demographic we may be missing because it’s the demographic I’m in. We’ve made so many strides, but it can still be so hard with so many breweries in Asheville.”

Now that the right people and new brands are in place, Highland is readying its next step.

For a long time, Gaelic Ale, Black Mocha Stout, and Oatmeal Porter were the only Asheville-made beers you could find in local grocery stores. Years before the popularity of mobile canning lines and specialty bombers, Highland’s beers were simply what you bought when looking to buy local beer along with toilet paper and ingredients for dinner.

That’s changed drastically in recent years, as breweries like Green Man, Wicked Weed, Hi-Wire, and Burial started packaging their beer and taking up shelf space alongside Highland’s classics. Sierra Nevada, Oskar Blues, and New Belgium, all with East Coast locations in Asheville or the immediate surrounding area, elbowed in, too. But the challenge Highland now faces is no different from many other regional and national breweries. Just as many of craft's biggest names have diversified their lineups and offered new brands to pique interest, Highland is finding success.

“For a long time, people may not have expected too much change, but they’ve done a really smart move to branch out and start producing good, hoppy beers,” says McCarley, Brusin’ Ales bottle shop’s manager. He noted a former IPA, Kashmir, modeled after English styles and flavored with grassy hops, was simply outdated when it was discontinued in 2015.

“The new IPA,” McCarley says, “will be a good brand with people.”

But that reputation needs to be earned.

“It’s hard to grow in Asheville because if you go to any bar, there’s going to be a Highland on tap,” says Matt McComish, supply chain manager for Highland. “It’s hard getting those second, third or fourth taps at a bar with Sierra, New Belgium, Oskar Blues, and Wicked Weed in town.”

It’s a strange spot for a 23-year-old brewery to find itself. “We’re constantly mindful of the fact that we’re now ramping up to where others are,” Stephenson says. 

Highland may be the grandfather of Asheville beer, but the business is growing in many of the same ways “grandchildren” of the local beer scene are progressing. It’s creating new brands, connecting with accounts, reminding distributors of the product, and—most of all—keeping customers with promiscuous tastes interested.

Once a year, there’s a sampling of rabid fanaticism typically saved for places like Trillium or Other Half when Highland releases its Cold Mountain Winter Ale. This November, drinkers lined up six hours before the brewery opened to buy the beer, which, in the pantheon of specialty releases, sounds pedestrian—or at least perplexing. It’s not an IPA or an Imperial Stout. It’s not a fruited Wild Ale, nor is it barrel-aged, high ABV, or limited in quantity. It’s a 5.9% Spiced Ale you can buy at the grocery store. But it’s structured with enough nuance to provide delicate flavors of vanilla, floral hops, and chestnut. North Carolina residents across the state go crazy for it.

The trick is converting that attention to core brands.

Part of how Highland has accomplished this conversion has been the inclusion of hop-focused beers, but it also has to do with retail price points. While many craft six-packs range in cost from $10 and up, Highland brands sit right at $9 and $10, making their 7% West Coast IPA one of the better bargains shoppers might find. IPA is a brand that can help Highland gain more attention.

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Stephenson could only produce 5,500 barrels of the IPA in 2016 because Highland didn’t have contracts for the hops she needed—a residual effect of Highland’s malt-forward lineup in The Age of IPA. In the summer of 2015, six months before IPA was set to be released, she had to scramble.

“Almost every single hop we used this year was from talking to friends and using the spot market to scrounge together the volume we needed,” Stephenson says. “I had to buy a year’s worth of ingredients and divide it up for our recipe, so we managed what we could brew per month in ingredients, not by demand.”

That’s no longer a worry, however, with Highland IPA’s Centennial and Citra locked in through new contracts, as well as hops like Azacca, El Dorado, Mosaic, and Ekuanot, not to mention Simcoe Lupulin Powder. Alongside with other hoppy offerings, Highland IPA will nearly double in production this year.

“Until now we couldn’t just put six pounds of hops into an IPA and have it be $8.99 on the shelf, but this is going to be the evolution of Highland,” McComish says. “It’s been baby steps to this point, but this year we will challenge what we’ve done in the past in price and ingredients. I think we’re open to do pretty much anything with Hollie.”

Soon, Stephenson says, that will mean a barrel program and the continued expansion of Highland’s Warrior Series, seasonal releases that focus on high gravity beers, like a Double IPA and an Imperial Stout—two beers that would be out of place in Highland’s lineup 10 years ago. In January, as part of the RateBeer Best Awards, the brewery was recognized as having the top beer in North Carolina for its Highland Black Watch Double Chocolate Milk Stout.

“The modern beer consumer is freakin’ smart and they’re really aware,” McCarley says. “They know they want special, rare things, which is what we’re now starting to see with Highland. I don’t know if it’ll affect the core stuff, but it does have potential to renew interest.”

Luckily for the Highland crew, Stephenson says there’s plenty more creativity to come. She’s playing the long game with Highland, having bought a house in the area nine months after starting her job and finding herself back on the East Coast, where she grew up and lived before moving to California for her job with Stone. 

We get a taste of that excitement every Cold Mountain release, but I want so bad for that to be consistent. We’re all wanting and working toward that.
— Hollie Stephenson

“Highland gave me the title ‘brewmaster’ in September, but that’s a title that is very deep and I’m still in the shallow end,” Stephenson says. “I hope I continue to grow into that for Highland and Western North Carolina, not just to be successful for this brewery, but to be someone that can be called on for expertise and is respected for their knowledge and ability. There’s so much left to do.”

Most important, the day-to-day of Stephenson’s professional life no longer feels temporary, she says. “There’s going to be a next step and everything you do now is leading you to figure out the next thing,” she says. “It’s not about looking to the next city or the next thing because there’s plenty in front of me. It feels good to be really secure and comfortable.”

It’s all coming together at Highland. For a brewery that’s been around for so long, there’s plenty of “new” to talk about again.

There was a moment when McComish was considering what the future holds for Highland. He looked at a taproom chalkboard, showing core beers on the left, it’s malty past and hoppy present. On the right, a literal taste of the future with experimental IPAs, Lagers, and a Berliner Weisse.

“We’ve changed a lot in the past two years,” he says, then pauses. The weight of contemplation emphasizes the accuracy of his statement, and he takes a moment to consider all that has evolved. Eventually, he returns to the same visual exercise Ashburn and Stephenson used to glimpse into their own interpretation of what is yet to come. It’s people filling taproom space and waiting at one of the brewery’s five bars. Highland is ready to provide the “own-premise” experience so many beer lovers seek these days. Those beer lovers just need to make the trip.

“It can be an oasis,” he says, referring to Highland’s location. “We’ve got a ton of people that live in Asheville that come here to have a pint because they don’t want to deal with the downtown craze, but people [also] come to Asheville for a weekend and stay downtown without coming here. That’s something we deal with all the time. Coming to see Asheville’s first brewery isn’t always on the top of a lot of people’s list. I’d hate for someone to come to Asheville for three days and not visit.”

There’s a strange sense of limbo of where Highland finds itself. The brewery is now distributed in nine states and Washington D.C., and in its home of North Carolina, is synonymous with the state’s brewing industry. Most important, Highland’s reputation among North Carolinians is built on an understanding and acceptance of quality and consistency, two aspects most breweries preach as levels of attainment—not something that is simply granted. 

So there’s a feeling of alternating priorities now. Other breweries may get the hype, but don’t have the legacy of Highland, which is working to better insert itself into beer lovers’ minds.

“We get a taste of that excitement every Cold Mountain release, but I want so bad for that to be consistent,” Stephenson says. “We’re all wanting and working toward that.”

In an experiential industry that very much rewards the latest and greatest, there are no assumptions of success. Interest ebbs and flows as much as creativity of those who set the trends people choose to follow. It’s a bit of alchemy, trying to generate gold again and again, one recipe or experience at a time.

“It’s never easy to compete in a changing and crowded environment. We know we need to do things that resonate,” Ashburn says. “When we started, people didn’t have a taproom marketing guru and a restaurant. People just had beer. We’ve had to change our business plan more times than breweries opening up today. What we’re doing now, it feels like the right thing to do—investing in our staff and who we are. We have our vision.”

She’s not closing her eyes anymore.
 

Words + Photos by Bryan Roth