What started as a small-batch brewing operation in the basement of a Downtown Asheville pizza joint has now become a flagship brewery for the city and Southern Appalachia.
“My first memory of Highland [Brewing] is drinking Gaelic Ale at Barley’s [Taproom & Pizzeria]. It was flavorful, rich, and indulgent. This was before we started talking about beer and food pairings, but this beer and pizza combination was fantastic,” said Leah Wong Ashburn. “That pride still runs deep. We want Asheville and North Carolina to be proud of Highland as a homegrown brewer of the highest quality beers.”
President of Highland Brewing, Ashburn took over the family business in 2015 from her father, founder Oscar Wong. Emerging in 1994, it was the first brewery in Asheville since Prohibition. Today, it is the largest family-owned, female-led brewery originating in the Southeast. In 2019, Highland celebrated its 25th anniversary.
“For Highland, [25 years] is a call to keep forging our path. Twenty-five years is no reason to celebrate if you’re not looking forward,” Ashburn said. “We have learned and evolved, and we have so much more we can do thanks to our dedicated team and the people who like our beer, our brewery, and our approach to community engagement.”
From humble beginnings in the basement of Barley’s, the brewery relocated to its current 40-acre property in East Asheville in 2006. Highland Brewing is now home to a 180,000-square-foot facility with annual barrel production numbers hovering around 50,000. That makes it one of the largest regional brewhouses.
“In regards to place, we’re proudly woven into the fabric of Asheville and wherever our beer is sold. I have no desire for Highland to be the biggest brewer in the country,” Ashburn said. “Rather, I want to connect with the people who enjoy our beer and the places where we matter. We’re incredibly fortunate that our fans continue to feel confident about who we are and what we have to offer as we enter our next 25 years.”
In 2018, with Ashburn at the helm, Highland decided to rebrand the entire brewery. The redesign better aligned Highland’s image and perception with the growth of the company and its changing ale styles. Not to mention, it better positioned the company within the rapidly expanding craft beer industry itself.
“The rebrand was revolutionary. We listened to our team, our distributors, and our retail partners. Then, we did more formal surveying of current and potential fans and our staff,” Ashburn said. “Despite an initial belief that we would tweak the brand, everything pointed us to a complete overhaul. That made it clear to me that we should go for it. Boldness is in our DNA as Asheville’s first craft brewer. Boldness is still driving us forward.”
In recent years, Highland opened up the Meadow, a large-scale outdoor concert venue behind the brewery that has featured a wide-assortment of national touring acts. In its plans for 2020, Ashburn noted that Highland will open a second taproom in a curated food hall in Downtown Asheville with Meherwan Irani, one of the most renowned restaurateurs in the Southeast.
“We would not have these opportunities without the risks we’ve taken, so I feel proud of the rebrand and the way our team rose to the challenge,” Ashburn said. “Highland does more than make quality craft beers. We really do craft connections through beer and beyond. The thread that runs from the basement of Barley’s to the Taproom and the Meadow is a desire to connect.”