Way up in the Blue Ridge Mountains lies the magical town of Asheville, North Carolina, known for eclectic art, historic architecture and award-winning craft beer. Boasting more beer per capita than any other US city, residents enjoy around 100 different beers at any given time from 30 local breweries. In 2009, Asheville was named Beer City U.S.A., and it has maintained that honor nearly every year since. Beer is everywhere, from “Rotating Tap” beer-glazed doughnuts covered in beer malt, peanuts and pretzels at Vortex Donuts, to beer-infused ice cream and sorbet at The Hop Ice Cream Cafe. Locals and visitors alike jump on The Amazing Pubcycle or Brews Crews bus for tours of the local breweries and turn out in droves for Asheville’s many beer fests including Beer City Festival to celebrate spring, Brewgrass hailing the harvest, and Winter Warmer to brighten the cold. It wasn’t always this way. Back in 1994, Highland Brewing Company became the first brewery since Prohibition to open its doors in Asheville, effectively starting a beer revolution.
Founded by retired engineer Oscar Wong, Highland set itself apart from the beginning, building what would become North Carolina’s largest craft brewery and the Southeast’s largest family-owned brewery, on a solid foundation of sustainability and philanthropy. Almost entirely comprised of retrofitted dairy equipment, the original brewery could produce up to 6,500 barrels of beer per year in about 12,000 square feet of space. Today, Highland is helmed by Wong’s daughter Leah Wong Ashburn, and she’s increased their capacity to 60,000 plus barrels annually, making Highland the fifth-largest female-led craft brewery in the US. They’ve opened the brewery to the community, with an indoor event center that can hold 700, a majestic meadow with an outdoor bar of course, and a rooftop bar offering up to 300 people gorgeous mountain views.
An impressive solar array, the sixth-largest of US craft breweries, sits atop the roof, generating 324 kW DC – more power than they need on sunny days. Highland’s ethos of reducing, reusing and recycling is evident in everything, from brewing to packaging, to labeling and beyond. When their decision to expand production required a new boiler, they chose the Miura gas-fired LX-100 which has allowed them to increase output 20 percent while simultaneously reducing energy costs by $1200 a month. Director of Operations Kevin Wheeler estimates the Miura boiler paid for itself in the first year and a half: “Miura met our needs in terms of energy savings, on-demand steam, low emissions and a smaller footprint… We are just an hour from the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and acid rain is a huge concern for us here. We like to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’ about being environmentally responsible…”
Maintaining a deep dedication to the environment, Highland has focused their philanthropy on natural resources, people in need, animals in need, health and wellness, and cultural resources. Every year they choose a community partner in each area, to redefine the way they give, and create a lasting impact. This year’s non-profit partners include Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, MANNA FoodBank, Asheville Humane Society, Helpmate and The WNC Nature Center. Proudly set in the Southeast, Highland targets its philanthropy and its beer locally, distributing only to North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Georgia and Florida.
Perhaps regional pride is behind the warm welcome Highland extends to outsiders, like California-based Sierra Nevada Brewing Company. Owner and second-generation brewer Brian Grossman tells Brewbound: “When Sierra Nevada chose to build our second brewery in Asheville, Highland welcomed us with open arms.” To celebrate Highland’s 25th anniversary, Sierra Nevada, and independent, family-owned hop and malt suppliers including Riverbend Malthouse, Briess Malting, Crosby Hop Farms, Roy Farms and CLS Farms gathered at the Highland Brewery to mash a new collaboration brew they called Rustic IPA. Highland’s President Leah Ashburn said: “Good businesses are built on relationships and we genuinely enjoy and are proud of our relationships with Sierra Nevada and these suppliers. Brian and I are in a small group of second-generation family leaders in craft beer and we intend to build a sustainable future for both our breweries. This collaboration beer celebrates that future.”