For Asheville, its connection as “Beer City USA” began officially with an online poll with the winner obtaining the title Beer City USA for that year. After winning for three straight years, the name has become synonymous with Asheville.
Now enjoying beer festivals and a growing number of craft breweries, Beer City USA can in reality trace its origins to December of 1994. Led by founder Oscar Wong, that’s when Highland Brewing Company produced its first kegs of beer in the basement of Barley’s Taproom. Now about 18 years later, Highland Brewing Company is revered as the granddaddy of the Asheville beer scene.
Highland Brewing is known for its facilities in the Blue Ridge Business Park at 12 Old Charlotte Highway in East Asheville. The nice tasting room, outdoor bar, lush patio, outdoor stage, and other facilities have not always been a part of the company, which began downtown using retrofitted dairy equipment. In the early years of operation, Highland Brewing could produce up to 6,500 barrels of beer annually. Now the East Asheville location has the capacity to fill 30,000 barrels of beer annually.
Until 1998, Highland’s beers were available only in kegs and hand-filled 22-ounce bottles. A bottling machine acquired that year allowed the brewery to start packaging in 12-ounce bottles. Demand was still exceeding supply so in 2002 the company installed a Krones bottling line, which allowed 7,200 12-ounce bottles to be filled per hour. Now Highland is sold in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia.
The brewery is known for its year-round classics: Black Mocha Stout, Gaelic Ale, Kashmir IPA (Oscar’s favorite), Oatmeal Porter, and St. Terese’s Pale Ale. The company also sells season brews such as Clawhammer Oktoberfest, Cold Mountain Winter Ale, and Little Hump Spring Ale, among others.
The company’s sustained growth and commitment to the community and the environment has not gone unnoticed. Oscar Wong has been named Small Business Owner of the Year by the Asheville Chamber of Commerce and he received its William A.V. Cecil Award for Leadership in Hospitality. Just this year, Oscar was named the Small Business Administration’s North Carolina Person of the Year. Highland Brewing was given the Environmental Excellence Award in 2010 by Asheville Greenworks and received the Chamber’s 2008 Sky High Growth Award. The company now employs about 40 people.
The company thrives to be sustainable in the brewing process, packaging, distribution, and general operations. Oscar, a career-long Rotarian, has always believed in giving back. Being part of the community has long been a company value.
Drew Stevenson, communications manager for Highland Brewing Company, says it’s important to “do what’s right—for our staff, our city, our distributors, our customers, the environment. You won’t make the most money, but you’ll sleep well at night.” Drew adds, “Oscar has been such a strong example of community service and involvement. The company reflects his efforts. Some staff members spend many hours supporting causes and coordinating events that contribute to our community.”
As the company continues to grow, Drew says it will remain committed to its core values. “There are several mantras around here,” he says. “The most repeated is ‘quality, integrity, respect.’ Operate by those principals and good things will happen.” Drew adds that the company will continue to develop service efforts as it grows.
Highland is in a good place now. The Tasting Room, opened in October 2010, allows customers to drink beer, listen to live music, hang out with the staff, and enjoy a sense of community. On a given Friday or Saturday night from 6 to 8 p.m. you can hear live music and see an array of singles, couples, families, and groups of friends.
With 2013 just around the corner, the folks at Highland are looking forward to more future success. “We have been very fortunate and hope that the New Year shines on us again,” Drew says. “With growth, quality is still the top priority, so we will grow only at a rate where we feel we have control of quality. It feels fast-paced, but is, and has been for years, much slower than many other craft breweries. We will get more tanks and build more offices—much needed with a growing staff. Our goal is to be an example of a great company. For that goal, there’s always work to be done.”
So while Asheville now enjoys its status as Beer City USA and has two of the nation’s largest craft brewers (Sierra Nevada and New Belgium) and moving to town, the folks at Highland can take pride in knowing they started it all.
“It puts us, and all of Asheville, on the map as a great beer destination,” Drew says of all the recent brewery attention. “It also raises the bar for responsible beer industry practices, and brings tourism money and jobs. That’s great for all of us.”