Highland Brewing Company has its own unique conceptualization of North Carolina culture and tradition, celebrating the mountainous landscape and preserving its beauty for future generations, all while brewing amazing beer. Nestled in the southeastern Appalachian Mountains in Asheville, NC, Highland started brewing in the basement of Barley’s Taproom in downtown Asheville before outgrowing the basement and moving to a mountain top location off Old Charlotte Highway just east of downtown. Oscar Wong, the founder of Highland Brewing, made friends from the start and learned what it meant to be a contributor to the Asheville community by upholding quality, integrity, and respect—and making great beer. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with Oscar’s daughter, Leah Ashburn, the President and CEO of the family-owned business, and talked with her about what Highland Brewing has meant to her family, Asheville, and the state of North Carolina. Ashburn shared the sixteen year journey that led her back to her father’s brewery and how the status of Highland has evolved and matured since its conception in 1994.
Starting our interview, I asked Ashburn why 2011—what made her want to join her father’s business sixteen years later? I wanted to know her story and how she came to be apart of what her father had created. She explained that four significant pieces had to come together for her to make the transition to the company; the fit had to be right for her father, their family, herself, and the company. When she first asked Wong for a job at the age of 24, he turned her down. Wong was adamant that she needed to find her own way and discover herself, and Ashburn ended up working at a job she loved and enjoying financial independence. A few years later, Wong asked his daughter to join him at Highland, and she was the one to reject his offer. It was in 2011 when Ashburn finally made the decision to join the team, becoming the president of their family business.
Providing a glimpse into her father’s beginning years, Ashburn emphasized how Highland Brewing has continued to uphold its reputation as Asheville’s first brewery. She described how Highland has developed throughout the past 24 years and explained how her family’s principles and values have contributed to their success. Before her father rolled out Highland’s first brew in 1994, he had two batches of beer completed, and when he sampled it, it wasn’t quite right. Leah said, “He set the example right from the beginning…The quality had to be right the very first time we went to market.” With this short anecdote, Ashburn framed the reputation that Highland Brewing Company has obtained in Asheville, and moreover, the state of North Carolina, leading her to explain why 2011 was the perfect time for her to join her father’s company. Knowing that her and her father both had different strengths, Ashburn claimed that it was her love of the minutiae and details that allowed her to flourish in her role and enhance what Highland Brewing has meant to Asheville, while also cultivating Highland’s image and status in a city where new businesses continue to pop up.
Although Highland Brewing continues to uphold their status as the first craft brewery in Asheville, Ashburn attests to the essence of Highland strongly resembling her father’s own charisma. She said, “This is a brand’s expression…It’s not super polished, but it’s super welcoming.” It is the welcoming atmosphere that speaks to her father’s charisma and the vision that he had for Highland nearly 25 years ago. Reminiscing on their move to their current location, Ashburn described how initially the location was merely a distribution center, but then, the staff started asking about a place where people could hang out and guests could visit. Today, their tasting room holds up to 600 people and they see families make Highland their regular Friday night hangout spot. The family recognizes that Highland Brewing is significant and meaningful to locals and tourists alike, and she wants their company to be an “Asheville thing,” claiming, “We want to be woven into the community, and if we’re not important, not valued here, then we’ve missed our mission. It has to radiate out from home.” Walking into their facility, it is evident that Highland Brewing has succeeded in their mission and continue to do so by valuing their land and participating actively in community and statewide partnerships throughout Asheville and North Carolina.
Upon moving to their current location, they chose not to stay downtown because of a lack of space; and being respectful and resourceful in regard to Asheville landscapes, they chose to “rehabilitate an old, crumbling space into a space where people could come and gather.” Ashburn said, “Instead of flattening out another mountain top, just use one that’s already been built on.” Highland’s integration of craft brewing, landscape preservation, and Appalachian culture has also been significant in helping them define their company’s mission moving forward, while also celebrating their company’s origins. Ashburn claimed, “Asheville has deep roots in its independent spirit, and it also has a very deep history of craft. So, marrying those things together, along with the history of the Scots-Irish that settled in the Appalachian Mountains, that’s where we got our name. So, that’s Highland and the beer part is part of craft and [being] independent[ly] owned. It really puts things together that are important to this city and reflecting the values of this city and this company.” This act of resourcing old buildings and preserving the mountainous landscape is also linked to their seasonal brews and current community endeavors.
Their seasonal brews are named after landmarks or features within the southern Appalachian Mountains. For instance, the “Southern Sixer” is a tribute to the mountains ranging over six thousand feet; “Cold Mountain,” another seasonal brew, is one of the southern sixer mountains. Likewise, the profits from these seasonal brews is also donated to land conservancy projects. “Doing something permanent with the land feels really cool,”Ashburn insisted. Their community partnerships have not ended here though.
Highland Brewing has also partnered with the city of Asheville and is currently in the process of building a greenway throughout the city in partnership with Asheville Parks and Greenway Foundation. To date, they have contributed over $40,000 to help with this project, and watched the project become completely funded in a short-time frame. Highland Brewing’s dedication to its city and community is evident, and as a company, they have been insistent on finding new ways to undertake new challenges and define who they are as Asheville’s pioneering company.
As Asheville’s largest and oldest family-owned brewery in the southeast that is also native to the southeast, Ashburn and her family feel a sense of obligation to Asheville and the state of North Carolina. She recognizes that to live in Asheville is an intentional act, and she feels a sense of responsibility in catering to her city and continuing the trajectory that Highland has been on since its creation. Being aware that they are an older brewery, Ashburn accepts the challenges that comes with local competition. She said, “Asheville’s brewing pioneers is the core…pioneers that are still creating a path. That’s also extremely important. We’re not going to rest on our laurels that we were the first ones here. That’s cool, but now what? There’s so much energy around new processes…We’re excited internally. We’re going to perfect it before we unleash it.”
If you haven’t checked out Highland Brewing Company, I urge you to visit the local Asheville family business. Listening to Ashburn’s eloquent and passionate thoughts about her father’s business and how she has jumped into preserve Highland’s legacy was truly an opportunity. I also loved her and her family’s dedication to the city of Asheville and North Carolina by celebrating the local and statewide culture. The company’s intentional preservation of land and resourcefulness of space speaks to their creative, charismatic routes.