Of the many cities across America currently vying for the title of “Best Beer City,” Asheville, North Carolina has a legit claim to the crown.
Asheville’s breweries list is not only extensive, but choice, from nationally recognized brands like Sierra Nevada and New Belgium to local stars like Wicked Weed and Hi-Wire.
But the Highland Brewing Company was the very first Asheville brewery. It opened up shop in 1994, before the Downtown Asheville revitalization really began to hits its stride.
So Highland Brewery, which many locals consider the founder of the Asheville NC craft beer scene, has been doing it for more than 25 years. And even now, after the big brands have stolen the media spotlight, it remains one of the best breweries in Asheville.
Visiting Highland should be a big draw for anyone doing Asheville tours. Aside from their original scenic location, Highland is also making a move towards being among the downtown Asheville breweries, opening a second location at S&W Cafeteria.
So if you’re a serious beer lover visiting breweries near Asheville, NC, here’s a look at why the Highland Brewery has to be on the list!
HIGHLAND BREWERY ASHEVILLE TOC
- Highland Brewery Facts
- History of The First Asheville Brewery
- Highland Brewery Beers
- Highland Brewery Tours
- Private Events At Highland Brewing
- Highland Brewing Community/Sustainability Initiatives
HIGHLAND BREWERY FACTS
ADDRESS: 12 Old Charlotte Highway, Suite 200, Asheville, NC 28803
PHONE NUMBER: 828.299.3370
TAPROOM HOURS: Mon-Thu 3pm-9pm; Fri-Sat 12pm-10pm; Sun 12pm-8pm
- Highland started as an independently-owned, family-run brewery, and is still run that way more than 25 years later.
- Highland Brewery is truly an Asheville beer, and is only distributed regionally in the Southeast United States.
- Founded in 1994, Highland was the first legal Asheville brewery opened after prohibition was repealed in 1933.
- Highland’s seasonal beers are named in honor of the dramatic Blue Ridge Mountains and Appalachian landscape.
- A proud and caring North Carolina company, Highland Brewing donates to more than 100 charities annually.
HISTORY OF THE FIRST ASHEVILLE BREWERY
Founded in 1994 by retired engineer Oscar Wong, Highland Brewing was the pioneer of craft brewing in Asheville. Which has, of course, since become the Blue Ridge region’s hottest destination for serious beer connoisseurs.
Wong says that the company began as a hobby in the basement of Barley’s Taproom. But unlike so many fly-by-night microbrewers gone rogue, the first of the many Asheville, NC breweries now has a quarter of a century to its name.
The first Highland brewhouse used retrofitted dairy equipment, producing just 6500 barrels a year. Today the Asheville brewery can put out nearly ten times that amount.
The facility also has a concert stage, taproom, event venue, rooftop bar, and massive outdoor space. Highland also offers brewery tours for those who want to learn more about how some of the best beer in Asheville is made.
Despite their success, the Highland Brewing Company has remained regional. They only distribute to North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Virginia, Tennessee, and Florida.
Highland is now the largest family-owned brewery in the Southeast, and currently run by Oscar’s daughter, CEO Leah Wong Ashburn.
Since 2011, she’s been instrumental in giving the brand an image facelift, with new facilities, a strengthened community presence, and a fresh logo.
Highland Brewing likes to see itself as a business incarnation of the American dream. Of all the myriad North Carolina breweries, it’s the largest “native” craft beer producer, and remains one of the top breweries in Asheville.
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HIGHLAND BREWERY BEERS
With nine beers that appear on the brewery’s menu year-round, four seasonal selections, and several annual limited release brews, Highland Brewing Co has enough diversity to warrant multiple trips to its taproom and “meadow.”
- Gaelic Ale is the original Highland brew. It’s a malty amber with an expected tinge of sweetness and a low-key bitter growl from the hops. It was voted Western NC’s Best All-Round Beer in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.
- Slow Crush is an innovative newcomer to Highland’s line of brews. It’s a step away from traditional beers, suggesting a bubbly beverage more along the lines of an Italian aperitif. It boasts a natural blend of botanicals to give it a unique flavor.
- AVL IPA is unfiltered and tropically citrus. The AVL moniker is a shout-out to Asheville’s airport code. It was voted Western NC’s 3rd best local IPA in 2018 in a poll by the local rag, Mountain Xpress.
- Daycation IPA, as itsname suggests, is a perfect sipping beer for extended day drinking. At justr 4.9% alcohol, it isn’t going to knock you down with potency. But it has a floral nose and a hoppy flavor that suggests a quality drink is in hand.
- Mandarina IPA is the go-to for those who like a fruitier beer. It takes the flavor all the way by including Mandarin Bavaria, Hull Melon hops, as well as American oranges on its ingredient list.
- Pilsner is available for those who walk the straight and narrow of traditional beer. It’s made (a la traditional German brews) with a blend of Hallertau hops. Beer Connoisseur deemed this one a “World Class” beer and gave it a 96 rating.
- Starchaser White is Highland’s take on the Belgian wheat beer, offering a delicious intermingling of grapefruit, ginger, and coriander. It’s an awesome light beer with layers of flavor perfect for summertime.
- Oatmeal Porter takes drinkers to the dark side of beer. Luckily, it’s a spot with chocolate notes that dance atop malts. Life could be much worse on a chilly day.
- Black Mocha Stout is a seriously robust drink with both the chocolate and coffee essences its name suggests. It was awarded the Silver Medal in the World Beer Cup.
- Midnight Summit is a vanilla milk stout that’s only available from January to April, evoking images of the morning fog over the mountains of Blue Ridge.
- Wanderlush is a hazy IPA with suggestions of lemon and melon (April-July).
- Clawhammer Octoberfest is a Märzen lager found from August through October.
- Thunderstruck Coffee Porter is a holiday offering offered from late autumn to mid-winter (October-January).
Limited Release Beers
- Cold Mountain comes around in November and kicks off the holidays. It’s a spiced ale with hints of hazelnut, vanilla, dark fruit, and cinnamon.
- Imperium is a January offering, adding to the list of dark beers that feel like meals. It’s a Russian coffee stout with tinges of vanilla and coconut.
- Hawaiian Lounge Juice, as its name implies, is totally tropical and reminds us of summer days in Kauai. Think passionfruit and mango, and drink it in June.
- Black Watch is a double chocolate milk stout that might feel a bit like drinking a brownie. It’s a November nod to the Christmas holidays and the arrival of winter.
- The standard variety 12-pack from Highland Brewing contains three each of its flagship beers—Daycation IPA, Gaelic Ale, and Black Mocha Stout—as well as a seasonal offering.
- There is also an IPA variety pack that houses six AVL IPAs, three Daycations, and three Mandarina IPAs.
HIGHLAND BREWERY TOURS
Amongst the many Asheville brewery tours we’ve taken, the Highland Brewery tour ranks right up there with the best.
Complimentary guided walking tours of the facilities are available every day of the week. They last around 45 minutes, and include a beer tasting to celebrate the occasion.
None of the other Asheville breweries we’ve visited offer quite so much behind the scenes access. Their Asheville beer tour happens twice on Monday and Tuesday, and on four different occasions each afternoon for the rest of the week.
For an exact schedule, visit the brewery’s web page here.
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PRIVATE EVENTS AT HIGHLAND BREWING
In addition to their public offerings, Highland Brewery Asheville also has two venues for private events.
Their official Event Center features a main floor, a mezzanine, and a rooftop beer garden. It can accommodate up to 300 people for a seated dinner, and includes a stage with full audio and visual technology capabilities.
For smaller crowds of 100 people or less, they’ll be opening The Barrel Room in spring of 2020. It’s described as “posh without being stuffy, casual without being boring.” The room has a catering kitchen and a private bar in a setting that puts guests right in the middle of the company’s aging barrels.
In 2020, Highland will also be opening a second site in downtown Asheville, at the S&W Cafeteria. In addition to two bars, street-side seating, and a mezzanine, this location will also offer a food hall, with four different stalls to choose from.
There is another space for even smaller private functions. This event area, which is located just off the mezzanine, has a “Roaring 20s vibe and room for 40 seated guests.”
The S&W Cafeteria is an art deco-style architectural space that’s part of a move to help revitalize Asheville’s downtown (which Highland helped to do back in the 1990s).
As a perennial feature on Asheville beer tours and one of the city’s best breweries, Highland Brewing Co doesn’t really need to do much more to get noticed. And yet they do, with their many community-minded and environmentally aware initiatives.
Locally, they’ve partnered with Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, MANNA FoodBank, Asheville Humane Society, Helpmate, and the WNC Nature Center to help the area’s human and animal populations.
They also have beehives tucked away on one of the Higland Brewery roofs, helping to pollinate the plant population to boot.
The brewhouse has the third largest solar array of any craft beer brewery in the US, and the 13th largest brewery solar array in the world.
Additionally, they repurpose spent grains as cow feed, use repurposed materials for some of their brewing systems, and have several mindful operating protocols to minimize energy usage and waste. –Jonathan Engels; photos courtesy of Highland Brewing Co.
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