Traveling up a winding road in the mountains of North Carolina is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. Particularly when the trees begin their colorful fall foliage coloration and the air has a bit of a snap in it. But, if that road also leads to one of the region’s biggest and best craft beer breweries, it is hard to imagine a better day.
Highland Brewing Company is nestled just outside of Asheville, NC, the sleepy, Bohemian city that has a beer culture worthy of earning it the title Beer City USA for the past four years. On approach to the brewery the building seems unassuming and even a bit modest. But, once you pull around the front you notice the wooden deck in front of the doors and the elaborate decoration around them. This is a place that is, as the wording above the door says, “Just a Wee Bit Different.”
When you enter the Tap Room you are immediately struck by its cavernous size. To the left are several shipping containers that have been converted to offices, as your eye travels around the expansive room from left to right, you notice a large stage, more containers, and finally a long bar with many beer taps on the wall behind it. This is where we made our way to meet our tour guide, Kitty Price.
Kitty immediately offered tastes of the brewery’s fine brews and we accepted gratefully. The first taste offered was of Thunderstruck Coffee Porter. As we sipped the rich, coffee and bitter chocolate brew, Kitty explained that they use coffee beans roasted by Dynamite Coffee Roasters in nearby Black Mountain. The flavors were strong, yet pleasant with a nice shot of hops at the end. A fitting way to begin a visit and, for those in need of caffeine, a nice boost.
Next, we were offered several Belgian-style brews, Belmont Abbey Dubbel and Tripple at 7% and 9% ABV respectively. Both brews were fine examples of their respective styles with the banana and citrus as well as the Belgian yeast funk we all know and love. Kitty explained that Highland’s head brewer John Lyda was at one time studying to be a monk. So, in a nod to his past and at the request of an abbey in nearby Charlotte, Lyda brewed the excellent duo of beers.
But, the visit was not restricted to tasting alone. Kitty was quick to point out that Highland is committed to being as green as it can be by recycling nearly everything. By doing this the brewery is able to restrict the waste that must be hauled to a landfill from the brewery to less than a single dumpster a week. They restrict the amount of water they use in brewing to about 2.5 barrels per barrel of beer opposed to the typical brewery’s seven barrels. Spent grain is given to local farms for feed as well.
Highland Brewing Company was founded by Oscar Wong who, after retiring from a career as a successful civil/structural engineer, landed in Asheville in 1994. He started Highland Brewing “as a hobby” in the 3,500 square foot basement of Barley’s Taproom in downtown Asheville. Over time his brewing ambition grew and the brewery moved to its current location. The brewery operates from a 50 barrel main brewing system and a 3 barrel pilot system that is used for special projects and test batches. In a typical week the brewery cranks out 500-700 barrels of delicious beer that translates to over 30,000 barrels a year.
A walk through the brewing floor revealed the great pride and tongue-in-cheek whimsy the brewery has for its product. Above an office in the front of the building is a huge statue-like edifice of a bagpiper that would be familiar to anyone who has seen Highland’s packaging. Elsewhere in the brewery are row upon row of room center of the room. The cavernous cold room was piled high with keg after keg of the finished product ready for shipment to eagerly waiting customers.
With a line-up of quality brews like Gaelic Ale, Kashmir IPA, and St. Therese’s Pale Ale and specialty and seasonals like Razor Wit, Thunderstruck Coffee Porter, and Cold Mountain Winter Ale Highland is sure to remain a regional favorite throughout the Southeast. And, as a destination while in North Carolina, the Highland Brewery is well worth an afternoon. Not only are the beers the freshest and tastiest you will be able to find, but the staff – like Kitty – are full of wonderful stories and brewing knowledge.