Retrofitted dairy tanks in a downtown basement— that’s how Oscar Wong started Highland Brewing Company in 1994, sparking the craft beer movement that put Asheville on the map. People across North Carolina call Wong the “godfather of craft beer,” but the retired engineer doesn’t see much novelty in what he did.
“Historically, craft beer was what beer was,” says Wong, who came to the U.S. from Jamaica as a teen. “It was only after World War II that we had the consolidations of the big breweries, making lighter beers that appealed to the masses. It’s a matter of coming back to what beer used to be.”
Highland, the city’s first legal brewery since Prohibition, is an Asheville institution. “People like that we’re family owned, and craft beer fans value that we are independently owned,” says Leah Wong Ashburn, who joined her dad nearly seven years ago and serves as the company’s president and CEO. “It means that things happen more slowly and we don’t have unlimited resources, but it also means that we make 100% of the decisions ourselves.” And every choice made keeps the Asheville community and its natural resources in mind.
Solar panels power many of the operations at Highland, and the company is a partner of Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, which has protected over 70,000 acres in the North Carolina and Tennessee mountains since 1974.
The brewery unveiled a new look in February, but Wong says some things will never change: “Commitment to quality, integrity in our dealings, and respect for the people that we deal with—we won’t change that.”