John Lyda was there at the start. Fifteen years ago he helped open Highland Brewing in the basement of a downtown Asheville, NC restaurant. He admits now that he was pretty naïve at the time. After working a while and attending Siebel he had hoped to start his own brewpub, but he fell in with John McDermott and Oscar Wong, and the rest, as they say, is a decade and a half of great beer history.
The third oldest operating craft brewery in NC, Highland was founded by Wong and partners as a “kind of hobby.” Although he admits that he wanted to be able to boast to friends that he owned a brewery, Wong was serious about his new endeavor. Borrowing from European tradition, his goal was to produce a “local beer for tourists.” As a retired businessman, he also realized, once underway, that he’d better “get established here or somebody else will come and kick our ass.” He’s “still looking over [his] shoulder.”
Milestones for the company include the amiable departure of head brewer McDermott in 1998. Lyda was well prepared to fill his boots. Although working in cramped quarters, Highland knocked out a wall and installed a 12-ounce bottling line in 1999. Growth demanded the relocation, in 2007, to a much bigger structure on the outskirts of town. That move figuratively raised the company’s high flying flag, acknowledging, with little fanfare, the stature that Highland had gained. No longer a small basement brewery, Wong’s hobby had realized its potential as a strong, vibrant regional entity.
In-state sales command 78% of Highland’s volume. Even with annual capacity over 20,000 barrels and employee headcount at 19, Wong still feels strongly that “it’s all about community.” Weekend tours are free. Instead, donations are encouraged with all tour revenue given to Manna Food Bank. Highland supports the River District Arts community and works closely with homebrewers, schools and many other charitable concerns. A new, expanded taproom is under construction. Since last summer, Friday nights are packed with beer drinkers and live music lovers.
Deeply amber, moderately hoppy Gaelic Ale comprises 50% of sales but Wong sees an increase in customer experience, meaning increasing demand for the “latest and greatest.” “Variety is driving the market,” he explains. Head brewer Lyda responded with his Imperial Series, brewing high gravity versions of Highland’s regular line up, including Kashmir IPA, Gaelic, Black Mocha Stout and Scottish-style Tasgall. With room to work in the new building, he’s added seasonal selections that include Clawhammer Oktoberfest, the wildly popular spiced Cold Mountain Winter Ale and organic Cattail Peak Wheat. The latter, Lyda’s first organic beer, was recently joined by organic Black Mountain Bitter. Just out a few months, Auld Asheville Vintage Ale is the company’s first anniversary ale, and probably not its last.
Now a seasoned brewing veteran, Lyda’s passion for brewing persists. Busy designing a series of small run beers for his new three-barrel pilot system, he’s equally excited about his latest seasonal selection. Crafted from German grain, Belgian yeast and candi sugar, a 6.5% dubbel, Seven Sisters is Highland’s first Belgian-style ale.
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