Highland Brewing Company: Tour and Tasting


We took a weekend trip to Asheville, North Carolina, and our first stop in town was Highland Brewing Company. We like Highland beer -- I had a keg of Kashmir IPA for my birthday this past year -- and as homebrewers we were really interested in checking out their operations. They give brewery tours Monday through Saturday, and we arrived just in time to sign up for their 4 o'clock tour and do a little bit of sampling in their tasting room beforehand.

While waiting in the tasting room, which had some very cool natural cut wood tables, I decided to try the Whiskey Barrel Aged Oatmeal Porter first. It was a nice nine-ounce pour and was silky smooth with a hint of Jack Daniels at the finish of each sip. I typically get pale ales, but this was a darker beer that I could drink again and again. 

However, I made a mistake with the second beer I tried. As I said earlier, I really like Highland's Kashmir IPA, and there was a special brew on the bar board called the Kashmir "In the Danger Zone" Sour Ale. I've had sour beer before, and I especially like New Belgium's La Folie, which has a sour apple flavor -- but the Kashmir Sour was absolutely TOO sour. You could smell it from a foot away, and it smelled like our organic countertop cleaner. And the taste? So remember "Super Elastic Bubble Plastic" from the 1980s? It was basically a tube of plastic putty stuff that you squeezed out onto the end of a little straw so you could blow balloons. Well, the smell of Super Elastic Bubble Plastic is what the Kashmir Sour Ale tasted like. This is probably the first Highland brew that I didn't enjoy.

I'm not one to send food back to the kitchen, and I didn't want to take my beer back to the bar -- but at the same time, I couldn't even stand to hold it because of the smell. So I timidly walked back and asked the bartender for a glass of water. When she saw that I had the Kashmir Sour, she said, "That's a really intense sour. It's not like other sours at all." She called it a "do-it-yourself" sour and recommended mixing it with another beer. So she poured out 75 percent of the sour ale and mixed it with the Whiskey Barrel Porter -- and it was a hundred times better. 

As I started sipping on my DIY sour, the crowd started to gather for the tour, and at 4 o'clock we went behind the bar doors to the brewery. I walked in with both hands full because you get a free sample of the Gaelic Ale, which is Highland's flagship brew.

I knew that Highland only distributed to a handful of states in the East, but I was surprised to see how small their facility is. They're truly a craft beer company. They brew a little more than 30,000 barrels annually, which is not much at all when compared to New Belgium, which brews slightly more than 700,000 barrels a year. And you know the variety packs of Highland beer that are sold in stores? They're put together and packaged by hand.

During the tour, the founder of Highland -- Oscar Wong -- walked by, waved hello, and headed to his office. He looks just like my dad! And he's a Wong. (I wonder if we're related.) His story is interesting. He's Chinese, but Jamaican born and raised. Then he came to the United States for college, became an engineer, did incredible engineer things, and sometime down the road decided he wanted to have his own brewery. What a good choice.

The tour was quick, our guide was friendly (although I think she needed a microphone at times), and it was nice to get some insight into Highland's operations. One cool thing we learned: Highland beer labels come off the bottles easily on purpose, so that the bottles can be reused. And that's something homebrewers notice and appreciate. (Sam Adams labels are super sticky and are hard to remove.) Highland is focused on sustainability, and this is just one of the ways they give back. Oh, and they also give all their spent grain to local farmers. They've been doing that since the beginning.

I'm glad we had a chance to visit Highland Brewing Company. I like being an informed consumer, and it makes me feel good to know what I'm drinking -- and supporting -- when I buy a pint of Highland brew. (But I won't be having anymore Kashmir "In the Danger Zone" Sour Ales. It's dangerous for a reason. SOUR!)