Oral history interview with Leah Wong Ashburn, 2018

University of North Carolina at Greensboro

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0:00 - Opening credits / interview introduction

0:48 - Background

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn discusses her prior career in educational sales. She also talks about asking her father for a position at the brewery multiple times before he offered her one.

2:07 - Early history of Highland

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn discusses the early history of Highland. Her father Oscar Wong partnered with an experienced brewer in Charlotte in 1994. They found a space in a basement in downtown Asheville as the first location for Highland.

3:44 - Work experience prior to Highland

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn discusses the ways that her past work experience benefits her current work at Highland. She discusses the importance of building relationships and working with people.

5:11 - Changes to Highland to reflect her vision and ideas

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn describes her father as "hands off" with the brewery since she took over as president and CEO in 2015. She describes their branding change as the biggest change she has made to reflect her vision and ideas for the company.

7:22 - Resources for learning and growing

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn talks about the importance of building a team of highly-experienced experts around her at Highland.

8:34 - Changes to the Asheville beer scene

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn discusses the changes to Asheville that have come from the brewing industry. She notes the massive growth in the number of breweries as well as beer as a driver of tourism.

10:00 - Main mission of Highland

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn emphasizes Asheville as Highland's home, and notes that she wants to be known as the "pride of the Southeast."

11:50 - Community initiatives and advocacy

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn notes that Highland has always had a focus on community advocacy. They had an early partnership with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, and they continue to work with local nonprofits focused on people, animals, land, and water resources.

13:54 - Sustainability efforts at the brewery

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn discusses Highland's sustainability efforts, including a solar array, LED and motion-sensitive lights, and reusing and repurposing whenever possible.

15:55 - Production size of Highland

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn notes that Highland has about 50 full-time employees and produces around 43,000 barrels annually. She also discusses the growth of their physical space and public space.

22:48 - Rebranding efforts

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn discusses the rebranding process, including the research conducted and the process of developing the new logo.

26:54 - Future of Highland

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn notes that she would like to continue to develop the physical space of the brewery, including bringing in complementary businesses that reflect Highland's core values.

29:39 - Favorite part of working in the beer industry in Asheville

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn talks about the value of collaboration and sharing a desire to grow and evolve. She discusses ways that the brewery can impact life for all citizens in Asheville. She talks about Highland's work to raise money to support greenways development in East Asheville.

32:44 - Being a woman in the beer industry

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn notes that overall, people in the beer industry are respectful, but she has experience being talked down to.

34:25 - Advice for a woman looking to enter the beer industry

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn emphasizes that all positions in a brewery are open to women. She discusses the importance of networking and learning from others.

36:01 - North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn talks about her service on the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild board. She notes that the Guild provided her with a great overall view of beer in North Carolina as well as a great way to learn from others.

38:25 - Highland's beer

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn talks about a number of Highland's beers, including the Gaelic Ale, a legacy flagship. She also discusses how Highland added more IPAs to their menu to meet customer demand.

42:04 - James Beard Award Semi-Finalist

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn discusses her reaction to learning she was a semi-finalist for a James Beard Award. She also talks about how the nomination reflects positively on Highland and its employees, as well as on the beer and food industry in North Carolina.

43:57 - Favorite beer from Highland

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn notes that she enjoys tasting a variety of Highland beers and sampling their range of pilot brews.

45:19 - Favorite beer from a North Carolina brewery other than Highland

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn discusses beer from Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Trophy, and Burial.

46:19 - Future of the beer industry

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn discusses the growing importance of the taproom in the beer industry. She also talks about the importance of building a careful relationship between distributors, retailers, and breweries.

50:18 - Hobbies and interests away from the brewery

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn talks about the importance of work-life balance. She notes that she loves to be outdoors.

51:16 - Highland's Night Flight Race

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Segment Synopsis: Wong Ashburn talks about Highland's annual Night Flight Race, which has raised over $40,000 for local greenways over four years.

52:12 - Interview conclusion / closing credits


EL: So, can we start? Can you say and spell your name and give us your title here?

LWA: I am Leah Wong Ashburn, and it's not hyphenated, I use three names. So, it's L-E-A-H W-O-N-G A-S-H-B-U-R-N, and I'm the president and CEO of Highland Brewing Company in Asheville, North Carolina.

EL: Wonderful, well today is June 29th, and we are at Highland in Asheville, North Carolina doing an interview for the Well Crafted NC Project. So, Leah, can you start by just telling us a little bit about yourself? Where are you from and what's your path towards Highland?

LWA: I had a circuitous path. So, I've kind of been all over the place. Born in California, raised in New Jersey until I was 15. Then, my family came down to 1:00North Carolina, actually to Charlotte, and I just got to Asheville in about 2012, started working for Highland in 2011, and I had a prior career. You know, the post college jobs, and sort of meander around places and don't really go anywhere, but it did lead me to a great job in sort of marketing, design, communications and that parlayed into an educational sales job that was great for me that I did for I think 13 years.

LWA: Working with students and teachers, and it was wonderful. I actually used my journalism degree, which was really hard to do at the time, and then my dad really, he and I had a 16 year conversation about me coming to the brewery. So, I asked for a job at 24 when the brewery was new. He said no. He offered me that job eight years later. I said no, and eight years after that is when it was the right time for the brewery, for my family, and for us individually.


EL: Yeah. So, we'll talk about Highland just for a little bit. Can you give us a little bit about the early of Highland before you came on?

LWA: Yeah, and there's a lot of history before I got here. So, I'm very conscious of that, and of all the folks that made great things happens. So, yeah, in 1994 there were no breweries in Asheville. Permitting was a really confusing process. Nobody really knew what to do, how to approve it. So, dad [Highland founder Oscar Wong] had partnered up with an experienced and award winning brewer from Charlotte, and they decided that they would work together, do this great thing.

LWA: Dad had more of the capital and the business experience, and this guy is really an artist, and is a great brewer. So, dad said, "I'm not interested in doing this in Charlotte," even though that's where they both lived at the time. He said, "But my family and I have fallen in love with Asheville if you're interested in moving there, we can do this." So, they found a basement in downtown Asheville. There was not a lot going on in downtown Asheville at the 3:00time. You know, a restaurant, I can think of one, a grade show store, still there. You know, very little.

LWA: So, dad really took this huge step, because he saw the potential in Asheville and the culture that was here and the deeply embedded ties to craft, and independence, and those things beautifully tie into craft beer, quality of life. It was a great kind of future that he saw, which he doesn't even admit, but I really think he saw those things.

EL: He admits he lucked out.

LWA: Kind of.

EL: Yeah. So, you talked a little bit about your background in educational sales prior to your coming here. Do you see tie-ins between the work did there, benefits from having had that work, in what you're doing here today.

LWA: I do in that I was doing something that I loved, and so I continued doing 4:00those things, like sticking my nose in marketing. I love those things, and I did sales for a long time. The sales that we do now is so much more sophisticated than what I did, and how I did it for Highland for just a year and half, how I started at the company, but I do think that the experience is always great, and you're learning things all the time that are really about the most important things, and that's people and relationships, working with different types of people, and so that always is helpful, and going through your own successes and your own failures along the way, really, really valuable.

LWA: I know that's what dad was kind of watching me do in my prior career, because I was an independent contractor, so you really have those successes and failures that you just have to own them all, and that was a great time for me. I think I did bring over a lot of things here that I still enjoy doing and brought 5:00a different set of skills from what my father had established.

EL: Right. So, kind of tying into that, when you first became president, what year was that?

LWA: 2015.

EL: 2015. Was there changes that you made in the business to kind of better reflect your vision or your kind of ideas for the brewery.

LWA: Yes. So, the biggest change that I have done that is recent, and I say I, but our whole team did with help from third parties, I changed the brand, and it was a radical change. It was something that we started hearing inklings about from our own team, from other industry friends, from our distributor partners. It was kind of all over the place, and that kind of grew, and it caused us to do real research to see if we could back up what we hearing, and we did, and part of that research is with our team, me serving everybody here in this beautiful 6:00alignment and kind of who we really were, and then we focused on showing that with our brand.

LWA: I think we've done that. So, that's one piece. You know, dad's really unusual. The entrepreneur, the first generation, normally would be expected to hang on really tightly to a company that they have given birth to, and nursed for so long, and developed, and created their own image of this thing that just didn't exist before. My father is this hands-off make it yours, since the day I walked in, and I'm so fortunate for that. I'm really grateful for him, even though sometimes it's terrifying for him to be like, "Do whatever you want. You'll figure it out."

LWA: I did get to figure it out, you know me, and then working with my own team that's been here. I think that, that is rare and really special. So, over time, I now have, it took years, but I now have more comfort in feeling like, "Okay, 7:00Highland can represent me, and I don't have to be dad, and I can't. I would do a terrible job of that trying." So, it's been fun to kind of get comfortable in that space, and then see what I can bring from that comfort.

EL: Right. So, as you kind of moved into the position, and even still today, are there still specific resources that you draw on to kind of build your skills as a leader here?

LWA: You know, yes. Building my skills as a leader here has restarted with hiring a VP who had so much, has so much industry experience from working at a distributor, you know delivering from trucks, up to leading that distributor and leading other distributors. So he ended up leading a wine company. So, that as kind of my partner here from the beginning was so valuable, and still is, and my 8:00husband is here. We roped him into working twice as much for half the pay, and he is an engineer and a general contractor, and he built this beautiful deck that we're sitting on right now.

LWA: So, it's been wonderful to have his support both mentally and physically with his efforts that he's contributing. [construction noise] How's that sound doing for you? Is that going to be okay?

EL: It's fine.

LWA: Cool.

EL: It's fine. You know, you've been here for a few years now, but you know, you probably still had a look at the local brewing scene before that having kind of grown up in a family that was involved in the industry. Can you talk a little bit about the changes in the local brewing scene, but also kind of how the local brewing scene has affected Asheville. Kind of a two part question.

LWA: Yeah. So, it's changed. I mean "radical" doesn't even begin to describe 9:00from being the pioneers in town, and then seeing it grow into a handful, and then now there are 30 some odd in Asheville alone, and then you go to western North Carolina and North Carolina, I think we're at about 170. So, it's just been an explosion of growth, and there has been a couple of effects to that on us, and I'm actually, those effects can be positive.

LWA: So, more people are coming to Asheville. That's great for everybody. Beer is actually a top five reason for people to come to the city now. That's amazing. So, I'm thrilled about that, and also with smaller breweries opening up, with some of the largest breweries in the country building in or near Asheville, it's really made us define who we are more clearly to look at ourselves more closely, and to be better at what we do.

EL: To kind of go off of that, how do you define the main mission or Highland?


LWA: I want to the Pride of the Southeast. We're born and bred in Asheville, 100% of our effort is in this one location, which I love, but we're really distributed in seven south eastern states, and there's a reason for that. We're Highland to honor the Scots-Irish history in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. So, that's kind of where we distribute our beer. That corner of the US, and I love that we have a reason for being where we are, and so kind of sharing that story with folks, and sharing my dad's American dream story.

LWA: He's an immigrant. He's Chinese, but was born and raised in Jamaica. Came to the US to get an education. Started and engineering business as a second fund, career, hobby, retirement gone horribly wrong. He starts a brewery, and this thing is bigger than he ever imagined, and he's thrilled that I'm here, and 11:00I'm thrilled that he's here. So, we're in this really wonderful story that continues to evolve and part of a bigger community that has done a great thing for Asheville, which to this day doesn't have a ton of industry, and it celebrates beer, and independent beer, and owning its breweries, and that people come here and enjoy it.

LWA: We love that. The city is very proud of that, and then as a state, North Carolina is one of the top in the country for beer production and visitation. So, it's really been a wonderful thing, and industry that's grown a lot, even in 2008 during that crash in craft beer, great numbers. There was something to celebrate at that time. I'm proud to be part of that.

EL: Right. So over the years, Highland has supported a number of community and advocacy related groups, particularly those focused on environmental issues. Can you talk a little bit about the role of the brewery in supporting these type of 12:00community initiatives, and these types of partnerships.

LWA: The brewery has always been involved, and that was something my dad established early on. Community service is part of his life and so it's part of any company of which he gives his time, and so one of our earlier partnerships that I'm aware of is with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy, and so they protect land in perpetuity, and so that permanence just speaks volumes to me.

LWA: So, that's, the land and the landscape that we're enjoying up here, and it's the water resources, the water we use for brewing. So, if I can contribute to permanently protecting those things that brought my family here, that people move here to enjoy, it's really just part of the lifestyle here. Then we're protecting something for everybody else in the future, and that feels great to me.

LWA: We donate, it could be time, service, it can be money. It can be beer, and 13:00we're constantly involved and really try to focus in four different areas of our giving. So, that's been really cool to kind of align our values to where we give, and there are a lot of great places to give in Asheville. Did you know there more non-profits here per capita than anywhere else in the country? It's just crazy.

LWA: So, all these good people live here that want to do good things and that's part of the draw. It's part of the magic of this town, but anyway, we had to focus on areas, because there are so many good things to do, and that's been a cool thing. People in need, natural and cultural resources, health and wellness, and animals in need.

EL: That's not a bad quartet of areas to support.

LWA: It's cool.

EL: That covers a lot of areas, too. That's really awesome. Well, one of the things we were talking about before we started filming was the solar panels that we saw in some of the kind of physical plant sustainability efforts that you 14:00guys had gone through and put in. Can you talk a little bit about that?

LWA: I would love to, yes. So, we're sitting on this roof, and we have the view of our solar array. We have 1,045 solar panels. In I think 2016 or 2015, we found out that this solar array in our little brewery is actually the third largest of any craft brewer in the country, and we're not anywhere close to the third largest brewer in the country. So, we have this completely outsized solar array, and it was the 13th largest of any brewery in the world at that time.

LWA: I'm thrilled by that. We didn't do it on purpose, but on a sunny day, we can create more power than we can use, and that's really exciting to me, and any power that we don't use, is going back on the grid to help offset other use of coal and it's a great thing, but it doesn't stop there. There's so many things that we try to do on an ongoing basis. Between having LED and motion sensitive 15:00lights wherever we can have them in the brewery, we've swapped them all out. We have used timber that we had to harvest, didn't have to harvest, but we're doing some expansion around here.

LWA: If we take down a tree, we want to use that tree. So, our bar taps in the event center are made from trees harvested from the property. Using double walled glass that keeps more heat out, you know, temperature changes minimized. That's really important to us, so we're constantly looking at ways, working with the power company to, there's a program they have, they can kind of turn off utilities during peak times to reduce peak need, and that doesn't help us, but it's something we can do.

LWA: So, there's this little monitor in there that does that for us, and that helps kind of reduce peak usage in the whole area.

EL: That's pretty cool. So, can you talk a little bit about the size of Highland today, both in terms of capacity, production capacity, and people.


LWA: Yeah. So, we're a lot bigger than we ever anticipated, and we're growing, which is fantastic. We're at about 50 full time people. A dozen or two part time folks, and we're at about 43,000 barrels annually, and that puts us, easily within the top 100 of craft brewers in the country. We're really excited about that, but my goal is not to be the biggest. I don't have a desire to send beer across the country. I really like being where we are, and being important here.

LWA: We're really fortunate that people come from all over the place, to North Carolina and to Asheville specifically, so I just wanted to come here.

EL: It's not a bad place to come. So, you mentioned kind of growth that you didn't anticipate at the beginning, and continued to grow over the last few 17:00years, but in terms of not just production and people, the physical space has grown tremendously. Can you talk a little bit about some of the changes that you guys have implemented, the reason kind of, but also kind of maybe describe them a little bit on camera.

LWA: Yeah, this is, so we're on a 40 acre site right now, and this building is about twice the size of the brewery. So, there are other tenants in the building. That means though, that we've got plenty of room to grow over time, and with this 40 acres, we're going to cut trails this summer on our property. So exciting to me. There's a stream here that no one gets to see, and just enjoying walking through the woods as part of where I spend my work days is .. that is the reflection of me that we were talking about earlier, like making this place somewhere that I enjoy being that offers the life balance that's really important to me.

LWA: So, I can't wait to add that, but the history of the property is really 18:00interesting. It was a forgotten building. It had just fallen into such disrepair, and so when my father decided that he was going to rent part of this building, I thought he had lost his mind. The roof was leaking everywhere. There were trees growing out of the floor. There was mold. There was asbestos. You name it. We had it.

LWA: It was just nuts. So, piece by piece we have been rehabilitating this old building and this old property. It's been through a lot, and it's wonderful to take something that was forgotten, and have people be a part of seeing what we're doing here, because it takes a lot of time and a lot of money. So, it's really been an interesting project. There have been some really weird things that we found in the building from old movie sets, fake dynamite, rotating saw blades, just crazy stuff. So, what an adventure for us to take this building.

LWA: The meadow is an old softball field for the companies that were here 19:00decades ago, and so we started with the production area. We had to make beer and we were set up as a distributing brewery. Started there, a couple people started showing up. So, we set up a tap box, kind of next to the tanks, and then more people started coming, and then they started bringing their dogs, and they were too close to the grain bags and the tanks, and it was uncomfortable. So, we let them outside, and then it got really crowded. So, we opened up the meadow, and it was just kind of a pile of dirt at the time.

LWA: We didn't have bathrooms or a place to serve beer, so we just packed it together for a little while and let that developed, and really at the request of the staff, and to their credit, because the industry was changing, and they said your people really want to see us. They want to come here, see how the brewery operates. Who are the people behind it? What does it smell like? What does it look like?

LWA: So, we opened up the tasting room. Dad never envisioned that we'd be in the 20:00hospitality business, and it's so important to us, and I love that people want to come here. So, let's give them a great experience. So, that's been an iterative process of opening the tasting room, and function before form. That's how it works with family owned companies. So, you get it working, and you just keep working on it. So, it's been fun to do that, build the deck, the packaging hall was our more recent production upgrade. Took a terrible room, and now it's beautiful. It just shines and has our best equipment in there.

LWA: The team takes care of it beautifully, and we sort of built at the same time an event center and the rooftop bar that we're sitting on right now, and that was really to house private events. We couldn't accommodate all of the private event requests that we were getting, and we didn't want to close down the tasting room, because would inevitably show up and be disappointed that we were closed. So, we can say yes now to guests that are showing up out of nowhere 21:00and to the wedding party that wants to come and celebrate.

LWA: So, that's what happening this evening, actually. A huge wedding rehearsal here tonight, and we're delighted to be able to have that experience of Highlands expand and be part of people's personal celebrations. My father has always been a celebrator, so this is such a natural extension of him, and the way that we built the event center, once you go up to the mezzanine there's huge glass windows that you can see right into the production area.

LWA: So, you're kind of on the same level as the depalletizer, and you can see the bottles moving through all the production areas. So, it's a great way to be in touch in with kind of what's really going on here. It's good ole manufacturing right when you're celebrating the most special time of a couple's life. So, it's really cool.

EL: Well, and that kind of plays on something that I think you mentioned a minute ago, and it's a theme that we kind of heard from other folks too, where 22:00it's a growing interest by consumers, but also the industry and highlighting the people. So, you know still focusing on the beer, but also now people who are drinking the beer want to know more about the people that are going on.

LWA: They do, and I am so glad for that. It's the people that make everything work, and our staff shows up at the bar after work every day. So, guests that come here, I can usually point out, "Yep, there's 10 or 15 people drinking free," but it's a delightful thing to me to know that they put in a day's work and they still are willing to hang out here, together, and enjoy our beer together. It's the greatest thing. Yeah, I love having people here.

EL: Yeah. So, you mentioned just a minute ago, you mentioned the rebranding. Can you talk a little bit about, I guess both the physical description of the rebranding. since we're doing this as a video interview. How you would describe...


LWA: [holding up branded glass] Here's a cool display right here. How's that?

EL: Yes, and kind of what drove the change. You talked a little bit about the conversations.

LWA: We just started hearing voices, it was like hearing voices in your head almost coming from different directions, and then that was followed by the real research, and that was so enlightening. It was so important to do that piece. So, we looked at, I'll tell you about the research first, and then go into what we looked like and what we look like now, and you'll know the why behind that.

LWA: So, the research was in three critical pieces. The biggest piece was a Nielsen study, you know, the tv, big time... I never thought we could be part of something like that. So, that was amazing to have thousands of people take part in a study, that don't really know us, and see what their first impressions were, and it was pretty clear that they were confused. They thought we should be making Scottish beer, which was a great point, because we looked very Scottish, and some of them even thought that we were an import.

LWA: I thought, "No, we're an American success story." So, we had to straighten 24:00that out, and then another group that we talked to, is kind of our fans, whether through social media, the newsletter, people that come here, and we asked all of them, "Fill out our survey about our packaging," and it was amazing to me, because change is hard. It's natural to resist change. It's uncomfortable. 73% of people that like us, told us that our packaging was outdated and/or needed to change.

LWA: That was a huge number. I thought we might see 15%. 73. So, that's almost three quarters of the people that like us. So, huge statement there. We had to listen to that. We had to respond, and then the third group, closest to my heart was my own staff, and I sent out, and I mean sometimes the quickest surveys, those are the ones that people respond to, right? So, I wanted to get everybody, and I said, "What three words come to mind when I say Highland?"


LWA: Our team came back with concepts that I could kind of collect together and put in categories, and it was fascinating, because that data matched what we learned from our branding company, which was pulling together all of the surveys that we had done, and it really said these wonderful things about quality, community, sustainability, family ownership. All of these wonderful things, and so we really focused on, and pioneering, being the first brewery in Asheville and continuing to do great things.

LWA: So, that became our focus, and we're not actually Scottish. Our name carries on that heritage. I would never change the name. I love it. It's perfect. We're on high land, physically right now. The history of the Scots-Irish, but since we don't make Scottish beer, I couldn't justify having a Scottish brand. So, the name continues, and the look had to really reflect who 26:00we are, and who we are in this day and age is very different from how we started in 1994.

LWA: So, the pioneering spirit comes through. So, we developed this simplified compass. So, that kind of gets the pioneering spirit across, and this kind of artistic H in the middle, that really spoke to me. I wanted a powerful H, and I didn't know what that was going to look like, but that's something that came with a few iterations, so I'm finally really happy with this and calling out Asheville, because we're proud to be here, and calling out 1994, because it's been a long time, and we're proud of that too. So, that's how we got to our new logo, and we changed everything that we did.

LWA: It was super expensive, and exhausting, and terrifying to make that big of a change, and it was worth every bit of it.

EL: Yeah, it's a lovely logo. I really like it.

LWA: Thank you, thank you. I'm thrilled with it.

EL: So, you know, you've got the new space, you've got the new branding. Where do you see the company going in the next five to 10 years, or where would you 27:00like it to go, I guess would be better way to put that.

LWA: Right. So, I would like it to again, be the pride of the southeast, and to me, that can mean, we've barely scratched the surface on this destination. 40 acres, huge building, a lot of frontage that you just kind of drive by and you sort of advert your eyes right now. It's not pretty, but it could be pretty. So, over 5-10 years, we could have complimentary businesses up here.

LWA: How would that look, and who would we want to be neighbors with? And who would be excited to be here and could contribute to being authentic, to being true to Asheville, to being close to craft and independence, like all of those great things, and I think that they're really exciting directions that we can go with our destination, and because I believe in this destination so much, I think that drawing people here for a great experience and then having them hopefully retell that experience, and buy our beer in the states where we distribute.


EL: I guess we've kind of tapped danced around this a little bit, but we talked about the physical space, but not the location. Can you describe, just for the folks who might not know, where Highland, where the location is compared to, and downtown where everything started.

LWA: Yeah, which is one of our biggest blessings, and also one of our biggest challenges. So, Highland Brewing Company is about five minutes from Downtown Asheville, and we started in downtown, but there's not enough space for us there. So, we had to move.

EL: When was that move?

LWA: That was in 2005? Maybe 2006.

EL: Okay, that sounds about right.

LWA: It was 2005, from the basement, which we outgrew long before we left it. I mean it was just crammed in there, to this cavernous space, and that was a huge thing. So, we're a few minutes outside of downtown and 10 million people come to 29:00Asheville every year. I just need them to come five minutes outside downtown to this beautiful hilltop.

LWA: So, giving them great things to do, great beer to have, and also a great experience outside, inside, whether there are other businesses here someday, I think that there is a lot of potential in that, and it's exciting.

EL: And there are, you mentioned, there are kind of businesses that are out here with you now. Is it primarily distilling companies? That's what it looked like driving. I wasn't really sure.

LWA: So, just the one, and then there are other random assortment of companies. Yeah. Doing all kinds of things.

EL: Oh, okay. Very cool. What would you say is your favorite part of working kind of in the industry here in Asheville or in North Carolina.

LWA: I've had a wonderful experience getting to meet and work with people that I never would have otherwise, and that's really across industries. One of the most exciting that I've had experiences is, I'm a greenways fanatic. Anywhere I 30:00travel, I look for greenways, I try to experience them. I think it's one of the greatest things that municipality can offer to citizens, and in Asheville as outdoorsy as we are, we're a very small city.

LWA: So, we don't have as developed a system as we could. I'd like to help develop that. So, we raised money for Greenways through a couple of different organizations, and that effort, like I was focused on the East Asheville Greenway, that's where Highland is, but it's also where, it's very highly residential connected to very highly commercial, but not connected by anything you can get to on foot safely.

LWA: So, whether it's getting people to jobs, keeping people healthier, like there's a lot of reasons to have that connectivity, and so we were raising money for this specific East Asheville Greenway, and I got to work with somebody at the city, because I guess I was talking about it a lot, and she was like, "I can 31:00help you understand how this process works a little bit," and she's delightful.

LWA: So, I got to learn about that, and then we're raising money, and then we talked to other people, and then it turned into we raised enough money for the feasibility study. It was like, "Yes, landmark," and we got to share that with the people that run our race, that raises money for this effort, and then somehow the city council took notice of the effort and conversation around this, and between them and the mayor, they put together a bond package and included the East Asheville Greenway on it, and the voters passed it.

LWA: So, all of a sudden, we have a plan and funding to build a multi-million dollar greenway in this little city, and what is now going to be, I believe five years, it was seven years at the time. I didn't know that could happen. I was just trying to do a good thing, that I knew would take a really long time, and 32:00it is amazing. I literally danced in the brewery. I was so happy when I found this out, and so many people made it happen and listened, and so that's really the exciting thing.

LWA: This is a brewery, and so much more, and we can bring people together around things here, like I never even imagined.

EL: That's amazing. One of the things that always makes me happy about, honestly, the industry is so many people seem committed to making their areas, their neighborhoods, their towns, a better place.

LWA: Absolutely.

EL: So, one of the questions, you know, are focused this summer with some of our interviews is talking to women leaders and brewers in the industry. You know, one of the questions that we like to ask folks, the women that we're talking to is kind of to reflect on being a woman in the industry, challenges, benefits, 33:00things that you feel may be unique to you as a woman leading a brewery the size of Highland.

LWA: I mean, it's unique in so many ways to lead the brewery and I feel fortunate. Once in a while, I've been sort of verbally patted on the head by a man who has been in the industry for decades, once in a while, but I can live with that, because I think the benefit and the overall welcoming nature of the coolness of people that are in this industry far outweighs like the few instances where I've been like, "Okay. He doesn't get it." It's few and far between.

LWA: I feel really fortunate, and it's kind of I think standing out is a great thing. So, if I'm one of few women in the room, like I take that as a benefit, and people are really kind in his industry. So, sometimes there's a lot of golf 34:00sometimes. I don't play golf. So, I feel like we should all be able to go shopping, or get our nails done, or get a massage and have that paid for. I haven't done it yet, but it's a real time thing, so it may happen at some point, and I expect full support from the industry.

EL: I will happily come.

LWA: You're invited.

EL: So, if you had a young woman fresh out of college, who's looking to enter the industry, what type of advice would you give her?

LWA: Go for it, first of all, and don't be afraid to go for any position in which you have interest. So, whether it's more traditional roles or going to be probably in marketing, our entire quality department is women. All three of them are women. We have a female brewer. Our key accounts manager is a woman. We have 35:00lots of women in key positions here, and so just go for it, and I've really enjoyed learning from people. I haven't selected women or selected men intentionally, but everybody has something potentially that I can learn from.

LWA: So, picking up from everyone has been really beneficial to me. Finding role models and close friends with whom you can share without any worry, you know, just share it all, get it out there. That's really important, too. So, finding a smaller network, that's probably going to be women, but I do have a couple of really special friends who happen to be men, and they're business leaders and sharing with them on a really personal level, we have a very high level of trust. So trust trumps whether it's male/female relationships, and that's critical.

EL: So, kind of playing off of the networking that you just mentioned, you have 36:00been heavily with North Carolina Craft Brewer's Guild. Can you talk a little bit about your work with that group, and why you feel that involvement with a group like that is important?

LWA: Yeah, my involvement with the guild with I think a four year stint on the board, and I was so new to Highland when I was elected to the board, that I was like, "Oh, crap. What am I supposed to know, and what am I supposed to do?" So, it was such a growth period for me, and I was fortunate to serve on the board at the same time of some really, really bright people that you've met in your travels.

LWA: Sean [Lilly Wilson] at Fullsteam is one of them. Erik [Lars Myers] at Mystery and Todd [Ford] at NoDa. Now, Jamie [Bartholomaus] at Foothills, and so just wonderful, really smart people that I enjoy being around. So, it was great to get kind of a picture of where the state was, is, how we could grow together, and indeed we were one of the five leading states in craft beer growth.


LWA: It was two years ago, I believe at the Craft Brewer's Conference, and they showed this map, and top five state for craft brewing growth, and they were all in the west coast, and then bam, right over here in North Carolina. I was like, "Wow." So, that was like such an affirming thing to see. So, making great beer is important, and we want everybody to make great beer, and then people come from all over everywhere else to come see what we're doing. That's a great compliment, and it's a celebration. Beer is a celebration, gathering people together.

LWA: So, gathering people over the best quality beer that we can make, and kind of gathering together to share resources and learnings, because we all screw up. It is from the smallest brewery to the largest, it can be really amazing to see what similarities we have in things that can go wrong, and so it's fantastic to 38:00have our folks that have similar jobs talking to people in different sized breweries, and we all are from each other, and all just kind of go like, "God, I can't believe that happened," and somebody else at a larger brewery would be like, "We just did the same thing. It's okay. You live through it." All in the name of making a better product and using the best resources.

EL: Yeah. Let's talk about the product a little bit. Can you talk a little bit about Highland's flagship beer, but also some of the others? I think some of your beers have been around in some way, shape, or form for quite a while.

LWA: For a very long time, I'm really proud of that, too. So, we have a beautiful mix, but I'll start at the beginning which was Gaelic Ale, and Gaelic, I've had obscene amounts of that beer, and I still order that beer. If I have food, that is the beer I order, and I should love my beer. I do love my beer, and I don't make it. So, my life is in the hands of really talented people from 39:00sourcing the right ingredients, to brewing, to packaging, to distribution, to quality.

LWA: They all make that happen, and I'm honored by the work that they do. Some of the recipes have been around for 25 years, almost now, and some of them are brand new that we're developing. We're developing things all the time, and we really went through a renaissance around kind of a bit prior, actually to the brand refresh, because we wanted to lead with beer. We did that the right way, and a marketing company would be horrified by that I'm sure.

LWA: They would say, "You got to do it at the same time." We're a brewery. We wanted to, we've been doing the same thing for a while, to be honest, and so kind of freshening up what we did so that we were inspired by what we were doing first, and soon that spread to our distributors, our retailers, the people that love our beer, and more people would love our beer hopefully.

LWA: So, we started changing things up, and really got into, upped our IPA game. 40:00We had made one English style IPA for a very long time. It was an excellent example of that, but America didn't fall in love with English IPAs. They fell in love with its own style, and so we wanted to do that beautifully, and we hired the right people to help us do that. Our brewmaster really helped us turn the corner on that, source the right hops.

LWA: We went on a hop trip together. It was amazing, and we really came up with several recipes over time. We've tweaked one that we started with, but seeing that evolution here has been so exciting, and now we have a balance of the established, and tried and true, and wonderful go to beers, and the inventive ones that are newer for us, that really get into a different game.

LWA: We've got programs cooking right now that we haven't released to the public yet, because it's so important to us to do it beautifully before we do it for everybody. Let's do it for ourselves and get it right. So, there's all kinds of 41:00excitement internally right now about things that are coming.

EL: Yeah. Can you talk about maybe an example of one the newer ones that you have released?

LWA: Yeah, so let's talk about AVL IPA, and which is our airport code, so it's a great thing. I hope that they'll carry the beer forever, that would make sense, but it's this beautiful IPA, this aromatic that finishes gently. The finish on our beers has come along recently and raised, and I'm just so proud of. So, I think we've just gotten this American, west coast inspired, that America and East coast tweaked.

LWA: So, really proud of that beer. It's doing beautifully for us, and all the new packaging that has come out. That's part of the excitement here too. They're seeing Gaelic in a different bottle. It's super weird for us. We've seen it the most, but seeing that kind of family of things together, and how they look on a shelf, we're really proud of that.


EL: So, this past year, you were named a semi-finalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Wine, Beer, or Spirits Professional. Can you talk a little bit? How did that feel? That had to be insanely amazing.

LWA: Can I talk about how shocking that was? That came out of the total blue. Sean Wilson at Fullsteam sent me a cryptic text that said, "If you don't know already, some good news is headed your way," and I was like, "I don't know what he's talking about." So, I called him, and he told me what it was, and I kind of couldn't believe it. So, I had to get on Twitter myself, which I don't do, and saw the announcement.

LWA: It's amazing. It's amazing, and it speaks to really what everybody else has done at Highland with making beer, getting it out the door, having it look beautiful, having it taste beautiful, and the recent like that renaissance, that we've had in recent years, we are a reflection of ourselves more now, and now 43:00where we've caught up to developing that, and developing our beer at the same time. So, it's super exciting.

LWA: I could not be more excited about the James Beard nomination. I felt like I won, even though that was just kind of the first round, but just really wonderful, exciting, and honor, and I looked at the rest of the list, and I was like, "Wow, all these people are like legit that are on this list." So, just delighted, and I will put my little certificate on the wall as soon as possible. It's awesome.

EL: Well, I think it says a lot about North Carolina, too, because we had ... Sean was on the list as well.

LWA: Yes, so two beer, wine, spirits, professionals, and then other people from North Carolina. There were other chefs in Asheville and in North Carolina. So, North Carolina showed out. It was terrific.

EL: Yeah, so, let's talk a little bit about your favorite beer from here. Do you 44:00go classic with the Gaelic, or do you have another favorite? Or can you choose a favorite?

LWA: So, I am completely mood based. I am allowed to do that. Again, when I'm eating food, Gaelic is my go to, absolutely, and then you know, it's so much fun to kind of go around the horn with our classics, too, because I don't drink Oatmeal Porter or Black Mocha very often, but when I do I'm like, "Dammit, that's a great beer," and I'm so proud of it, and I haven't even tried all of our pilot brews, because I can't drink that much.

LWA: We're releasing them every Friday, and it's so much fun to hear the staff talking about them, and sometimes I just have to get samplers. I can't drink enough pints to keep up with everything. It's wonderful, and I'm gathering information from our staff, and our staff is very carefully monitoring what our guests are drinking and what they're saying. So, it's great to have this kind of constant buzz around our beers, and I enjoy them so much, and I'm really proud 45:00of our quality and consistency. So, that's never going to go away. The inventiveness is ramping up all the time.

EL: Yeah, so also have the question that tends to be the hardest to answer, which is, do you have a favorite beer or brewery other than your own? Favorite North Carolina beer or North Carolina brewery that you like when you're maybe not drinking.

LWA: Wow. I will, I mean I have had several recently that I've enjoyed. So, Sierra Nevada, kind of anything they make is going to be on point. I like the sour saisons from New Belgium. I just had Trophy Wife from Trophy Brewing. Lovely, and I don't get out as much as I'd like, because I am always here, but there is so much great beer I know that's out there that I haven't even tried, 46:00and just being in town. The Burial folks are doing a great job, and it's really fun to get out and enjoy what other people are doing, and see how their contributing to a really cool industry.

EL: Yeah, so we talked a little bit about your vision for Highland for the next five years, but industry-wide, do you have a picture of where you see the industry going in the next five years?

LWA: It's a crazy time.

EL: When you back up five years, I don't know that people could have guessed where we would be today.

LWA: Yeah, I wish I had the crystal ball. I think there's some really critical things happening with distributors, retailers, and breweries, and so I think we have to be really careful about breweries are opening. Consumers love to go to breweries. I love that. I'm banking on that. I'm investing in it. At the same 47:00time, having breweries all over the place can stretch some retailers that have been supporting those breweries.

LWA: So, I think we've got to be really careful about and intentional about those relationships. That's why I've got one location and we're on this hilltop, and people are going to go about that different ways, and I'm sure they've got benefits, because everybody is careful about these relationships. The way that it's going to work for us, is to be this one place, and then there's a lot of activity going on at the state level, which are not really involved in that. We've been the distributor since the first day, and we're passed the self-distribution cap, and so there are certain things I believe in, but don't really get too involved in.

LWA: I know it works for us, so I'm just kind of staying in that lane, and that 48:00there's a lot of passion and importance to people. I love that it's important to people, their businesses should be, no matter where they stand on the industry. So, that's complex, but I think the industry is going to change a lot. We've already seen changes with significantly sized breweries struggling or changing hands.

LWA: Capital investment is changing the whole game, and we are where we are because of really hard work and some hard decisions here and there. I got 10 times more ideas than I have money. That's not going to change. So, that's kind of the challenge, right, is how you continue to express the brands, which is really the people when you get behind it, without resources that you've got. So, I look forward to that. I feel like we're in a great place, and everybody is 49:00going to figure out different ways to do that.

EL: Yeah, and when we did an interview with Sean [Wilson] last month, we were talking to him about Pop the Cap.

LWA: Thank God for that.

EL: He laughed. We asked him how you found out about it, and what was your first post-Pop the Cap beer, and he mentioned Highland.

LWA: Oh, very cool.

EL: So, that was his place in memory, so it's an interesting tie in.

LWA: He was key to that happening, too. I remember meeting him a long time, probably before I was with Highlands, and I knew he was a leading voice in that effort, and I didn't know what it was. So, it's just come a long way, and Sean's been a great leader.

EL: Yeah, but that's obviously something that's had a massive impact on what you guys are producing.

LWA: Yeah. I mean it's so massive that I forget to talk about it, because we wouldn't be, no one would be where we are. The state would not be a beer state without Pop the Cap. So, it kind of happened before I got here, so it's the norm 50:00for me, but I forget that it was not, largely in our history, not the norm. We held ourselves back for a long time.

EL: Right. So, you kind of touched on this already, but when you're not here, when you're not at the brewery. What do you do for fun? How do you enjoy Western North Carolina.

LWA: I love living here. This is such a great place to be, but yeah. It's really important to me to balance things out. So, I love being outside. I run a little bit, but biking, rollerblading, believe it or not. I still have a pair. They're cracking. They're so old, but if I can find a flat place to do that, I love it, but getting outside and hiking is wonderful, and so anything. Tubing. Is that a sport? I've done that.

EL: Sure.

LWA: Probably not a sport, not too many muscles involved in that.

EL: It's certainly an activity.

LWA: It's an activity, but yeah. I love being outside, and to be active is ... 51:00that's what makes me enjoy the beer even more. So, that's why it's important to me to offer activities here, and kind of have people be able to experience all of that right at Highland.

EL: You actually mentioned this in passing a minute ago, but the race that you guys do. Can you talk a little bit about that.

LWA: Yeah, that grueling race that we do, that I almost cry through every year? It is a four and a half mile night race. So, we start from the brewery at 8:00 a night on a summer night, and end up around here, do four and a half miles through the neighborhoods, people are wonderful, and they do chalk paint on the sidewalks, and they spray us with water, and they cheer for us. It's the most fantastic thing. Beverly Hills rocks, and then we come back here and we have a post party, and we drink beer and we give out all of the awards.

LWA: We've raise $40,000 through four years of that race towards greenway's efforts. So, that's delightful. People come out. I mean it's just a great, great 52:00time. I love what it is, and I love what it does.

EL: Yeah. That pretty much comes to the end of my questions. Is there anything we didn't talk about that you want to talk about in terms of Highland or your work here? Did we miss anything?

LWA: No, I think they were great questions. I forgot to say that I like playing volleyball also. I haven't done it in a while. I used to be an addict. I'll admit it. So, we could build a court here one day, but that's one of those 10 times more ideas than money type thing.

EL: Would you be going with a beach court?

LWA: Oh, yeah. Most definitely, and it would be done well, like adjustable net and lines and the correct everything. The right kind of sand so it drains. So, I think probably more people would enjoy trails. So, we'll probably do that first.

EL: Yeah. The court limit is the number of people who can enjoy it at one time.

LWA: It does, especially when I play, because I only want four people on the court. So, that's completely self-serving if I build that court. So, we're going 53:00to put that off.

EL: Sounds good. Well, thank you so much for talking to us today. We really appreciate it.

LWA: No problem. Thanks.