Made By Mountains Story
Leah Wong Ashburn
The craft beer industry thrives in WNC because the mixture of natural beauty and quality of life ties so beautifully into the region’s love of great food and drink.
Leah Wong Ashburn is the CEO of Highland Brewing, Asheville’s first legal brewery since prohibition. Her father, Oscar Wong, founded the company in 1994 in the basement of Barley’s Taproom. They’ve since grown to occupy a large brewing facility nestled on more than 40 acres of land—their own mini outdoor paradise. From the beginning, they’ve been inspired by and committed to protecting the region’s amazing natural resources.
Leah Wong Ashburn is the CEO of
Highland Brewing Company
On Choosing WNC
My parents fell in love with Asheville on their first visit: the mountains, the people, and the culture really spoke to them. The history of creative makers runs so deep in our area that I think Highland Brewing was born by these inspiring surroundings. Craft beer is really all about innovation and creativity.
The craft beer industry thrives in WNC because the mixture of natural beauty and quality of life ties so beautifully into the region’s love of great food and drink. As a part of a recent meeting, we took our entire sales team for a hike to Craggy Pinnacle on the Blue Ridge Parkway. We really wanted to do something outside so that our reps from across North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee could really understand why we’re here in Western North Carolina, and what is so amazing about it.
It was wonderful to see their delight at the wildlife and the 360-degree views from Craggy Pinnacle. But for us, this is just everyday life. I have two incredible mountain views just on my ten-minute commute to work everyday! That experience allowed our staff to live a little chapter in our story and helped them to better understand our culture—and even our branding and packaging.
On Difficult Decisions
In 2018 we made the decision to update our brand. It was terrifying. Here I was making changes to my dad’s 20-year-old company. But our beer portfolio had evolved, and we wanted our brand to reflect that. We were able to work with a designer who had grown up in Black Mountain. He was not only familiar with our area; he knew exactly where we started and what we’d become. Referring to our original brand, he said, “You guys are not Scottish. You are pioneers!” That was really the key.
Our logo now revolves around a simplified compass to capture that pioneering spirit. When I saw it, I said, “This is right.” I knew it was a reinvigorated brand rooted in the same place, but our identifying characteristic was moving forward. That really spoke to our staff. They were like, “Let’s keep creating. Let’s keep innovating. Let’s keep forging a path.” Our branding now reflects the brand that we are today and will be tomorrow.
We’ve also designed our packaging to reflect WNC’s beautiful natural resources. All of our year-round beers feature mountains on the packaging, and our seasonal beers are tied to something of regional significance, be it mountains, flora, or fauna. I think that beer and the outdoors complement each other beautifully. Enjoying a great beer and exploring the outdoors are both celebratory experiences. They give you a feeling of connection.
On Being Immigrant-Owned And Woman-Led
It’s great to stand out. When Highland was founded in 1994, we stood out because we were the only brewery. We’re now part of a huge community, but we still stand out because of our diversity. I think being a woman-led company has made women more comfortable applying to work here. 40 percent of our staff and nearly 50 percent of our management are women. That percentage of women in management is rare in general, but in craft beer, it’s almost non-existent.
On Beer And The Outdoors
My earliest memories of coming to Asheville are of visiting my parents when they owned a place that they called “The Farm.” When I pulled up and opened my car door, the air was different. I couldn’t help but take a huge deep breath of this mountain air. That is so special, and it’s easy to lose.
People often make the decision to move to Western North Carolina before they’ve even decided what to do for work. It’s our outdoors that draw them. I think that says a lot about what this area has to offer. There people care a lot about our natural resources – and they also care about protecting those resources.
We’ve always operated with a long-term view, and conserving our 40-acre property is a big part of that approach. We recently hired a full time land management professional. With his help, we’re working to control invasive species and develop trails that complement the land—not destroy it. We’re also creating opportunities to go outside, be it to play volleyball or disc golf, or to walk trails. That’s important because when you bring people to the outdoors, they care more about it.
On Being Made By Mountains
Getting outdoors in WNC is my mental health, centering, recovery, and inspiration. One of my favorite things to do is to go to Bent Creek by myself and run. There’s just something so refreshing about that experience: the quiet, the fresh air, and being around others who are enjoying the same things.
I feel like I’m a better person living here. I give credit to the people who live here and the culture of this place, but that’s all based on the natural beauty that we have. You can’t have one without the other. I’ve felt inspired to dive into who Highland is, what we stand for, and what we can become because of our surroundings.