phirx On the Road: Asheville, North Carolina
Highland Brewing Company celebrates their 20th anniversary this year, and it was a natural choice to stop by and check out their operation on our visit to Asheville. I’ve enjoyed Highland beers for more than 15 years (I’m not certain when I first tried one), and remember when they weren’t distributed outside of North Carolina and we would pick up a few six packs to take home if we were passing through. Now Highland is the third largest craft brewery in the Southeast, after Abita (Abita Springs, Louisiana) and Sweetwater (Atlanta).
We got to the taproom at 4 pm so we would have time to sign up for the free tour and have a beer before it began at 4:30. The taproom is quite large and includes a stage where Highland hosts live music most nights they are open. When we arrived it was crowded with folks who were part of a tour of Asheville breweries, but they left shortly after we arrived – I think they probably had their own tour of the brewery before the taproom opened to the public that afternoon.
While I waited, I had the opportunity to try a couple of their small batch brews:
Belmont Abbey Doppelbock 8.3 ABV (7)
20th Anniversary Scotch Ale 8 ABV (8)
Neither of these brews was very hop-forward – even the Doppelbock seemed somehow Scotch in style. It was quite smooth, strong, with alcohol presence and a winey finish. The Anniversary Ale was excellent – a malty, roasty full-bodied wee heavy. I wish they would bottle this one!
Highland’s small batch beers are brewed in the “pilot room” a beautiful 3-barrel system in one room showcased through large windows right off the taproom.
At 4:30 our tour guide Cat poured all the adults a Gaelic Ale and we started our tour. Gaelic Ale is a refreshing, easy to drink copper-colored ale (check out my May 18 post for my homebrew recipe for Celtic Ale, which is not exactly a clone but is inspired by Highland’s flagship beer).
The first thing visitors when they enter the brewery through the double doors off the taproom is “Scotty”, a larger-than-life mascot sitting atop an enclosed office to the side of the large warehouse room that houses the brewery. Comparison with the Highland label (on the door of the office below, and of course on every bottle of Highland beer) will show that whereas on the label Scotty holds the pipes over his left shoulder as is proper, with a beer in his right hand, the huge Scotty sculpture has these positions reversed. Is Scotty really left-handed?
The half hour tour featured a short walk through the brewery with two stops – one near the brew kettle and fermentation tanks, and one near the kegging and bottling lines. Cat shared a lot of information about the basics of the brewing process, and showed the group examples of the grains and hops Highland uses from a small kit. The brewery uses California ale yeast (Chico) for all their flagship beers (on occasion they may use different strains for small-batch brews) and hop pellets – not whole leaf hops – for convenience of storage. They brew three times a day on a 50-barrel system, generating 10,000 lbs. of spent grain a day, which is hauled away by local farmers to feed livestock. Highland produces 40,000 barrels of beer per year.
It was a breezy but interesting tour, clearly honed to a routine from experience, but personable and with time for questions. Nashville is about the furthest point west in Highland’s distribution – I’m so glad we can get their excellent beers here!