Beer Town: Highland founder receives Brewers Association Recognition Award

Oscar Wong, founder of Highland Brewing Co., receives the Brewers Association Recognition Award from his daughter, Leah Wong Ashburn. CONTRIBUTED BY HIGHLAND BREWING CO.

Highland Brewing founder Oscar Wong is one of the nicest and most unassuming people in the craft beer business. And though it’s not pointed out nearly enough, he’s the person most responsible for Asheville becoming a booming craft beer mecca.

All that was finally acknowledged last week, when Wong received the Brewers Association Recognition Award for outstanding contributions to the industry.

According to the Brewers Association, “This award is presented each year to an individual or company whose inspiration, enthusiasm, and support have contributed to the craft brewing movement.”

That certainly describes Wong, a man I’ve known for some 20-plus years. And with the award, Wong joins the ranks of past honorees and American beer pioneers such as Ken Grossman of Sierra Nevada Brewing, and Kim Jordan of New Belgium Brewing.

Of course, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that when California’s Sierra Nevada and Colorado’s New Belgium decided to build new breweries east of the Mississippi, they decided Asheville was the place to be.

“This is over the top. I am so proud and humbled to be in the ranks of this distinguished group of honorees,” Wong said, accepting the award. “It means the world to me that our little brewery from a sleepy mountain town could be recognized for our role in the great American craft beer movement.”

Founder Oscar Wong and President/CEO Leah Wong Ashburn celebrated the 25th anniversary of Asheville’s Highland Brewing Co. in 2019. CONTRIBUTED BY HIGHLAND BREWING CO.

Winning the award in the middle of a pandemic changed how the award was presented. The Brewers Association sent it to him, and his daughter, Leah Wong Ashburn, who’s now Highland’s president and CEO, presented it to him. It was supposed to be awarded at the Craft Brewers Conference in San Antonio in late April.

Celebrated as North Carolina’s first craft brewery, Highland was founded by Wong in 1994, in the basement of Barley’s Taproom in downtown Asheville. The brewery, now located in the Blueridge Business Park and equipped with a 50-barrel brewhouse, celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019. And this year, Wong will celebrate his 80th birthday.

When I called Wong last week, he was on his way to the brewery, where he was planning to enjoy a happy hour gathering at the rooftop bar.

“I just go in to drink or be at parties,” Wong joked. But turning more serious, he talked about what it meant to receive the BA award.

“Ken Grossman, Kim Jordan, I mean these are big-time people,” he said. “To be in the same group with them is just unbelievable. I love it. But, seriously, I’ll be the first person of color in this group. Think about it.”

Wong’s family is Chinese, and he was born in Jamaica in 1940. He came to the U.S. when he was just 18 to attend the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a master’s degree in civil and structural engineering. Before retiring to Asheville, he owned a successful Charlotte-based engineering company.

When I first met Wong at a beer dinner in Atlanta, he told me, “I’m a Chinese Jamaican, who owns a Scottish-themed brewery in Asheville, North Carolina. Only in America.”

He’s thrilled that the business remains in the family.

“She’s not only the president, she’s the board chair,” Wong said of his daughter. “I’m really proud of her, and everything she’s done. And I’m proud to say that all through the pandemic, we’ve never let anybody go.”

Asked what he’s drinking these days, I was a bit surprised when Wong touted Highland’s new Rising Haze IPA.

“I really like that style,” he said. “Of course, my basic go-to is Highland Oatmeal Porter on draft. Other than that, I drink scotch and gin, too.”

In Other News