Leah Wong Ashburn leads the craft-beer bandwagon
Leah Wong Ashburn
President, Highland Brewing, 47
By Edward Martin
Photo by Mike Belleme
It’s not Westminster Abbey, but the view of the Blue Ridge Mountains is inspiring. On the rooftop beer garden of Highland Brewing Co., yes, the bride wears white. Highland is the state’s largest native brewery, and the first in Asheville, an early adopter in an industry that has been transformed from a backyard hobby to home of industrial-chic weddings.
About 240 breweries and related enterprises now employ 10,000 Tar Heels, with an annual impact estimated at more than $1.1 billion, says Andrew Lemley, executive director of the state’s Craft Brewers Guild. With Highland, led by Leah Wong Ashburn and her founder father, Oscar Wong, as inspiration, craft brewing has become an economic engine for scores of communities.
Ashburn became president in 2015. She’s rolling out new brews and branding that evoke Highland’s mountain roots. Highland ships about 47,000 barrels a year to the Carolinas and five other Southeastern states and attracts 100,000 visitors a year for tastings, tours, weddings and civic meetings.
“Highland, Oscar and Leah paved the way for the brewing industry to capture people’s imagination,” says Kit Cramer, president of the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. Asheville, which has 20 breweries including some national players, advertises itself as Beer City USA. “They’re one of the pioneers,” adds competitor Jamie Bartholomaus, owner of Winston-Salem-based Foothills Brewing, founded in 2004, a decade after Highland began in a basement in downtown Asheville. “Sometimes being a pioneer, you’re almost scared to step out too much. Oscar made the decision to bring Leah in, and now Highland is moving in a new direction.”
Oscar is an engineer who earned a reputation as a good-natured ambassador for Tar Heel craft brewing. He turned down Ashburn, a 1992 UNC Chapel Hill journalism graduate, when she applied for a job. “He wanted me to find my own way,” she says. While working at a Charlotte yearbook publisher, she turned Oscar down when he recruited her a few years later.
“I was making more money than he could pay me,” says Ashburn, whose husband, Brock, an engineer, is vice president of operations. “But then other things became more important and the brewery was one of those more important things. It was about being part of the community. You can’t put a value on that.”
She joined Highland in 2011, serves on several civic boards and has a personal crusade to develop more hiking greenways. But maintaining Highland’s edge is full-time work. “In the last three years, 100 new breweries have opened in North Carolina,” Bartholomaus says. “It’s extremely competitive. You can hit three breweries in the same night, all in the same town.”
That foreshadows a shakeout, and Ashburn is positioning Highland to thrive regardless. “We’re proudly regional, and I have no intention of shipping beer across the country,” she says. “Growing up in the midst of a crowded industry is exciting. It has called us to action a little more quickly.”
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