10 questions with Leah Wong Ashburn of Highland Brewing

Leah and her fleet of beers. | Photo courtesy of Highland Brewing

This piece is part of our Q+A series. Do you know someone we should interview? Nominate them at [email protected].

As established in our ultimate list of 50+ Asheville breweries, Asheville’s craft beer scene is prolific. But long before this giant wave of suds, back in 1994, Asheville had one original craft brewery: Highland Brewing Company. 

In honor of Drink Up Week, we chatted with Leah Wong Ashburn — the brewery’s President and CEO about what makes Highland such a local institution, when she decided to pursue brewing, and everything in between. 

 IPA vs. Lager. Which one and why?

Lager because I like to eat, and too many IPAs wrecks your palette.

In your own words, what is unique about Highland Brewing?

We’re the essence of Asheville. This is true because we’re Asheville’s first brewery, and we’re only five minutes away from downtown. We have 40 wooded acres. People can come here and experience all the things they come to Asheville for: beer, food trucks, outdoor activities, mountain views, trails, outdoor recreation and sports like volleyball and disc golf. 

Tell us about when you knew you wanted to pursue brewing.

A lot of elements had to come together for me to decide to join the family business. It was essentially 16 years of conversations and watching. I was a journalism major, and I worked as a yearbook rep, and I loved teaching students. 

But the time came when the challenges of my job were getting smaller, and what it required of me was growing. I had continued watching the brewing staff, and I attended our annual retreat, and things started to come together. With the encouragement of my husband, dad, and staff, I decided to join the family business.

If you could give a James Beard award to anyone else in Asheville, who would it be and why?

Sovereign Remedies. Every cocktail is delicious, and there are so many vegetable-centric and vegetarian dishes that are so thoughtfully done. Vegetables there are given equal value to meats, and it’s incredibly delicious. 

Who are 2-3 other local leaders you’re inspired by? Why?

Avril Pender, the county manager. I don’t know her super well, but she took a hard job and she’s so smart and incredible. She exudes strength. Nancy Cable, UNC Asheville’s chancellor. She’s a rock star, she never stops. She took the school through the pandemic, and she was the driving force behind the Asheville Ideas Fest. 

We’re moving to Mars. You can only choose one other local business to bring with you — which one is it and why?

Ingles. It has everything you need in one place. 

What do you think Asheville will be known for in 10 years?

Refuge. That refers to climate refugees, which is already happening, and just what the mountains and so much creativity represents: an escape for so many. 

What do you think Asheville business owners have in common?

I think we’re all sort of basically a B corp. As a community, we all seem to have our values written into our reasons for being. Not just business for empowerment, but also for providing benefits to the community at large, whether that’s social justice, fair wages, etc.

How can people learn more about your history + support your business?

Come visit us and drink lots of beer responsibly. 

What’s your experience working as a woman in the brewing industry in Asheville? 

I’m very fortunate because Asheville is very welcoming for women in business. The entire brewing community, specifically the women, are very supportive. And there are great business resources for women to support and celebrate each others’ successes: the WomanUP initiative from the Chamber, the Asheville SBTDC office, the Western Women’s Business Center’s annual conference. On top of that, I was very fortunate to have a father who knew I could do this before I believed it myself. My husband and family have been by my side the whole time. 

What do you wish Ashevillians knew about the brewing industry?

Everyone knows it’s fun and collaborative, but not everyone knows it’s not easy. As the industry matures, we see the same challenges others see: we’re not immune to social issues. We have to deal with consolidation, price compression, and that’s balanced at times with the joy of creating and making. And that spirit runs so deeply in this community.