We whiled away our first afternoon in Asheville on Wedge Brewing Company's outdoor patio, but torrential downpours on day two sent us scrambling for the welcome shelter of Highland Brewing Company's tasting room atop a hill outside of town. We were drenched, so Dirk—the irrepressibly affable brewery expert—led us on a tour of the facility until we had dried off enough to sit down for a flight of Highland's staples and seasonals.
Our Highland visit had actually started the night before when we stopped by Barley's Taproom, the downtown beer bar that loaned its basement to Oscar Wong's fledgling brewery in the early 90's. Since then, Highland has become one of the South's flagship craft breweries, and its iconic bagpiper graces store shelves from Florida to Virginia. New York, sadly, has so far eluded its reach, so once we were safely ensconced in the tasting room, we couldn't leave until we'd tried every style on offer.
Our procession down Highland's impossibly long tasting board began with St. Terese's Pale Ale, a starkly clear golden beer speckled with fine carbonation. The citrusy hop signature left by Chinook and Cascade dry-hopping joined delicate toasted and caramel malt aromas, and the same subtle sweetness and hop flavors produced a mild, balanced and unquestionably drinkable brew.
Like the local immigrants it honors, Highland's first and most popular beer bridges old world and new, combining a Scottish-inspired grain bill with American hops to produce a modern amber ale. True to form, the pour was the color of teak or iced tea topped by a thin white head. Malt character was fainter on the nose, but bready flavors and malt sweetness were the unmistakeable stars of this easy-drinking flagship.
Highland's year-round single IPA draws on five distinct varieties of hops, carrying drinkers from a mildly citrusy but mostly sweet nose to a crescendo of grassy and woody hop flavors that culminates in a profoundly bitter finish. The beer's lighter golden color belied a fuller than expected body, and like the two samples before it, Kashmir remained remarkably smooth.
The next entry in Highland's tartan-tinged homage to British brewing history came in the form of this dark brown porter that bordered on black, save for the subtle hints of red at the bottom of the glass. We easily discerned aromas of coffee, cream and dark roasted malts, but the porter's rich sweetness and milky body quickly commanded our attention—it was clear by this point that Highland can do smooth like no other.
The fifth and final entry in Highland's year-round lineup, Black Mocha Stout was every bit as black as advertised beneath a one-finger tan head. We drew coffee and chocolate from the nose, and the sweet coffee and milk flavors evident early on bore a strong resemblance to the Oatmeal Porter. The stout distinguished itself, though, with a crisper roasted finish reminiscent of espresso and befitting of its thinner body.
With two beers to go, we turned to Highland's winter seasonals, each of which pays tribute to the mountains surrounding Asheville and supports the brewery's work with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. This renowned winter warmer looked like a clear and redder iced tea, and the nose was filled with the sweet scents of cotton candy and bubble gum. Candy and cream soda flavors accompanied touches of spice to round out a comforting cold-weather beer.
Thunderstruck was our last sample, another dark brown porter that this time carried a reddish tan head. Brewed with coffee provided by North Carolina's Dynamite Roasting Co., Thunderstruck reminded us of drip coffee from beginning to end, when we had to bid farewell to Highland before the flooding from the rainstorm stranded us at the brewery overnight—which in retrospect might not have been so bad.