I don’t remember exactly what I did for my 25th birthday, but I’m pretty sure it involved Jager shots and my girlfriend (now my wife) yelling at me to stop throwing up in the front yard. Highland Brewing decided to take a slightly classier approach. Instead of Jager and mild domestic disputes, they opted for a series of parties over the past weekend that ranged from a black tie dinner to a live reggae show.
And Highland has every reason to celebrate. The brewery was founded in Asheville in 1994, helping to spawn one of the country’s truly great beer cities. And while many other large regional breweries are suffering in an increasingly competitive landscape, Highland has been able to shift gears and thrive. The brewery is best known for their crowd-pleasing Gaelic Ale, which has helped persuade an entire generation over to the dark side of craft beer. They also produce Black Mocha Stout and Oatmeal Porter, two consistently great beers in their respective styles. But a few years ago, Highland refreshed their entire brand, creating new artwork and labels and releasing a trio of very well-received IPAs: AVL IPA, Daycation (a session IPA), and Mandarina IPA. It was Highland’s attempt to stay relevant in a shifting beer landscape—a move many other breweries their age and size haven’t been able to pull off as well. It also helped Leah Ashburn (the company’s president and daughter of its founder, Oscar Wong) to earn a James Beard nomination in the Wine, Beer or Spirits Professional category.
Now, Highland is celebrating their past and looking forward to their future by releasing 25 new beers over the next few weeks. Most of those will be taproom only one-offs, but a few will be distributed. I got to try all three, and if this trio of beers is any indication, the next few years for Highland will get wild. In this trinity of releases, we have Highland’s first kettle sour and their first barrel-aged beer to see distribution. I’ve been told that barrel aging will be a bit of a priority in the coming years for the brewery. We might even see a barrel-aged Cold Mountain sooner rather than later. And that’s damn exciting.
Also exciting for those of you who like destination breweries; Highland is devoting a lot of energy to their production facility, which sit on the edge of Asheville in the suburbs. The space already features a popular taproom and rooftop bar as well as an outdoor music venue, but Highland is planning on developing trails on their 40-acre property, and incorporating like-minded businesses into the building to turn the facility into a destination for beer, food and art.
But now, let’s move onto these new beers, which are completely different than what Highland has produced in the past.
Highland has been all about the IPAs as of late, and for this one, they collaborated with their neighbors Sierra Nevada, which also happens to be another large family-owned brewery. After getting together, the two partners went out and found a bunch of other family-owned businesses to bring into the collaboration (Riverbend Malt House, Crosby Hop Farm, Roy Farms, Briess Malt & CLS Farms). The result is a hazy IPA, but it doesn’t fit neatly into the “hazy IPA” category. It’s fruity, with some surface tropical notes like pineapple and mango (also a bit of peach), but it’s hardly a juice bomb, and has a little more bitterness than the hazy style is known for. There’s also something earthy and herbal going on in this beer. In fact, I’d say the most dominate note is lemongrass.
They use experimental hops for Rustic: Motueka, Zappa, Azacca and Strata, and that haze comes from the malt bill, which is full of flaked oats, rye, pilsner malt and wheat. Maybe it’s just the lemongrass character, but I also get a bit of barnyard funk in this beer—possibly something lingering from the yeast. It’s good. Thin, fruity, grassy, easy to drink, but totally different than any of their other IPAs.
It’s a limited release, so get it while you can. It’s 5.8% ABV and comes in big boy cans.
Slow Crush Tart Spritz
If you haven’t noticed, the Aperol Spritz is kind of a thing right now. Light, refreshing and just a wee bit bitter, the Aperol Spritz is the perfect summer drink. And breweries want in on that action, so they’ve started making beers inspired by the popular cocktail. Highland’s new Slow Crush is just such a beer, incorporating botanicals like gentian root and hibiscus flower as well as flaked rye and Citra and Amarillo hops. And it’s kettle soured for an acidic, but refreshing, finish. Slow Crush pours a bright, clear orange with just a tiny layer of bubbles, but it’s effervescent as hell. There’s a little bit of orange citrus on the front end and has a super dry, almost champagne like finish. There’s a mild level of bitterness (much like the cocktail that inspired it) and has the same barnyard quality as Rustic IPA. This beer started as an R&D one-off for the staff, but was so popular they fast-tracked it into production. Crazy right? Even crazier: Highland likes it so much, they’re automatically adding it to their year-round lineup. Most beers get a limited or seasonal release before going year-round, but Highland is certain Slow Crush will crush it.
It’s 5% ABV. Look for it in tall-boy cans.
Silver and Steel Imperial Stout
Every year, Highland releases a super popular winter seasonal called Cold Mountain. It’s a good beer that receives a lot of fanfare, with a well-attended release party and about a month or so where people scavenge local stores looking for as many big bottles of the beer they can get. But it’s not really that hard to score a few bottles, and Cold Mountain doesn’t necessarily inspire rabid devotion. My point is, Highland doesn’t really have a whale—a rare beer that people would push their grandmother out of the way to score. Silver and Steel might be that beer, because it hits all of the whale beer high notes. First: it’s a blend of stouts that were aged in bourbon barrels between 16 and 24 months. Second: It’s a super limited release—just 200 bottles are being distributed. Not 200 cases. 200 bottles. And third: it’s really, really freaking good.
The nose is more coco than coffee and the body is like a mouth-full of cream. It’s sweet, with notes of cherry and raisins as well as the requisite vanilla and caramel, but it’s not saccharine—there’s plenty of whiskey character pulled from the barrels to reign in the sweet notes, as well as a hint of roasted coffee on the backend. There’s not much of the barrel itself in this beer—no real astringent notes or acidity—which is surprising considering the amount of time the beer spent in wood. But I’m not complaining; this beer is spot on.
If you like barrel aged stouts, you need to seek this one out. There’s nothing crazy going on here, it’s just really well executed. It’s not showy, but everything is exactly where it should be. Given the super limited release, you’ll need to make a trek to the brewery to score a bottle. Oh, and it’s 12.9% ABV, so bring a friend and share the love.