“Rob, I think I’ve discovered one of the best beers ever!” Charlie tells me when I visit the Rheinland Haus restaurant in Charlotte one evening in 1994 or 1995. “It’s called Highland Oatmeal Porter and its made in Asheville.” Charlie Emmanuel is a good friend of mine and his family used to run the Rhienland Haus German restaurant in Charlotte’s Dillworth neighborhood before they closed its doors in 2005. Charlie and I have a good connection on beer and when he introduced me to Highland I was hooked!
In those days my exposure to porters was limited to Sierra Neveda’s Porter and Samuel Smith’s Taddy Porter. And my exposure to any beers made in North Carolina was non existent.
Charlie serves the Oatmeal Porter in a tall slender Warsteiner pilsner glass. It’s an opaque black color and has a rich almond colored head that retains throughout the drink. Upon my first sip I am in Charlie’s camp – this may very well be the best beer I’ve ever tried! It is rich and flavorful – a nice hint of oatmeal and dark roasted malt and slightly bitter. I love it!
For the next few years Highland is clearly my favorite brewery and like a groupie I travel great lengths to get a taste of their beers.
At one point in the 1990’s Highland couldn’t keep up with demand and was forced to cut back distribution. For a year or more, Highland beers were no longer available in Charlotte – a period of time I called the “Highland Prohibition.” In my quest for a Highland I drove 25 miles north of Charlotte to a tap house in Davidson (now the Brickhouse Tavern). When I spot Highland Oatmeal Porter and Highland Gaelic Ale on tap there during the “Highland Prohibition,” I ask in astonishment how they got it. The bartender tells me they are ordering it at a sister restaurant further west closer to Asheville and then bootlegging it over to Davidson because the demand is so high! Outstanding! On the occasional weekend I make the 45 minute drive from my home to enjoy a Highland on tap until the Prohibition ends.
Highland was founded by John Lyda in the basement of Barley’s Pizzeria and Taproom in downtown Ashevile, North Carolina. They were the first brewery on the scene in this hip tourist town which would eventually see 11 breweries in or near the city on their way to becoming crowned Beer City U.S.A. four years running (sharing the title with Portland, Oregon in 2009 and 2010, holding the title exclusively in 2011 and sharing it with Grand Rapids, Michigan in 2012). More breweries are on the way!
In the 90’s I visited Barley’s as often as I could, to enjoy some Highland – at Barley’s Highland beers are always available on tap. One Friday night I decided to visit the Highland Brewery itself. Charlie Emmanuel informed me that the brewery was located downstairs from Barley’s, but you had to go around the back of the building to get to it. I wandered down a small intimidating alley and passed a dead rat on my way to find the brewery – I was only around the corner from Barley’s, but now I felt like I was in a real shady part of town.
I found the white lettering on the door that read “HIGHLAND BREWING CO” and knocked. No one answered. Trying the knob I found the door unlocked. I slowly opened the door and walked inside. The lights were on, but no one was to be found.
I guess I had visions of t-shirts, mugs, hats and Highland merchandise for sale in the lobby – but none of that was to be found in this very unassuming set up. Further into the brewery I could see tall kettles and vats. Eventually someone walked by with a sack of grains thrown over his shoulder. I approached the man.
“Hi!” I said.
He barely acknowledged me with a shrug of his shoulders.
With the enthusiasm of a kid in a toy store I said “I just dropped in to check out where my favorite beers are made!” Then I asked, “Do you mind if I look around?”
He said nothing. Indicated nothing. Busy at work on a Friday night and not concerned with my presence whatsoever.
His unresponsiveness made me feel unwelcome and uncomfortable, so I quickly glanced around at the place and made my exit – “Thanks!” I announced on my way out.
I was still too in love with Highland to let this incident and dismissal bother me. Highland remained my favorite beer for quite some time. In the years that followed Highland moved out from their cramped quarters and moved to a new facility in 2007 where owner Oscar Wong oversees operations. Highland also has a tap room at the brewery where regulars and rarities are offered daily.
Highland’s beers are available throughout North and South Carolina and throughout much of the southeast. Their best seller is Highland Gaelic Ale. Highland has its regular line up which includes the Oatmeal Porter, Kashmir IPA, St. Terese’s Pale Ale and Black Mocha Stout, plus they have a strong line up of seasonals (each named after a local mountain peak including Clawhammer Oktoberfest, Cold Mountain Winter Ale, Thunderstruck Coffee Porter, Devil’s Britches IPA and Little Hump Spring Ale) and have experimented over the years with an Imperial series, an anniversary ale and other rarities.
Overall, Highland remains one of my favorite breweries. I can look back at that first Highland Oatmeal Porter as the beer that set me on a path to try hundreds upon hundreds of different craft brews from around the country and around the world. I have the utmost respect for their beers and they are one of the eldest craft breweries in the state. At Carolina Beer Temple look forward to Highland beers always being in stock. We will go to great lengths to get their seasonals and Highland beers will regularly rotate through our tap selection.