By Bobby Bush
Inadvertently, I have been paying Highland Brewing Company head brewer John
Lyda a back-handed compliment for over a year. The fact is, Lyda has been head brewer
of this respected Asheville, NC micro for almost two years before I even recognized that
co-founder and original head brewer John McDermott was no longer in charge of brewing
activities. From all outward appearances, the transition was made with nary a hitch in beer
quality or productivity.
Interviewed in the brewery’s small office, crammed with three computers and
other artifacts of mountain living, Lyda explained that he has been with Highland from the
very beginning, a brewing groupie working for peanuts and self-satisfaction. That was
1994, back when there were only three employees- Lyda, McDermott and co-owner Oscar
Wong. Lyda describes his initial position as chief scrub, manning everything from mash
tun to kegging and bottling as the fledgling micro struggled to get up and running.
In four short years, Lyda and Highland Brewing have seen many changes, most
have been positive. Current distribution- which covers North Carolina as far east as
Raleigh, all of South Carolina, and the Tennessee towns of Johnson City and Chattanooga
-required about 4,000 barrels production in 1998, though with proper staffing the plant
can produce up to 6,000 barrels. Lyda’s brewing schedule allows for three 35 barrel
batches each week. The process, with its three-stage infusion mash, is almost down to a
science for Lyda’s limited staff.
From former dairy equipment adapted for new purposes, Highland produces four
regular beers for distribution in 22 ounce bottles and kegs. Standard 12 ounce bottles will
be out as soon as the new bottling machine is unpacked and plugged in. The product line
consists of the smooth, amber Gaelic Ale (originally called Celtic Ale), a hoppier St.
Terese (designed to replace Olde Irish) and the hoppiest Kashmir IPA (which also happens
to be Oscar’s favorite style). An ever-so-smooth Oatmeal Porter tops out the bill with big
body and robust, complex flavor. Highland seasonal offerings, in bottles as well as draft,
include Oktoberfest, Cold Mountain Winter Ale and the omnipotent Mocha Stout, my
personal favorite. Lyda has visions of a spring Bock and a Summer Wheat, made with an
extremely high wheat bill. Although mountain water, particularly in dry weather, can be a
challenge to Lyda, Highland has long term plans for expansion and a more spacious
brewery in the Asheville area.
Oscar Wong took an early interest in homebrewing as a college student but started
the Highland venture with McDermott as an investment, not because he wanted to fulfill a
lifetime urge to brew. He remembers John Lyda begging to help during the brewery’s
start-up days, as they worked in earnest to bring McDermott’s concept to life. Credited
with invention of Highland’s first beer recipes, McDermott, Wong remembers, was the
entrepreneur who later “lost enthusiasm and interest,” not unusual for a creative mind
always in search of challenge. McDermott is no longer involved in any phase of the
brewery’s operation. On the other hand, Oscar continues, Lyda tends to “think things
through with more patience” and, more importantly, he was there to step in when needed.
An in-depth ten week course at brewing school confirmed what Lyda already knew via
hands-on experience. He has improved on several McDermott formulas, especially the
Winter Ale, which sold out this year’s one and only brewing in record time.
Wong capsulizes the scope and success of Highland Brewing very precisely:
“We’re after a small percentage of clientele because that niche is more persnickety about
what they want.” They want “robust, not wimpy” beer. Highland has always emphasized
quality and believes that consistent quality is the key to their loyal following among
consumers and beer distributors alike.
Quoting his company’s modest slogan, Wong concludes: “We’re a wee bit
different. We’re proud of our product, but we’re not standing still.... Highland’s strength
overall is as a team- it’s clearly not equipment.”
Oscar Wong, John Lyda and Highland’s six other employees have ever right to be
This article first appeared in Focus, a weekly paper published in Hickory, North Carolina.
© Bobby Bush