Boasting a woman president and a woman brewmaster
By Jason Gilmer
Photographs by Josh Norris
Many people who dealt with Leah Wong Ashburn when she began to work for the Highland Brewing Company didn’t need to recall her name.
“I’m the daughter,” she said as she sits at a table inside the operation’s taproom in Asheville, N.C. “I had no first name for the first two years in the business, and I was OK with that because everyone likes dad so much.”
Her father is Oscar Wong, who founded the first Asheville-based brewery since Prohibition in 1994 and became the patriarch to one of the top craft beer towns in the country. In 2015 Ashburn took over the job of president from her father, but she’s known to introduce herself as “family owner” before acknowledging the presidential position.
“It means different things in different companies,” she said of the title. “In my world it means I’m telling (a group of managers) and lots of other people that I’m relying on them completely. I’m not a technical brewer, and I can’t run a quality department, and I don’t know the ins and outs of packaging. I know how to talk about those things on some level, but they are the experts.”
One of those managers she leans on is Hollie Stephenson, who was promoted to the company’s brewmaster position last September. Stephenson, who moved from Stone Brewing in California in January 2015, had been Highland’s head brewer for less than two years.
Stephenson is in select company, as there aren’t many female brewmasters. A Stanford University study in 2014 found out that, of 1,700 breweries surveyed, only four percent had a female in that lead position.
Her job has become less brewing and more management. She oversees the managers of brewing, packing, and quality assurance teams, buys ingredients, oversees the pilot room and makes sure the processes are efficient. The brewing team includes eight brewers, including two women.
“I’m getting to interact with so many awesome people and share beers with those people after work, and be creative and working in my favorite hobby,” she said. “If I’m not working, I’m doing something related to beer.”
“With the rise of craft breweries in the last several years, it’s nice to see women continue to have a positive role in all facets; from production, brewhouse, quality assurance, upper management, as well as president and owners,” said Laura Ulrich, president of the Pink Boots Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the careers of women in the brewing industry. “The more women who are turned on to beer, find they really enjoy working for breweries. It’s wonderful to watch the growth and be a part of it.”
Stephenson, a South Georgia native, has a similar story to Ashburn. Both were in higher-paying jobs (Ashburn as a representative with yearbook producer Herff Jones in Charlotte and Stephenson as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.) but decided to work in the brewing industry.
“I still don’t make as much as I did when I was 25, but it’s not as important to me any more,” Stephenson said. “I know I’ve found the right place.”
Though the brewery was started by her father, Ashburn didn’t work in the family business until she became a sales representative six years ago. She moved to Asheville in 2011.
“I was on the sidelines and was a cheerleader for the brewery,” she said. “I thought Highland was the coolest thing on earth. I didn’t join the brewery for so long because I made more money and, at that time in my life, that was the most important thing to me. I was in Charlotte and single and doing the city thing and earning lots of money.”
Neither woman said they’ve had problems in a typically male-dominated industry, though Stephenson admits it’s in the back of her mind sometimes when she’s talking to other professionals at functions.
“There’s been a proliferation of brewing programs,” said Stephenson, who chose between the only four programs she could find when she took a brewing program in England. “People know it’s an option now. Back in the old days, if you had a gut and a beard, people thought you might be able to brew beer. Women have more access now; they can say, ‘I went through this program’ and show their credentials.”
Together the two will continue to push Highland, which is distributed along the East Coast and can be purchased in grocery stores, restaurants, and specialty shops, into new territory. In 2016 the brewery opened a rooftop bar and indoor event center for private functions (including weddings).
Stephenson and her team brewed 42,000 barrels of beer ranging from year-round staples like Gaelic Ale and Oatmeal Porter to the ever-popular seasonals like Cold Mountain Ale and Clawhammer Oktoberfest.
“I just want to continue to help Highland make quality beer and grow in what we can offer people,” Stephenson said. “I want people to be excited to come here, and I want people to think of Highland first when they think of Southeastern beer.” E