There was a time when Asheville was more ghost town than beer city, when its downtown was marked not by breweries but by boarded-up windows.

“There was a lot of drug dealing going on downtown,” recalls John Lyda, vice president at Highland Brewing. “It was pretty rundown. You didn’t go downtown very often.”

Then things started to shift. A variety of efforts were underway to bring business and tourism into the overlooked city. The boards came down to once again reveal the facades of historic buildings, and shops and restaurants moved in. Soon new lamps, benches and trees lined the streets.

And below those streets, something else was brewing. In the basement of Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria, Highland Brewing Co. was born in 1994. It wasn’t the first brewery to open in North Carolina (that honor goes to Weeping Radish Brewery), but it was the first legal brewery in Asheville post-Prohibition. And while the city was developing its Bohemian personality above, founders Oscar Wong and John McDermott were busy brewing below.

Highland Brewing Co. got its start in the basement at Barley’s Taproom & Pizzeria in Asheville. At Highland’s current location, plans are underway for a rooftop event center.

Wong had just spent nearly 30 years as a nuclear waste engineer and was living in Charlotte when he met McDermott, who was looking to open a place of his own after stints at Dilworth Brewing and The Mill Bakery, Eatery and Brewery. Wong agreed to start a brewery with McDermott, but under the condition they do so in Asheville, where he owned a second home.

After cutting through the customary red tape, the two faced a larger challenge: moving their brewing equipment—which was actually a collection of old, modified dairy tanks—into the tight basement. They had to cut the concrete walls just to squeeze the tanks in, an inch of clearance on each side. Later, dust would sprinkle down from the bar just above their heads, a threat to every batch of Celtic Ale (which would later become the brewery’s flagship Gaelic Ale).

The ’90s Brewery Boom and Bust

While Highland Brewing was the first in Asheville since Prohibition, the 1990s saw breweries opening at an unprecedented pace across America. Many of North Carolina’s old guard of breweries can be traced back to this time. In 1991, Red Oak Brewery began life as Spring Garden Brewing in Greensboro. Olde Hickory Brewery opened in 1994 in Hickory. The year 1995 ushered in Carolina Brewing Co. in Holly Springs, Carolina Brewery in Chapel Hill and Front Street Brewery in Wilmington. Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery in  Chapel Hill as well as Huske Hardware House opened in Fayetteville in 1996, and then the next year Green Man Brewing got its start in Asheville’s Jack of the Wood. Asheville Brewing followed in 1998, originally under the name Two Moons Brew ’n’ View.

These are by no means all of the breweries that opened in the 1990s. Several more opened up in North Carolina during that time, only to close their doors around the turn of the century like so many others across the nation.

This was disconcerting to brewery owners and especially to Wong. As early as 2001, he and Lyda had discussed moving Highland Brewing out of the basement. They even put a down payment on a space and took a photo of it for a Christmas card, but decided to back out after seeing so many breweries across the nation and North Carolina shut their doors.

The Pop the Cap Movement

In terms of breweries opening, the early 2000s were quiet when compared with the previous decade. The Duck-Rabbit Craft Brewery in Farmville and Natty Greene’s Brewing Co. in Greensboro both opened in 2004, followed by Pisgah Brewing in Black Mountain and Foothills Brewing in Winston Salem in 2005.

While brewery openings waned, others sought to grow North Carolina’s beer scene in another way—by raising the state’s 6% ABV cap. Sean Lilly Wilson (who would later open Durham’s Fullsteam Brewery in 2010) and a group of beer enthusiasts did just that through Pop the Cap, a grassroots movement that—through educational events, tastings and lobbying—helped raise that cap to 15% in August of 2005.

Bottle shops across the state responded almost instantly by bringing in high-gravity beers, especially of the Belgian variety. Brewers didn’t waste any time, either. Some got to work brewing bigger beers, and others already had high-gravity beer bubbling away, confident the law would pass.

Highland Brewing was in the latter camp. When House Bill 392 was signed into law, it was ready to celebrate with Tasgall Ale, an 8% Scotch-style ale.

The Pop the Cap movement opened up a new world for the state’s breweries, allowing them to brew styles they never could before. Wong knew, though, that if he wanted to increase production and continue to grow, he would finally have to leave the basement. A year after Pop the Cap’s passage, Highland Brewing left its original home and moved into a building that once housed Blue Ridge Motion Pictures.

Out of the Basement

The new brewery was massive, in stark contrast to the basement below Barley’s. When it left the basement, Highland was brewing about 6,500 barrels a year. Today, Wong estimates Highland could hit 45,000 barrels, with almost half that going to the flagship Gaelic Ale. The taproom is a destination, with a beautiful bar inside and green meadow outside. The brewery is in the middle of a multi-million-dollar expansion that includes a new bottling line, event space and—the crowning jewel—a rooftop bar looking out over Mount Pisgah.

Highland wasn’t the first brewery in North Carolina, and it certainly won’t be the last—but the brewery’s story is one shared by many others in the state. It is a story reflected not only in old guard brewers like Green Man Brewing, Foothills Brewing and Natty Greene’s Brewing, but in relative youngsters like NoDa Brewing in Charlotte and Wicked Weed Brewing and Burial Beer Co. in Asheville. Whether old or new, all of these breweries—and so many others across the state—are expanding well beyond what they ever envisioned.

North Carolina is now home to more than 130 breweries, spread from the mountains to the coast in big cities and small towns alike. Asheville was one of those small towns once. When he opened the brewery, Wong never expected so many others would join him there.

“John and I figured we’d have one or two other competitors in town, like they have in Europe,” he says.

Asheville might not have been a desirable place to open a brewery 20 years ago, but it sure is now. Three breweries—Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., Oskar Blues Brewery and New Belgium Brewing—decided to build East Coast facilities in Western North Carolina.

“That was the bigger surprise, really,” says Wong. “I understand these little guys jumping up and trying it, but I did not expect the big boys.”

Now Wong is neighbors not only with those three, but also with around 20 other breweries in the Asheville area. Some are homegrown, others from out of state. Some are small, others are large. Some are young, and some are old. And of all the Asheville breweries, Highland is the oldest.

One of the city’s youngest is One World Brewing, located just below Farm Burger. Yes, it’s in a basement. But who knows where it will be 20 years from now?

Learn more about the North Carolina Brewers Celebration.