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Highland Brewing Company

Dear Replicator,
I’m a stout and porter fan through and through. My love affair started with Guinness when I was a younger man. But these styles seem to have shifted in the last decade with the new dessert-style stouts just being over the top for me. I prefer balance and subtlety in my stouts and porters. I picked up Highland Brewing Co.’s Oatmeal Porter on a recent visit to my local beer store. After finishing the six-pack, I went back to pick up a case. By the time I went back for a refill, it was gone from stock. I really want to give this one a go . . . I’ve been inspired. Could you help me out?

Brian Cusp
Charlottesville, Virginia

Thanks for the request! I’m always curious to see what requests arrive at my inbox and the reasons behind them but between last issue and this one, we have a back-to-back special on Asheville breweries apparently.

Highland Brewing Company opened their doors in December 1994 under the guidance of Oscar Wong. It was the first brewery in “sleepy” Asheville, North Carolina since Prohibition was repealed in 1933. Wong, aka “The Godfather of Asheville Beer,” retired early from a successful career in engineering and his entrepreneurial spirit manifested itself. He opened Highland as a “hobby” in the basement of Barley’s Taproom in downtown Asheville. Aptly named, Highland initially focused on Irish and Scottish styles of beer that paid homage to those populations, who settled in the Appalachian region of North Carolina. Gaelic Ale was the first example of this although it also has firm roots in Americanized styles, i.e., hoppier than its Old-World siblings.

Like many breweries early on, the hardware of the operation was reclaimed dairy equipment retrofitted to spec. It could produce 6,500-BBL per year in 12,000 sq. ft. (1,115 sq. m). With consistency and a pioneering nature at the heart of the business, it steadily grew and began to have several devotees. Today, Highland’s 50-BBL brewhouse churns out batches four times a day, five days a week in order to fill their cellar’s 27 fermenters, many of which are 200-BBL capacity. In terms of packaging, they own state-of-the-art equipment that allows them to bottle 320 bottles per minute and 257 twelve-ounce (355-mL) cans per minute. That’s 4–5 servings per second! But when they want to slow down and investigate a new beer or brew a collaborative batch, they switch to a 3-BBL pilot system for exploratory work.

It’s that same human curiosity that Leah Wong Ashburn, Oscar’s daughter who took over as President/CEO in 2015, has displayed and that ultimately manifested in two major areas of improvement: Environmental sustainability and a rebranding of the business. The former’s hallmark contribution is a 324 kW DC solar array, the USA’s 6th largest (22nd largest worldwide), which can produce more electricity than the brewery can use on a sunny day, and resides on the roof. If you desire to view it, there’s a great view from Highland’s rooftop bar, which is something to behold.
Opened in 2016, the rooftop bar can accommodate 300 individuals, and provides expansive views of the neighboring mountains and vistas. The decking is made from natural, untreated cypress (which can withstand sun and rain) from the property. Harkening back to Oscar’s engineering days, the brewery has a fabrication shop that reduces not only new purchases but also waste in general. Highland’s keg washer comes from Bell’s Brewery and their brewhouse has its roots at Firestone Walker Brewing Co.

However, it was Highland’s rebranding that took more fortitude. For a company to look outward and accept criticism, both conservative and positive, is a feat many aren’t willing to make. In early 2017, Ashburn felt it was time to address the feedback that they had received; Highland was a pioneering brewery that was innovative, sustainable, and very consistent, yet their current portfolio of beers (IPAs and experimental one offs) didn’t match the image of their mascot Scotty. They proactively reached out to their fans, customers, and employees for feedback and direction using social media and Nielson surveys. The ultimate changes were suggested by Helms Workshop, whose resume included other brewery branding work with names such as Modern Times, Boulevard Brewing Co., and Spencer Brewery. The label design features a stylized profile of the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround the brewery and western North Carolina. The new brand look pays homage to those mountains while the compass speaks to their pioneering spirit and the trailblazing they’ve done and will continue to do: All with the knowledge that they know where they’re going. In 2020 Oscar Wong was awarded the Brewers Association Recognition Award for all he has done, not only for Asheville but also the entire US craft brewing community.

Highland Brewing Company’s Oatmeal Porter is more akin to an American porter than a British porter with oatmeal. It’s big, bold, and roasty. Both in the nose and in the flavor, it’s bittersweet chocolate and earthy coffee first with restrained grainy malt and subtle, yet distinctive, citrusy and resinous hops. Clean fermentation provides no esters to allow the roasted malt to shine forth. It’s well attenuated as the semi-dry finish can attest with chocolate lingering for multiple minutes . . . decadent without the sugar. Despite the upfront roasted character, there’s absolutely no astringency whatsoever coupled with a moderate, silky body as well as carbonation. Let this description guide your brew day towards this classic yet unique oatmeal porter.

Highland Brewing Co.’s Oatmeal Porter clone

(5 gallons/19 L, all-grain)
OG = 1.059 FG = 1.014
IBU = 37 SRM = 31 ABV = 5.9 %

Ingredients
8 lbs. (3.63 kg) 2-row pale malt
2.25 lbs. (1 kg) Munich malt
1 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (40 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) crystal malt (60 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) chocolate malt
0.25 lb. (113 g) black malt
0.25 lb. (113 g) flaked oats
10 AAU Chinook hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 10% alpha acids)
1 AAU Willamette hops (0 min.) (0.25 oz./7 g at 4.1% alpha acids)
1.4 AAU Cascade hops (0 min.) (0.25 oz./7 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), or SafAle US-05 yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Mill the grains, then mix with 4 gallons (15.1 L) of 169 °F (76 °C) strike water to achieve a single infusion rest temperature of 152 °F (67 °C). Hold at this temperature for 60 minutes. Mashout to 170 °F (77 °C) if desired.

Vorlauf until your runnings are clear before directing them to your boil kettle. Batch or fly sparge the mash and run-off to obtain 6.5 gallons (25 L) of wort. Sparging for this beer takes 2 hours at full volume but should be quicker at home. Boil for 60 minutes, adding hops at the indicated times left in the boil. At 15 minutes left in boil, add either Irish moss or Whirlfloc as kettle fining agents.

After the boil, add the final addition of hops and whirlpool for 15 minutes before rapidly chilling the wort to 62 °F (17 °C). Pitch yeast. Fermentation begins at 62 °F (17 °C) but is raised to 70 °F (21 °C) for a diacetyl rest near the end of active fermentation.

Once primary fermentation is complete and the beer has settled, which can be hastened by cold crashing to 32 °F (0 °C), bottle or keg the beer and carbonate to approximately 2.5 volumes.

Highland Brewing Co.’s Oatmeal Porter clone

(5 gallons/19 L, extract with grains)
OG = 1.060 FG = 1.015
IBU = 37 SRM = 30 ABV = 5.9%

Ingredients
4.5 lbs. (2 kg) extra light dried malt extract
1 lb. (0.45 kg) Munich dried malt extract
1 lb. (0.45 kg) crystal malt (40 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) crystal malt (60 °L)
0.5 lb. (0.23 kg) chocolate malt
0.25 lb. (113 g) black malt
0.25 lb. (113 g) flaked oats
10 AAU Chinook hops (60 min.) (1 oz./28 g at 10% alpha acids)
1 AAU Willamette hops (0 min.) (0.25 oz./7 g at 4.1% alpha acids)
1.4 AAU Cascade hops (0 min.) (0.25 oz./7 g at 5.5% alpha acids)
Wyeast 1056 (American Ale), White Labs WLP001 (California Ale), or SafAle US-05 yeast
¾ cup corn sugar (if priming)

Step by Step
Bring 6.5 gallons (25 L) of water to roughly 150 °F (66 °C). Steep all the specialty malts in a muslin bag for 15 minutes before removing and draining. Add both extracts, with stirring, before heating to a boil. Boil for 60 minutes, adding hops at the indicated times left in the boil. At 15 minutes left in boil, add either Irish moss or Whirlfloc as fining agents.

After the boil, add the whirlpool hops indicated and whirlpool for 15 minutes before rapidly chilling the wort to 62 °F (17 °C). Pitch yeast. Fermentation begins at 62 °F (17 °C) but is raised to 70 °F (21 °C) for a diacetyl rest near the end of active fermentation.

Once primary fermentation is complete, and the beer has settled, which can be hastened by cold crashing to 32 °F (0 °C), bottle or keg the beer and carbonate to approximately 2.5 volumes.

Tips for Success:
The largest hurdle to brewing this beer is avoiding the harsh, astringent character that can come from the use of roasted malts. Also, if your mash pH is too low, you’ll end up with a thin, lifeless brew with the nuances of chocolate malt. Aim for a mash pH slightly higher than the normally acceptable range, 5.4–5.5, to circumvent both problems.

Secondly, you’ll want to make a yeast starter if using one of the liquid strains. Although the brew isn’t of the high-octane variety, without a proper pitch you’ll probably end up with slight under-attenuation and/or subtle off-flavors developing. A clean fermentation to allow the chocolate and coffee notes to shine is key here.

Issue: September 2020