Meet the Brewer: Highland’s Hollie Stephenson
Highland Brewing Company is a stable lynchpin in the impressive Asheville, North Carolina beer scene. That regional identity is strong within the company that opened its doors in 1994, a lifetime ago in craft beer years. But with its energetic new head brewer, there’s a strong South Georgia connection in the heart of Highland.
Hollie Stephenson is a native of small-town Hahira, Georgia. Her path to becoming a head brewer led her on an incredibly unusual journey in an industry known for its eccentric stories. The road out of Hahira to the big leagues of beer began with playing college basketball. That educational experience led to a career in Washington DC’s high-stakes lobbying game. It was during her ten year stint in Washington that she first tried Abita Brewing Company’s Turbodog brown ale and a love affair began with craft beer.
Not satisfied with just consuming beer, Hollie made the decision to become a creator, teaming up with The Black Squirrel, a brewpub in DC to launch its in-house brewing operations. That relationship provided an opportunity for her to study the beer making process in England. After her research and development period ended with The Black Squirrel, she crossed the country and became an assistant brewer at San Diego’s Stone Brewing Company. Hollie quickly moved up the ranks to brewer and then to brewery trainer, overseeing instruction for a brewhouse that creates almost 300,000 barrels of beer per year.
Despite her success and rapid ascension at Stone, Hollie found herself nostalgic for her youth spent in the South. When a friend at Highland told her of the head brewer opening in early 2015, she saw a chance to get closer to her roots. She described it as being “a combination of things. It was kind of weird leaving Stone on a high note.”
Stone has a reputation for extreme beer styles, pushing boundaries with strongly-hopped IPAs and using unique combinations of ingredients that can be head-scratchingly odd but somehow still drinkable. In comparison, Highland’s pedigree seems reserved and cautious. Its core offering of traditional styles never strays into edgier territory. While those year-round beers won’t be changing any time soon, there is a lot of other change happening at Highland that includes scaled, responsible expansion and some forays into brewing more aggressive styles of beer.
Hollie says “The growth plan here is a very managed growth plan. They want to do things right.”
The “they” in that quote refers to Highland owner Oscar Wong and his family. Hollie calls them “the best people you could ever want to work for,” and expounds on her new position at Highland saying “I like the feel here, I like the values.” Hollie concisely sums up those values as “consistency and respect for the pint.”
Highland’s immediate growth plan includes the implementation of a brand new automated bottling line and expanding its barrel-aging program that includes a fresh shipment of Four Roses bourbon barrels. Within the next few years, the plan is to move to a 100 barrel brew house. That new equipment will double the current capacity, replacing the existing 50 barrel system purchased from Firestone Walker.
As she describes the acquisition process for new barrels and the scale of brewing operations, Hollie begins to slightly bounce and gesture excitedly with her hands. Her eyes grow wide and a smile slides across her face. It’s obvious that she’s found a home at Highland where she feels not only comfortable but genuinely excited.
Hollie’s first Highland beer featuring her own recipe debuted at its 21st birthday celebration earlier this month. While not scheduled for wider release, her double west coast style IPA shows off her penchant for hops and includes the chinook, amarillo, centennial, simcoe and citra varieties. An early taste led Hollie to describe it as “really hot juicy fruit,” but it’s since mellowed out into a more relaxed, while still hoppy and slightly boozy 10% alcohol by volume blend that reflects on her time spent at Stone.
While the regular release beers from Highland like Gaelic Ale and Oatmeal Porter don’t represent a similar extreme, Hollie guarantees that when one purchases a beer from Highland, “they’re going to get the highest quality beers on the shelf.”
Highland’s core beers and seasonal offerings like spring’s Little Hump Pale Ale are easy to find and accessible throughout Highland’s Southeastern U.S. distribution area. While they won’t be the strangest beers you can buy, in Hollie’s words, “if you want a perfect pint, pick up a Highland six-pack.”
Listen to Lee’s interview with Hollie in this bonus episode of the Brew / Drink / Run podcast.