Cold Mountain Winter Ale turns 20

Let the celebration begin Nov. 10
By Carol Viau | Oct 19, 2016
Photo by: Carol Viau CELEBRATING AN ICONIC BREW — Highland Brewing founder Oscar Wong became a fan of the 1997 novel 'Cold Mountain' and named the brewery's holiday ale Cold Mountain Winter Ale. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the brew, and Highland will celebrate with a three-day release extravaganza Nov. 10 - 12 at the Asheville brewery.

Hold on, Western North Carolina. It’s almost time for Highland Brewing’s Cold Mountain Winter Ale.

It’s a well-known fact that people clamor for this brew. Think cold nights and warm fires, and you’ll get the picture. There is even a Cold Mountain tracker on Twitter, operated by an unknown source, to let fans know where to buy Asheville’s longest running seasonal beer.

This year’s version comes with a big celebration. It’s the 20th anniversary of this tasty winter ale and Highland Brewing is releasing two versions to tantalize fans — adding a limited release Imperial Cold Mountain Winter Ale. The festivities will be Nov. 10 – 12 at Highland Brewing in Asheville.

A bit of history

Before it got its iconic name, Highland Brewing’s Cold Mountain started in 1996 as Holiday Ale.

“Originally, the beer was brewed to step outside of our core lineup, spice things up,” said Molly McQuillan, Highland’s marketing coordinator. “Holiday ales are traditionally spiced, and we kept the style in the line with the intent of changing the recipe slightly every year, from the very beginning.”

Highland soon realized that the name Holiday Ale limited the amount of time it could sell the beer. The name was changed to Winter Ale, which had a longer sales window in stores.

In 1997, author Charles Frazier released his novel, “Cold Mountain.” Readers know the book takes place locally, around Cold Mountain in Haywood County, just 35 miles from Asheville.

“Oscar Wong (Highland’s founder) became an instant fan,” McQuillan said. “So, we changed the name to Cold Mountain Winter Ale, inspired by the book and the mountain itself.”

Highland Brewing has a long history of the naming of its seasonal brews after local land and water features.

“By the way, Charles Frazier is a fan of Highland and Cold Mountain, and has even attended a few of the release parties,” McQuillan said.

Spicing changes a little each year

While the winter ale base stays the same each year, a sensory panel of Highland employees tastes several spice profiles annually, offering opinions for the year’s production.

“The changing of the spices every year is one of my favorite things about working here,” McQuillan said. “Brewmaster Hollie Stephenson heads up the spicing, with the help of sensory scientist Anna Sauls. The company gets together early on a weekend day for the Cold Mountain tasting.

“We are given a series of tastings with a simulation of the spice addition on a smaller scale, and then provide feedback that is used to help determine the final version,” McQuillan said.

Everyone in the company is invited to participate, including Highland’s founder, Oscar Wong; president and family-owner, Leah Wong Ashburn; the brewing staff; and marketing and distribution staff.

And what is the verdict on this year’s production?

“It’s very cozy,” McQuillan said. “The 20th-anniversary brew is really exciting. Everyone has their favorite year of Cold Mountain. I used to think 2010 vintage was my favorite — but the 2016 production might top that.”

The labels tell the story.

• 2016 Cold Mountain Winter Ale, at 5.9 percent ABV, commemorates “two decades of Asheville’s first seasonal. Cold Mountain is malty in body, lightly hopped and rounded out with hints of spices nuts and fruit.” It will be served at the brewery’s tasting room, and available in retail distribution around Nov. 15.

Imperial Cold Mountain Winter Ale, at 8 percent ABV, will be a limited 20th-anniversary release, only available at the brewery’s tasting room. The imperial version is “lightly hopped and malt forward — a bolder, warmer version of a winter tradition — toasty, with notes of chocolate, hints of fruits and nuts and slight alcohol heat.”

“The Imperial Cold Mountain is amazing,” Ashburn said. “It’s great.”

Commemorative bottles

While Highland runs an automated packaging line, the one-liter blue commemorative Cold Mountain Winter Ale bottles are filled and packaged by hand.

“It’s super labor-intensive,” said McQuillan.

The commemorative one-liter bottle will be sold at the release events Nov. 10 – 12, at the brewery.

Cold Mountain Extravaganza

Thursday, Nov. 10 is the start of the three-day extravaganza. Beginning at 4 p.m., Cold Mountain will be served in the Highland tasting room, event center and rooftop beer garden. Imagine having a pint of Cold Mountain Winter Ale on Highland’s rooftop bar, with a view of the actual Cold Mountain in the distance.

Cold Mountain specialty casks (flavors are remaining secret) will be poured in the Highland meadow. Food trucks will be on-site and live music will add to the festivities. There is no admission charge.

The per person sales limit has not been announced as yet. Check the Highland website for information.

The allocation of Cold Mountain for sale will be divided between Thursday, Nov. 10, Friday, Nov. 11, and Saturday, Nov. 12, at the production side of the brewery. Thursday and Friday sales will start at 4 p.m. and Saturday sales begin at 2 p.m. Highland’s tasting room opens at noon Sunday, but there will be no packaged beer allotment for that day.

This is a popular event, so Highland expects some traffic and lines. Carpooling is encouraged. The brewery will have overflow parking, and starting at 5 p.m., shuttles will run regularly between the overflow parking area and the brewery. Follow the parking attendants’ directions.

“Imagine 20 years ago, we had to work hard to get people to try craft beer,” McQuillan said.

Now Highland Brewing expects several thousand people Nov. 10 – 12 to come in search of Cold Mountain Winter Ale.

Let the 20th-anniversary celebration begin. Cheers.


Highland Brewing Company is at 12 Old Charlotte Highway, in Asheville. Call (828) 299-3370 or visit