In 1994, Leah Wong Ashburn’s father, Oscar, did something that very few, if any, Chinese Americans had attempted before: He opened a craft brewery.
Mr. Wong, who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in the 1960s, retired to Asheville, NC, after a long and successful career running an engineering firm. Beer didn’t cross his mind until a friend and local brewer proposed starting his own operation—the city’s first since Prohibition. they called it Highland Brewing,
“When my father opened the brewery, he was easy to find because he was the only Chinese person selling beer in the south,” said Ms. Wong Ashburn, who took over as chief executive after her father retired (for a second time). Was handled 2015. “There weren’t many of us around then.”
Although the demographics in the craft beer industry have slowly changed since Highland opened its doors nearly 30 years ago, it is still a world dominated by white owners. according to data from Brewers AssociationOnly 2 percent of breweries in the United States are owned by Asian Americans like the Wongs.
But a new wave of brewers is following in Mr. Wong’s footsteps and creating beers that reflect his heritage.
Raymond Quan and Barry Chan, Owners Lucky Envelope Brewing Both in Seattle and the children of Chinese immigrants, see the lack of Asian American-owned breweries as a product of cultural pressure. They both had corporate careers until their late 30s, when Mr. Chan and Mr. Kwan, home brewers, realized together that their professional paths were intersecting.
“We were talking about what to do with a few beers one night,” Mr. Quan said, “and six hours later we were cold-emailing manufacturers asking for prices on brewing equipment. “
This was not what either of them had planned for their lives. “Too many Asian American parents want us to keep our heads down and work hard, which is reinforced by the model minority complex,” Mr. Chan said. “We eventually fell into that pattern. It took a while to build up the belief that we could do it.
The term “model minority” originated in the 1960s, when Asian Americans and newly arrived immigrants were trying to blend in as a means of survival.
Lester Koga, a Japanese American and founder BearBottle Brewing Company In San Francisco, he said that cultural expectation weighed on him from childhood. He said, “You learn to assimilate as best you can, but you never escape the identity of who you are.”
Nevertheless, he began drawing on his background, using Asian ingredients in his beers such as Oolong Saison and Half Samurai Sake Wheat Ale.
Youngwon Lee, Korean American founder dokkaebierIt did the same in Oakland, California.
Mr. Lee said, “My main brewer, who is white, makes kimchi at home, so we extracted the culture from his kimchi and used that to make kettle sourdough.” “The sourness of the culture was the inspiration, and then we added chili and ginger to round it out.”
Mr. Chan of Lucky Envelope said that at first their focus was more on creating the best beer possible than incorporating the ingredients and flavors of childhood. Mr. Chan said, “In the back of our minds, we knew that we would be viewed differently as one of the few Asian-owned breweries.” “We wanted the beer to be well received, and we didn’t want to tokenize.”
Lucky Envelope’s beer used to say a lot about itself; Its Helles Lager won a bronze medal at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival competition, and the company continues to collect awards.
It was only after receiving this recognition that Mr. Chan and Mr. Quan felt that they could begin to bring their heritage to the brewery. They redesigned their logo in November 2016 to emphasize the hong bao, a red envelope filled with money traditionally exchanged during special events in China. They began making beers commemorating the animals of the Chinese zodiac, using flavors such as flaked rice and Buddha’s hand, a citrus fruit widely used in East Asian cuisine.
Mr. Chan and Mr. Kwan also took a more in-depth look at what it means to be people of color in a predominantly white area, especially amid the recent increase in hate crimes against Asian Americans. They have joined diversification efforts in the craft brewing business, and are optimistic about the future of beer three decades after Mr. Wong first opened Highland Brewery.