A Brewing Cult Classic: 20 Years of Highland Brewing’s Cold Mountain

For folks here in our home base of Asheville, NC, the arrival of winter means the arrival of locals’ favorite seasonal, extremely limited, craft beer: Highland Brewing Company’s Cold Mountain Winter Ale. It’s a beer that’s synonymous with the holidays, chilly weather and comfort. It’s a beer that’s familiar to all yet “Just a wee bit different” every year. It’s a beer that, in it’s 20th anniversary, still excites everyone who can hopefully get their hands on it – including us!

We visited Highland, one of our responsibly-sourced partners, to tour their brewing facility and got a sneak preview of both the original Cold Mountain and their special 20th anniversary release, Imperial Cold Mountain, before the masses. We can attest that after taking one sip, this year’s brew might be one of the best ever.

Cases of Cold Mountain Winter Ale

Cases of Highland’s infamous Cold Mountain waiting to be shipped

A Holiday Ale with History

The first Cold Mountain batch – originally dubbed “Holiday Ale” was an instant hit in 1996 and has remained a staple for the brewery ever since. “Holiday Ale” eventually changed to “Cold Mountain Winter Ale” after Oscar Wong, Highland’s founder, became a fan of Charles Frazier’s 1997 novel Cold Mountain. The novel (and later, a movie adaptation) is named for the geographical Cold Mountain in Haywood County, NC, where the story takes place.

As for the ale, the beer’s core recipe – a well-kept secret – has stayed the same, but the special ingredients are slightly tweaked each year to switch up the flavor profile.

The Cold Mountain Hype

Highland Brewing Brewmaster Hollie Stephenson

Highland’s Brewmaster Hollie Stephenson giving us a tour of the facility

To get ready for the hype that always ensues, the Cold Mountain ideation process begins in June, with a panel tasting in July. Brewmaster Hollie Stephenson is involved in the process from start to finish with help from sensory scientist Anna Sauls. “I inherited the Cold Mountain recipe, so I made a point to not change anything about the original grain bill,” Hollie said. “We went through about six to seven combinations before coming to a decision.” You can expect this year’s winning edition to taste deliciously of vanilla, winter fruits and spices.

Thousands of people line up outside Highland’s doors and local grocery stores to get their hands on this cult-like phenomenon.”It’s a riot. People start lining up in the morning even though the beer releases at 4 p.m.” said Kitty Price, Key Account Director for Highland. “Cold Mountain is a beer that sells thousands of cases, and it sells out in under an hour at some places. People even follow the distributor truck to local supermarkets on release day!”

Celebrating Twenty Years

Highland also chose to do something special for Cold Mountain’s 20th anniversary and created Imperial Cold Mountain, a spin-off inspired by the original. With only 100 barrels made, it’s an extremely limited, small batch release. “We wanted to keep it a brown ale, but make it a bit maltier and darker [than Cold Mountain]. It’s nuttier and sweeter with more caramel notes and is higher in alcohol at 8 percent versus 5.8 percent,” Hollie said. If you’re hoping to try it, be sure to make a trip to the brewery and get in line as soon as you can! Imperial Cold Mountain is only available to purchase by draft or bottle on-site, and is guaranteed to sell-out as quickly as the original.

The 20th edition of Cold Mountain Winter Ale

The 20th anniversary edition of Cold Mountain Winter Ale

You can buy Cold Mountain from select retailers or enjoy it at restaurants like Tupelo that were lucky enough to get some kegs. (Use BeerFinder to see where Cold Mountain will be at a grocery store or Tupelo Honey restaurant near you!)

“With Cold Mountain, you drink it where you can because it runs out so quickly,” Hollie said. “It’s also an awesome food beer. It pairs well with nice, savory comfort food,” she added with a smile, “…just like Tupelo’s.”

Having been with Highland for almost two years, Hollie said she “still feels really new to Cold Mountain” although this is technically her second release. “I’m really happy to have the opportunity to enhance upon something that is such a tradition here. Beer itself is about tradition and that fuzzy feeling inside. Knowing what it [Cold Mountain] means to people, we had to plan every keg, every bottle, down to the last drop.”

We’ll cheers to that! 

For more information on when and how to purchase this year’s Cold Mountain Winter Ale, visit Highland Brewing’s website.