Brewing Up A Storm: Hollie Stephenson – Consumed by Beer

| By Anita Riley |

When I think of the intersection of Western North Carolina’s great outdoor playground and beer, I immediately think of Highland Brewing Company’s partnership with the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy. Many of us know about the beers like Cold Mountain, Devil’s Britches, Thunderstruck and Lost Cove, but how many have had these beers without questioning where their names came from?

Highland Brewing’s Hollie Stephenson. Photo: Derek DiLuzio

I know that until recently I had been guilty of enjoying these beers without thinking past my own drinking satisfaction. I never stopped to think about their names, only how they tasted. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that each of these beers has been named after an area protected by the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy (SAHC).

Each year Highland Brewing schedules a group hike to each of the areas with beers named after them. This year they are adding a new beer to their seasonal line up called Big Briar, named after Big Briar Cove. The land was donated to the SAHC in memory of inventor and electronic music pioneer, Bob Moog. Big Briar Cove is part of a network of 10,000 protected acres in the wider Sandy Mush area of the French Broad River watershed in North Carolina. The beer itself is a Tart Raspberry Ale that pairs berries with the lemon candy notes of El Dorado hops. And the brewer behind this new beer? None other than Highland’s Brew Master, Hollie Stephenson.

Hollie was finishing her Masters Degree in Government Affairs when she realized that she was approaching burn-out with her lobbying career. For six years, she had worked with the Society of Neural Science to help direct policy and legislation in Washington, DC. During this slump in job satisfaction, she had started frequenting a local craft beer bar, where the owner asked her if she would be willing to help put together a business plan for a brewery he wanted to open. Hollie accepted the project, and began researching the brewing industry, the market for brew pubs, the brewing process, and the equipment costs. Hollie recalls, “I started to think that this is something I really wanted to do. I asked the owner if he’d be interested in bringing me on as his brewer, and as part of that if he would want to send me to brewing school.” And, that’s exactly what happened.

Hollie attended an intense course at Brew Lab in Sunderland, England. She remembers, “It was 12 hour classroom days including labs, plus we had placements in breweries around the area, so we got a lot of hands-on training, as well. I came back to the U.S. and started brewing test batches in our 1,200 square-foot warehouse I had built-out with a cold room for conditioning temperatures and one for fermentation. So right off the bat, I was making recipes.

Unfortunately, the company wasn’t going in the direction that I wanted as quickly as I would have liked to see, so I got a job at Stone Brewing and moved to San Diego.”

Hollie started as an Assistant Brewer at Stone, then worked her way up to Brewer, then Brewer Trainer, and finally Supervisor. In 2014, she moved across the country again to accept the position of Head Brewer for Highland Brewing Company in Asheville, North Carolina. In September of 2016, she accepted yet another promotion to Brew Master. She’s excited to continue being a part of Highland’s long range plan and to help them continue to develop and offer new beers. She says, “When I came here, I thought I would be a people and a process person. I didn’t realize that I would be able to create new things as well. That was a nice treat. Highland hadn’t introduced a new core beer in fifteen years. We released three this year, with plans for new seasonal beers and the addition of barrel aged offerings.”

Hollie is excited to see that more brewing schools are popping up across the country. She notes:

“When I started, there were three schools. Now they seem to be everywhere. I hope that will make it easier for more women to enter the field. We had a culture where the only requirement was to be a guy with a beard that could work hard. A woman with no credentials wouldn’t have such an easy time being taken seriously. But now, coming in with that degree, it lends her some credibility.

“Brewing doesn’t necessarily discriminate, but because someone didn’t think about their processes, it can seem that way. So, if you’ve made a poor process where your mill is over your head, it’s going to be hard for a woman to participate in that process. It would be difficult for most men, as well. It’s a ridiculous situation. That’s a structure created by someone, not a structure that’s inherent in the brewing industry. If you need someone who can carry a keg up three flights of steps, my first response would be, ‘For f@#%ing what?!’ That sounds stupid for anyone to be doing.

“I’ve been fortunate to work for the companies I’ve worked for. I started at Stone, the 10th largest brewery in the country. They have a very sophisticated brewing system and a sophisticated corporate structure. It’s a professional environment without a lot of obstacles. I never felt uncomfortable there. Then going from Stone to Highland, the 70th largest brewery in the country, where there’s a really good business structure in place, it hasn’t been hostile at all. That could be different at a smaller brewery with few employees.”

When Hollie isn’t working, she’s still working. She is the Treasurer for the Asheville Brewers’ Alliance, and the Secretary for the Master Brewers Association of Americas’ Mid South chapter. “Beer really does consume me,” she says. Hollie enjoys getting to be a beer tourist with her wife, Rebecca. They both enjoy trying new beers from the area and beyond. She exclaims, “Really, I’m just a beer geek. I’m still a fan of [other beers] from my own industry. It’s what I do even when I’m not at work. I also cook as a hobby. I love creating things, tasting them, and thinking about how to put flavors together in general. It’s one small part of a career in beer, but it keeps me engaged. I’m never bored with it!”

Anita Riley is the Cellar Operator at Mystery Brewing Company in Hillsborough, NC and the Pink Boots Society Representative for the Triad Region. She is a Certified Beer Server Cicerone and studied Brewing, Distillation, and Fermentation at AB Tech in Asheville and Rockingham Community College in Riedsville, NC. Her book ‘Brewing Ambition’ benefits The Pink Boots Society’s Scholarship Fund, which encourages, inspires, and assists women beer professionals, and can be found at Find her blog, Brewing Up a Storm, at Anita is a native to North Carolina.

Sandi Tomlin-Sutker
Written by Sandi Tomlin-Sutker