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Exploring the Experiences of Asian American Brewers

In 1994, Leah Wong Ashburn’s father, Oscar, did something very few, if any, Chinese Americans had tried before: He opened a craft brewery.

Mr. Wong, who immigrated to the United States from Jamaica in the 1960s, had retired to Asheville, N.C., after a long and successful career running an engineering firm. Beer wasn’t on his mind until a friend and local brewer proposed starting their own operation — the city’s first since Prohibition. They called it Highland Brewing.

“When my dad opened the brewery, he was easy to find because he was the only Chinese guy selling beer in the South,” said Ms. Wong Ashburn, who took over as chief executive after her father retired (for a second time) in 2015. “There weren’t very many of us around back then.”

Though demographics in the craft beer industry have slowly shifted since Highland opened its doors nearly 30 years ago, it is still a world dominated by white owners. According to data from the Brewers Association, only 2 percent of breweries in the United States are owned by Asian Americans like the Wongs.

But a new wave of brewers are following in Mr. Wong’s footsteps and making beers that reflect their heritage.

Raymond Kwan and Barry Chan, the owners of Lucky Envelope Brewing in Seattle and both children of Chinese immigrants, see the lack of Asian American-owned breweries as a product of cultural pressures. The two had corporate careers until their late 30s, when Mr. Chan, a home brewer, and Mr. Kwan had the simultaneous realization that their professional paths were unfulfilling.

“We were talking about what to do over some beers one night,” Mr. Kwan said, “and six hours later we were cold-emailing manufacturers to get brewing equipment prices.”

It wasn’t what either of them had planned for their lives. “A lot of Asian Americans have parents who wanted us to put our heads down and work hard, something that’s been reinforced by the model minority complex,” said Mr. Chan. “We ended up falling into that stereotype. It took a while to gather the confidence that we could do this.”

The term “model minority” originated in the 1960s, when Asian Americans and newly arrived immigrants were increasingly looking to blend in as a means of survival.

Lester Koga, a Japanese American and a founder of Barebottle Brewing Company in San Francisco, said the weight of that cultural expectation was with him from childhood. “You learn to assimilate as best as possible, but knowing the identity of who you are never escapes you,” he said.

Even so, he began to draw on his background, using Asian ingredients in his beers like the Oolong Saison and Half Samurai Sake Wheat Ale.

Youngwon Lee, the Korean American founder of Dokkaebier, in Oakland, Calif., did the same.

“My head brewer, who is white, makes kimchi at home, so we pulled out the culture from his kimchi and used it to make a kettle sour,” Mr. Lee said. “The sourness of the culture was the inspiration, and then we added chile and ginger to round it out.”

Mr. Chan of Lucky Envelope said he was more focused at first on making the best beer possible, rather than incorporating ingredients and tastes from his childhood. “In the back of our minds, we knew we were going to be viewed differently as one of the few Asian-owned breweries,” Mr. Chan said. “We wanted the beer itself to be received well, and didn’t want to be tokenized.”

Lucky Envelope’s beer spoke for itself; its Helles Lager won a bronze medal at the 2015 Great American Beer Festival competition, and the company has continued to rack up awards.

It wasn’t until after receiving this recognition that Mr. Chan and Mr. Kwan felt they could start bringing their heritage into the brewery. They redesigned their logo in November 2016 to emphasize the hong bao, a money-filled red envelope traditionally exchanged during special events in China. They began brewing beer to commemorate the animals of the Chinese zodiac, using flavors like flaked rice and Buddha’s hand, the tentacled citrus fruit widely used in East Asian cuisine.

Mr. Chan and Mr. Kwan also more deeply considered what it means to be people of color in a predominantly white field, especially amid the recent rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans. They’ve joined diversification efforts in the craft brewing business, and are hopeful for the future of beer three decades after Mr. Wong first opened Highland Brewing.

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