Blue Moon’s Brewer

Note: the Professor renamed this article because he felt “Blue Moon adds Craft Brewery Dimension to MillerCoors” was problematic. The Professor has several problems with this article, starting with calling Blue Moon, “craft beer.” It’s like calling Caddy “a small, inde, car company.” But it does provide some insight into Miller/Coors attempt to slice into the craft market, and how media sometimes backs them up. The history is interesting too, as well as some of the brewer’s comments. The Professor decided to let you decide.- The Professor

Written by Royal Blonde-Griggs for

Keith Villa is the brewmaster of Blue Moon Brewing Company, a craft brewery that is a wholly-owned subsidiary of MillerCoors. The company actually started well before the merger of Miller and Coors. Villa is also the creator of Blue Moon Belgian white, the brewery’s flagship beer, as well as several other beers.

Villa says there is a very friendly marriage in Belgium of beer and cuisine, and this had a big effect on him as a brewer. After starting Blue Moon, Villa traveled the United States on an education campaign to tell people why they should drink a cloudy beer like his – and later to explain how his beer can best be paired with numerous kinds of food.

“The Blue Moon Belgian white is the single largest craft brand in the United States. Sam Adams is bigger when all brands are counted, but as a single brand, Blue Moon is the largest. People now will often say (of Blue Moon), ‘Oh yeah, that’s that big beer,’ but in the early days, it was tough. I traveled all over the country to educate people about cloudy beer. It wasn’t until about 2003 that people started to get what Blue Moon was all about. Prior to that it was a lot of hard work,” says Villa.

Really, Villa is an aficionado of the entirety of beer culture, and his immersion in this culture began as a home brewer while still in college.

“Beer to me is just fascinating,” he says.

This love of all things beer led him to be on the board of advisors for the Oxford Companion to Beer. The mammoth, 900-page addition to the Oxford series was just released.

The book’s editor-in-chief is Garret Oliver, brewmaster of the Brooklyn Brewing Company. “We reviewed everything. It’s a very informative book on beer, styles, culture. It should be a sought-after coffee table book for those who love beer,” says Villa.

Villa was born in (the aptly named) Wheat Ridge, a town just outside Denver on the way to Golden, Colorado. He went from Pomona High School straight to the University of Colorado in Boulder, where he majored in molecular biology. Villa was headed to medical school, but became a brewmaster instead.

In 1985, Coors Brewing Company advertised on campus that they were looking for a researcher with beer. Villa responded to the ad, as he had already done research as an undergraduate, had been brewing in his dorm since 1983, and thought he was uniquely positioned for the job. Villa went to Golden with 100 other students where he was, in fact, told that he was the most qualified, and could start the day after he graduated.

“I had to ask myself if I wanted to work with sick people or beer,” Villa says. He thought he’d give researching beer a year, then quit and go to graduate school. Instead of letting him go, Coors offered to send Villa to the University of Brussels in Belgium to get a doctorate in brewing science.

He remains part of a small group of people in the United States who have PhDs in brewing science. And, with a trace of nostalgia and, perhaps, loneliness, Villa says he might be the only one left with a PhD who is actively brewing in the U.S. While in Belgium, Villa traveled a lot and visited lots of European breweries. He remained fond of the Belgian styles, and he got a chance to create one of his own in 1995.

Villa says that Peter Coors was “a visionary,” that he saw the craft beer movement coming, and in 1994 Coors asked Villa and a colleague to put together a craft brewery. They put a business plan together and, on a shoestring budget, set out to offer something with a Belgian twist.

“Our Belgian white, which is what the company launched with, was what set us apart from other people. We had everything going but a name. An administrative assistant suggested this only comes around once in a blue moon, and we said, ‘That’s a great name!’ We had no money then – we could only give her a T-shirt to reward her,” Villa says.

Unfortunately, Villa found that most people were afraid of a cloudy beer back in 1995, and few people could point to a map to tell you where Belgium is. Thus, Villa launched his campaign, traveling North America with his message.

“I wanted to make a Belgian-style beer that appealed to the American palate,” says Villa.

Blue Moon is a Belgian-style beer made from barley, malted wheat and oats. It’s spiced with coriander and Valencia orange peel, setting it apart from Belgian beers, which use different oranges. According to Villa, Belgian breweries also stopped using oats years ago, which are often found to be too difficult for brewing.

Blue Moon beer’s “cloudy” appearance is a result of it being unfiltered.

“The cloudiness is protein from the wheat and the brewer’s yeast, which is full of B vitamins,” says Villa.

Blue Moon tried to get the U.S. government to allow a nutrition statement on the label. “They said we couldn’t do it because, if the typical 21-year-old saw the benefits of one, then they might believe six would be really healthy,” Villa says.

Along with his education campaign about Belgian beers and cloudy beers generally, in 1997 Villa created the idea of the orange slice garnish for Blue Moon.

“Virtually no bar in the United States had oranges, so we created a guerilla campaign, taking bags of oranges to bars on Monday mornings, usually their least busy time, getting bar owners and staff to garnish their Blue Moon with the orange slice,” he says.

After bartenders and owners tried it, Villa would check back in with them and offer another bag of oranges. By the time they stopped giving free bags of oranges, the bar customers would be asking where their orange garnish was, necessitating bars to begin stocking oranges themselves.

The “proper” way to enjoy a Blue Moon, according to its creator, is just about any way you want it. But Villa does suggest pairing Blue Moon with foods.

Villa loves to pair all beers with food – it’s another passion. He says Blue Moon is always designing food-friendly beers, and he continues his education efforts with these pairings, and how to use his beers in recipes, reducing them to make flavorful additions to sauces, or how to reduce his Belgian white, add oil, and use it as a salad dressing.

Villa, who’s a winemaker at home, recently created the Vintage Blonde Ale, which is a 100 percent wheat beer, with no barley malt.

“Ask most brewers, and they will say it’s impossible to brew a beer without barley,” says Villa. His winemaking at home became part of the inspiration for the new beer.

One of Villa’s neighbors owns a produce company, and is able to order wine grapes from California, which are otherwise unavailable to the majority of people. Each year, Villa buys 400-500 pounds of grapes, gets the kids’ plastic swimming pools and his friends together, and turns them all into fermentation vessels to stomp the grapes.

“We have a stomping party, with cheese and wine from the previous year. It’s a lot of fun,” says Villa.

Villa says they’re constantly experimenting at brewery, and that some of his early experiments are starting to pay off. Among these are the peanut butter ale and the raspberry cream ale.

“I wanted to make a black and tan the Blue Moon way which is beer with a twist. Black and tans are ale and stout usually, so our blend is a raspberry cream ale on the bottom and a peanut butter ale on top,” Villa says. He first came up with the peanut butter ale at the onset of the Blue Moon Brewery.

He tested every kind of peanut butter, from organic to Skippy. Ultimately, Jif was used. “Information from our test markets kept suggesting that our peanut butter ale ‘is not as bad as you think it would be,’ which is not a good marketing slogan,” Villa says.

But they rolled out the peanut butter ale again three years ago, and the market had changed immensely. Even though it might still a little bit too soon for American taste to acclimate to peanut butter ale, the brew has been winning some awards.

“People are starting to appreciate beers I first made in the ’90s. We have a lot of fun with beer,” Villa says.

This positive attitude seems to carry over into all parts Villa’s life.

Villa and his spouse have three kids, ages 18, 14 and six. “We spread them out to make it easy on college payments,” he says.

Villa says it’s fun teaching the kids about beer, even though they’re too young to drink it. His family recently spent 15 days in Belgium with the kids, where the legal drinking age is 16, so the oldest one got to drink, and everyone got to have the brewmaster’s tour of his old haunts while in grad school.

“It was a fun time. I got to open their eyes up to the culture of beer. And it was really interesting to show them Belgium,” Villa says.

And Villa is still busy educating the rest of us, too, as he continues to travel North America to spread the word about cloudy beers. Villa will be the Great American Beer Festival in Denver from September 29 through October 1, 2011.

Villa recently launched a program with Blue Moon’s fans to create the next Blue Moon beer, a new fall seasonal. Villa encourages people to visit Blue Moon’s Facebook page, where there’s an entry form to enter ideas for the next beer. Once you “like” the page, there’s a video of Villa inviting people to submit their ideas. Villa says the videos will be updated, including ones showing them brewing contest-winning beers for test markets.

Villa says they will pick the top three ideas, brew each one and test market them next year, which will result in one final winning beer. Villa and company will launch the new beer on the next lunar blue moon, Friday, Aug. 31, 2012.

So, the fans of Blue Moon will be the ones to come up with the next Blue Moon.

“Even though we’re the biggest single craft brand, we hold true to our roots. And being a small brewery, we have to continue to be flexible. But I intend to do this 15, 30, 45 years yet and have fun with beer,” says Villa.

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