Inside The Tank | Blue Moon Brewing Company’s Keith Villa
Walk into nearly any bar in American and you’ll likely spot a beer served with an orange slice. Immediately Blue Moon Belgian White comes to mind. First brewed by Keith Villa at the Sandlot Brewery attached to Coors Field in 1995, Blue Moon Belgian White was originally called Bellyside Belgian White and bars served it with lemon. Things have changed over the years and I met up with Villa at the Great American Beer Fest to talk with him about his brewing background, the history and growth of Blue Moon as well as his thoughts on the craft beer industry.
What’s your favorite thing about being here at GABF?
My favorite thing about being at GABF is always seeing the other brewers. The first time I judged was in 1993, but I’ve been coming to GABF since I was 21. It’s been years and years. I saw it when it was small and nobody wanted to go, to now where it’s become the event to be at every year in the beer world.
How did you get into brewing?
I got into brewing by going to the University of Brussels in Belgium and getting my doctorate. I was there from 1988 until 1992. Then I graduated Magnum Cum Laude, came back and started Blue Moon in 1995.
How did you come up with the iconic Belgian White that has become so popular today?
I fell in love with Belgian styles when I lived in Belgium – particularly the Belgian White style because it was so refreshing. I put my own unique spin on it and we called it Bellyslide Belgian White as a brewmasters special in 1995. People started buying it at Coors Field because it was a really great thirst quenching beer. We thought it was the perfect beer to be our flagship beer and it turned into our best seller.
You have a commercial going about how the beer was once served with lemon. Today everyone associates Blue Moon with an orange slice. How did you decide Blue Moon should have an orange instead of lemon?
When I launched in 1995 I traveled the country trying to get people to drink Blue Moon. It was cloudy, it was Belgian, it was unique and people would see it and wonder what it was. People were actually afraid of it so I would do samplings to get people to try it. People went from being afraid to loving it and recommending it to their friends.
As I traveled the country I saw bars serving it with a slice of lemon and that is not appropriate because it’s brewed with orange peel, not lemon peel. We didn’t have a lot of money back then to just tell people to do it the way we wanted. I had to pick strategic bars and I would visit them, talk with them and ask them to serve Blue Moon with an orange. I showed them how to slice it and garnish the glass and give it to the customer.
I actually took oranges to the bars so they could try it and did that for about a month and then I stopped bringing oranges. Their customers got use to having the orange and they would ask for the orange. The bar managers would call me and ask me where their free bag of oranges was and I told them it was an introductory thing and now it’s on the bar to get oranges. They were forced by their customers to get them. It was purely organic after that. Customers wanted their Blue Moon with an orange and that’s how I got it started. Prior to Blue Moon bars didn’t routinely carry oranges.
A popular misconception is that Blue Moon was acquired by MillerCoors but you were never actually acquired. Talk about your relationship with MillerCoors.
I got funding from Coors to start Blue Moon. But back then they didn’t have to give me funding because they had the No. 1 selling craft beer brand in 1995 which was George Killian’s Irish Red. They had that and this crazy new drink called Zima. It was wildly popular. They had no reason to give me money to start Blue Moon.
The only stipulation was that I couldn’t brew it in Golden, Colorado. So I had to brew it under contract in Utica, New York. That’s where we brewed from ’95-’97 but we also still brewed at The Sandlot here in Denver for the local market. We outgrew Utica in ’97 so I moved everything to Cincinnati and in ’99 moved to Memphis and we brewed there until 2005 and that’s when Blue Moon became pretty big.
The folks at Coors wanted to try having us brew it in Golden. Early on they were afraid of the cross contamination of the coriander and orange into Coors Light. They tested it and it brewed perfectly so from 2005 onward we’ve been brewed in the big MillerCoors network which is a great thing, because they can control the quality better than almost any small brewer. We work with the best growers in California to get the best orange peel and for the coriander we work with the growers with the best oats. We set-up our specifications and they send everything to us according to our specifications. We don’t go to the local spice shop down the street to buy spices because we work with the growers which is a huge advantage because it allows us to get nothing but the best ingredients.
How has your relationship with MillerCoors allowed you to grow the brand over the last 15 years?
Our relationship is great. We have one of the best trained sales forces with MillerCoors. Most of them are Cicerone certified so they really know beers and beer styles as well as pairing beer with food. I think the relationship has grown and become really really good so they know that Blue Moon is a high quality beer. They know when they go off to sell it that they know that they are not selling a poor quality product. We’re lucky to be associated with MillerCoors.
We have the best of both worlds – the craft beer world we are the biggest craft beer brand out there and in the major beer world we have the opportunity to procure the best ingredients and have distribution of our beers throughout the MillerCoors network. We are able to bring the absolute best beer out there to consumers.
You’re around thousands of beers here at GABF. How does Blue Moon stay relevant in an industry where there’s always something different, unique or crazier coming out?
Well we’ve always been innovative from the start. With the Belgian White it’s not a true to style White. I tweaked it by putting oats in it, which back then that wasn’t the norm for Belgian Whites. I also used Valencia orange peel which also wasn’t the norm. The wheat I used was malted and back then they used raw wheat and we dialed up the alcohol in the bottle because I wanted it more full-bodied because it gave it more flavor.
We also launched the very first pumpkin beer available nationally in the U.S. People don’t realize that in 1995 our distributors said we needed to do an Oktoberfest beer and I told them we were going to do a pumpkin beer and they had no idea what it was.
We’re always innovating and people that come to our small brewery in Denver will see all the beers we have on tap and the innovative things that we are doing.
Do you define Blue Moon as a craft beer?
I don’t bother with definitions. They’ve been changing over the years. In the early days George Killian’s was considered a craft beer in 1995. We were considered a craft beer and then the Brewers Association changed the rules and they’ve constantly done that so we don’t play by those rules. We let our beer do the talking and because of that, our fans come and they spend time with us at our little brewery. They believe we are a craft beer and I believe we brew with passion and the best ingredients possible. We hand craft our batches at the little brewery and our beers have won numerous awards at this festival. Again I let our beers do the talking.
What are your day-to-day roles now at Blue Moon?
Blue Moon has become pretty successful. I still work with the guys, providing ideas for new beers but I travel quite a bit around the country telling the history of Blue Moon. A lot of people don’t know about it. They just think it’s owned by MillerCoors so it was just made up by them but that’s not the case. There was a lot of work done to get Blue Moon to where it is today. I travel the country doing beer dinners and talking about the history to our sales team and to retailers. Now Blue Moon is also available in 22 countries so I’ve traveled extensively around the world launching Blue Moon and getting the taste of craft beer, particularly Blue Moon, internationally.
What’s your favorite Blue Moon beer and if you’re not drinking Blue Moon what are you drinking?
If I’m not drinking Blue Moon I’ll pick the biggest craft brewer in the state and try what they are doing. There are so many local ones and sometimes it’s very risky because some of them started brewing as a home brewer and just became so big that sometimes they make good batches and sometimes bad batches. Some are in it to try and make money and be rich overnight and those ones sometimes don’t taste as well as they should.
The bigger craft brewers have been in it for awhile and they know what they are doing and I like to go and try their beers. If I’m in Boulder I like to go to Boulder Beer. If I’m in Fort Collins I’ll go to New Belgium. I’ve also helped several breweries early on including New Belgium. I help them because my bottom line is I don’t want any consumers and drinkers out there to experience bad craft beer. I’ll do as much as I can to make sure consumers enjoy good craft beer – even if it’s my competitors. Those consumers will leave the beer world and go to drink wine or spirits and I want them to continue drinking beer. To me it’s always been about craft beer.
My favorite Blue Moon has to be Blue Moon Belgium White. It’s what put us on the map it’s smooth, easy to drink it’s flavorful and goes well with food.
What does the future hold for Blue Moon?
For Blue Moon we are the biggest craft beer brand with Blue Moon Belgium White. For me I want to keep growing Blue Moon to make it the craft beer drinkers choice so whenever they walk into a bar or restaurant I want them to say “I want a Blue Moon.” I want Blue Moon to be even bigger than what it is today. I want it to be a major brand in the U.S. and a big global brand too. I think it deserves that and it’s a beer that people really like. Now a lot of people are already asking for a Blue Moon but I want everyone to be asking for it.