In 1995, the U.S. beer market was in a rut, Keith Villa remembers. "There was regular, light beer, and amber ale," he says. "That was it."
Armed with a brand new Ph.D. in Brewing and a little bit of funding from a major beer company, he was ready to shake things up. Villa created Blue Moon Belgian White inside a small brewery at Colorado's Coors Field. The beer is an homage to the crisp Belgian wit that he grew to love from the country where he studied suds. "I wanted to bring some of that Belgium flair back to the states," he proclaims.
Today, Villa is Blue Moon's head brewmaster, and his beer is considered the top-selling craft beer on the market with two million barrels produced annually. And in July, he made the nearly 7,000-mile trip from Colorado for the launch of Blue Moon Belgian White on Guam.
Just like the Belgian wit, Blue Moon's new beer is smooth and easy to drink. For centuries, Belgians have brewed their traditional beer with barley malt, spicing it with herbaceous coriander and citrusy Curacao orange peel.
Villa's Blue Moon twist adds oats to the base, and swaps the citrus with the sweeter Valencia orange. "The Valencia brings out a really nice fruity, subtly sweet character, a really nice aroma described as orange marmalade with hints of French vanilla," he says.
While the oats add a creamy mouth feel to the crisp brew, there's one other big difference to the Blue Moon beer. It has a 5.4 percent ABV (alcohol by volume), compared to the traditional ones that will have an ABV of 4 to 4.2 percent.
"We're a full degree higher in alcohol, and that's to bring out the flavors of the beer and to help pair the beer better with food," Villa reveals. "You can enjoy it with almost anything, but our Belgian White go well with seafood, spicy foods like Thai or Mexican, or white meats like chicken or fish."
It took a little bit of convincing before Blue Moon's Belgian White began blazing trails with its unique flavor profile. "People just didn't get it," Villa admits. "Here was this cloudy Belgium beer, and most people weren't familiar with Belgium beers. If it was cloudy, most people thought there was a problem with it, like it was infected with bacteria or something. But it took time and hard work." The beer seemed foreign with its orange hints. Even bars were perplexed, serving it with lemon wedges.
In 1997, Villa had a stroke of genius that sealed the fate of Blue Moon's flagship beer. He targeted strategic bars and got them to ditch the lemons by bringing them bags of oranges. He showed bars how to properly slice the orange into wheels with a nick to hang off the side of a glass. His team continued to provide oranges for about five weeks.
"When their customers no longer had an orange garnish, they'd complain to the management," he says. "Then the manager would call us and ask where was their free bag of oranges. That was only an introductory service, and they were forced by their customers to buy oranges. It was a win-win situation because the customers were happy and the sales went up. When sales went up, so were the tips for their staff."
Although only a brewmaster then, Villa recognized from a marketing perspective that customers were creating an emotional bond with the beer's presentation. "Everyone has their own personal ritual for that orange," he says. "Some people take their garnish, put it in their beer, and drink it. Some will rim the glass with the juice, some will squeeze the juice in, and that really helped create a bond with our brand. That wasn't my intent. My intent was to highlight the orange brewed in the beer."
As it rose up the beer ranks, Blue Moon grew out of its humble Colorado brewery and moved through several states. Production cranked way up in 2002, and by 2005, Molson Coors took notice and began to brew Blue Moon for the masses.
Blue Moon has since gone global with several tap houses in the United States and one in Valencia, Spain. Along with Guam, the beer is now in 25 countries.
Last year, Blue Moon returned to its Colorado roots, opening a brewery in Denver's RiNo, (river north) district brewery. It's nestled among avant-garde restaurants and other small breweries on the cutting edge of the culinary world.
There's just a team of four brewers at Blue Moon creating new flavors, while the brewery's new restaurant serves as a testing ground for new products, including Mango Wheat, due out in the mainland this fall.
While there are many other successful products from the brewery, Villa hopes to one day resurrect a beer-wine hybrid that flopped several years ago. "I'd like to reintroduce it because the concept was really fun and unique," he says. "We also tested those beers in the wine country of California. Surprisingly, wine drinkers really loved them because it's more drinkable. Wine, you've got 14 percent alcohol, roughly. My beers came in between 8 and 10 percent alcohol. They were strong for beers but very light for wines. It was a very nice way to enjoy a wine-like beverage and be able to socialize and have fun without getting tipsy."
Twenty-two years after the launch of the Blue Moon Belgian White, Villa is marveled by the changes it brought to the industry. "Not in my wildest dreams have I thought it would ever get this big," he says. "I was hoping maybe we'd get to 100,000 barrels of beer. I thought that would be big for a craft beer."
And while some would argue that Blue Moon's mass production cuts it out of the craft market, Villa couldn't disagree more. "There's no legal definition of craft beer in the U.S., and there are plenty of things considered craft, including craft soda. We say craft is a beer made with the highest quality ingredients and made by passionate brewers. We invite people to come down to our brewery anytime and spend time with our brewers. They'll walk away thinking, 'Wow, that's really a craft beer.' There's a lot of hands-on work going on. We're always coming up with a lot of ideas, new beers."
"The Valencia brings out a really nice fruity, subtly sweet character, a really nice aroma described as orange marmalade with hints of French vanilla."