Blue Moon brewmaster and founder, Keith Villa

Blue Moon brewmaster and founder, Keith Villa

Keith Villa is the founder and head brewmaster of MillerCoors-owned Blue Moon Brewing Company, creator of the Belgium-style Blue Moon beer. During his visit to London last week, just-drinks sat down with the doctor of brewing to discuss quality issues in craft beer and what motivates him to experiment with bacon, peanut butter and chocolate. Villa also made clear why he considers Blue Moon a craft beer despite its corporate owners. 

just-drinks: Were you pushing against a closed door when you started out?

Keith Villa: Yes, there was a lot of resistance to beer that was cloudy, beer that was Belgian, beer that was brewed with coriander and orange peel. People didn't quite get it back then.

j-d: Why not?

KV: I think just that it was different. Most people were used to drinking a beer that was filtered to be clear. The mentality was that beer is golden and filtered. It was just very different for Americans to see. In Europe, most people were familiar with the concept.

It took about five to six years but finally people got it and by 2003, growth was exponential. It was really taking off.

j-d: You must have felt vindicated? Was it a case of “I told you so”?

KV: Yes, but I didn't tell people that exactly (laughs). I knew someday that Belgium beers would be popular in the US.

j-d: Is it true Coors tried to kill the project a number of times?

KV: That's very true. In the early days, I did get funding from Coors to start Blue Moon, in about 1995. Every year, I did not think we would last because people weren’t buying it. I did everything I could, but sales didn’t take off. It was only in 2001 that the trends turned around.

j-d: How did Coors try to shut you down? By not giving you any more money?

KV: They didn't give me much to begin with. I was on a shoestring budget. Our administrative assistant named the company and we gave her a T-shirt - we didn't have enough money. 

Coors and I now joke - they remember trying to kill us off five times. I remember three, so we settle on four. But that's the way it was in the early days - we never knew if we'd be around for another year.

Luckily now we are at the point where we're going global. I was in Japan and Australia last year launching Blue Moon. Before that it was London, Dublin, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands. We are gradually going around the world.

j-d: It's a fairly new export strategy, yes?

KV: It is. What we're seeing around the world is that people are noticing craft beers.  

There's been an almost continuous cycle of evolution in the beer world. A few of us came to Europe and were inspired, went to the States and created some new things which exploded. And now the Europeans are taking some of that craft revolution. Last week I was in Belgium and I saw a lot of that. A Duvel triple hop, which is like an IPA version of Duvel. You name the brand, and they probably have some version that was inspired by the Americans.

In Japan, I see them also getting "crafty". The first time I went to Japan in 1996, they considered bock beer or stout to be very cutting edge. Now, they are making beers with sake rices, ales with seaweed to pair with sushi dishes.

j-d: What's been the trigger for people opening up to craft beers?

KV: People are opening up to different things across the range of consumer goods. Also brewers are being inspired by other brewers to create new things. 

A lot of brewers come to us and try our speciality beers, such as the one made with peanut butter. We have a beer made with bacon and chocolate. We have a wine-beer hybrid, which smells and tastes like wine. Brewers taste those and go back and try and do it themselves, and then try other things.

j-d: Do you see more blurred lines around the different alcohol categories?

KV: In the US, we sometimes say people become "siloed" in their thinking. But now people are breaking those silos down and trying new things. Young people in the US, when they reach 21, they are not starting out drinking a regular premium beer. They are immediately drinking craft beers. 

j-d: Will the innovation continue?

KV: With beer, we can never rest on our laurels.

j-d: Where do you get your ideas from?

KV: I love to read what chefs are doing. I read all the cooking journals, and magazines from around the world.

j-d: What chefs are your inspiration?

KV: America's Next Top Chef - those guys are always coming up with cool ideas. You look at what they're doing and you think, I could make a beer out of that.

j-d: You seem to approach brewing quite scientifically?

KV: Yes, but also artistically. Science can only take you so far. There's nothing about brewing with peanut butter or bacon in the books. That's where you have to stop the science and let the artist out and play around.

j-d: What kind of things are you playing around with?

KV: Now that marijuana is legal in Colorado (where Villa is based) we can start doing things with that. It's the only place in the world where it's actually legal to do stuff like that. I'm actually doing a few little experiments with it (marijuana), back in Colorado only. On a federal level it's still illegal so we can't do it on a federal level, but in Colorado we can do small experiments. 

Marijuana and hops are actually cousins as far as plants are concerned. As a botanist you can graft a hop plant onto marijuana and it'll actually grow on the hop plant.

(In a statement, MillerCoors said: “Blue Moon Brewing Co, along with all other MillerCoors brewing companies, has absolutely no intention of brewing or selling a marijuana beer.")

j-d: Blue Moon has been the subject of some debate in the beer industry over whether it is a craft beer because it is owned by MillerCoors. What's your position on this?

KV: When you try to make a definition of craft beer, it's very difficult. In the US, the definition most people follow is what the Brewer's Association put out. But they change that definition about every three or four years. It's like changing the rules of soccer - saying let's have 15 players. To me, you shouldn’t be changing the rules, so we don't really follow those definitions. To me, Blue Moon is a craft beer. It could easily have died but it became a success through lot of hard work. To me, craft beer is a beer made with passion and great ingredients. It's like a work of art - you know it when you see it. We let our beer speak for itself.

j-d: Will these two sides of the debate ever be resolved?

KV: I think it does come down to the consumer. Some will know we are part of the MillerCoors network, because we are. I don't hide that fact. Most craft brewers would love to have the facilities that I have, for example with the MillerCoors laboratory. 

I've taken numerous IPAs and analysed them in the MillerCoors laboratory and found that most of them report an incorrect IPU. They often have a lot less than they say because they are not legally obligated to verify that.

But if Blue Moon says it has ten or 20 or 80 IPUs then that's what will be in the bottle. To me that's relevant because as a consumer I want to be sure that what's on the label is inside the bottle. That's huge. Right now there's a lot of brewers that can't make that claim.

j-d: Does the industry need more quality control?

KV: For sure. There is a quality problem. I'm also a beer judge and there are a lot of inferior beers out there, but if you talk to the brewers that make them they think they are making the best beer in the world.

KV: A lot of them have a chip on their shoulder, and say Blue Moon is too big to be a craft beer. But in my opinion we are still thinking small and making sure that everything we do is the highest quality we can do.

j-d: Is there a bigger role ahead in craft beer for big brewers?

KV: For me, the craft world is more about savouring the beer. Maybe in the future there will be lighter versions of ales that the big brewers might play in. But for now, I'm happy playing around with ingredients.

j-d: Do you drink light beer yourself?

KV: Yeah, if I'm watching a game. They're easy to drink with friends. But I'll start and finish with Blue Moon.

j-d: What other craft beers do you like?

KV: I always like best the one that's in my hand.

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