Just a few days ago, the Blue Moon Brewing Company sponsored an exclusive White IPA Brewmaster Dinner that concluded a five-city cross-country tour at Nashville’s Urban Grub restaurant. The four-course meal was paired with four different Blue Moon craft beers that were quite tasty. The dinner was hosted by Blue Moon Founder and Head Brewmaster Keith Villa, who introduced each serving with some background information about each of the beers. After the festivities concluded, Mr. Villa visited with me for a quick interview. Read on to find out how Blue Moon became one of the top disruptors in the beverage world, learn the brewery’s connection to Tennessee and preview two upcoming seasonal beers from the brewery.
Please tell me how you got into the beer industry.
– “Originally, I was planning on becoming a pediatrician. I wanted to go to medical school and become a doctor. But, I went to Belgium instead and got my doctorate in brewing. So, I studied for four years at the University of Brussels, in Belgium, graduated magna cum laude and became a beer doctor. After that, I started Blue Moon Brewing Company.”
“Back in ’95, when I launched Blue Moon Brewing Company, people did not appreciate Belgian beers. In fact, a lot of Belgian beers were unheard of. In fact, if most people wanted something unique, back in those days, they would search for a red ale — a Killian’s Red, Red Dog, Red Wolf — those were considered the top in craft beer. It was tough, because our flagship beer was a cloudy, Belgian-style wheat ale. People were just not familiar with that, so it took a lot of education. I had to travel a lot to get people to try our beer and I had to explain what it was all about, creating the orange-slice garnish in 1997, getting the glass just right in 1998 and by 2001, that’s when things started to really change and we became successful.”
How long did it take to educate people about your beer?
– “Five or six years, it was right in that time period. I like to consider Blue Moon as a pioneer. We helped get things settled on the map, because a lot of other craft brewers, back then, did not have the resources to travel the country and educate people about craft beer. We did. In fact, we were recognized last month in Beverage World magazine as being one of the Top 50 Disruptors in the beverage industry. The top beer was Blue Moon and they credited me with changing how people think about beer and beer styles. It really was an honor to be included. It really is fun to see people enjoying Blue Moon now, whereas in the past, they may not have considered a Belgian beer for a craft beer. But because of Blue Moon, now their minds are opened to enjoying more styles that are offered.”
When you started Blue Moon, I’m guessing there weren’t many breweries in Colorado.
– “No, there really weren’t. In the U.S. there weren’t many craft breweries. Back then, they were called microbreweries, because ‘craft’ wasn’t en vogue. It was tough, because a lot of people were brewing German- or English-style beers. Belgian beers were almost unheard of. I had just returned from Belgium with my PhD in brewing and I wanted to do Belgian beers. People were really taken aback by Belgian beers, because they didn’t understand what it was about. Our Belgian white was cloudy, spiced with coriander and orange peel. It took a long time to let people know what our beers were about. Additionally, I wanted to make our beers unique: Classic styles with a twist. That’s always been my philosophy.”
“Our first seasonal beer was a pumpkin beer, back in ’95. It was the first nationally available pumpkin beer in the U.S. Back then, most people wanted an Oktoberfest. They didn’t want pumpkin beer. People thought it was weird. I would tell them it was brewed with pumpkin and spices you would make pumpkin pie with: cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. We fast forward to 2014 and my guess is here, in Nashville, there were probably a ton of pumpkin beers available.”
“It was about 2001 to 2002 when the tide had changed. The American consumer had started to appreciate unique beers that had flavor. We were doing extreme beers before they had a name for them. They didn’t know what to call them, back then. The market was changing and, to me, it was just an awesome experience to see. It was almost a vindication.”
What do you think is the public’s perception of Belgian beers now?
– “The fun part is that we have influenced a lot of other craft brewers. I hear from craft brewers, a lot, who say that their first experience into craft beer was with Blue Moon and that inspired them to create their own craft brewery. It’s amazing. When I talk to consumers who tried Blue Moon and all of a sudden they start to experience craft beers, it really is a great feeling to be such a big influence in people’s perceptions of what beer can be.”
How are each of the Brewmaster Dinners paired with your beers?
– “We have been doing Blue Moon beer-dinner pairings for all 20 years of our existence. We were one of the first. I was doing beer dinners back in 1995 and 1996, back before it was popular. Each chef is unique. Chefs are like artists.”
“I learned early on that you have to give the chef the creative freedom to do what he or she does best and that is to create a dish that pairs great with this particular beer. When you do that, you don’t dictate, you don’t prescribe, you just say, ‘This is the beer and these are the characteristics of it.’ You can give them a handful of ideas to compare with and they will typically run with that. They will create a dish that pairs well with each beer.”
This event was part of a five-city Brewmaster Dinner tour. How was Nashville chosen?
– “Well, Nashville is a beer city. People really appreciate beer here. It’s up and coming and this place is awesome. This is our last stop of the White IPA tour. It’s amazing to finish up in this city, because, to me, it is a huge accomplishment. I would say 10 years ago, here, people didn’t appreciate different beers, but the market has changed so much. Now, if I can launch a beer here and people tell me they love it and they appreciate, I know that beer’s going to be a huge hit, because people here are very critical of their music and their beer.”
“I worked hard to design this beer, to give it that grapefruit-citrus nose, the bitterness that’s smooth and that drinkability that our fans expect of Blue Moon. For me to hear so many great comments about our White IPA from consumers, retailers, beer lovers, beer aficionados, novice beer lovers, but for them all to say it was an amazing beer, that, to me, says this is going to be really big. To hear the fans, here, in Nashville, of all places, if they love this beer, I know it’s going to be a hit. It was a great way to finish up our White IPA adventure.”
Blue Moon is not new to Tennessee. Can you tell me the brewery’s history with our state?
– “A lot of people don’t realize that Tennessee was our home for five years. From 1999 to 2004 we actually brewed Blue Moon in Memphis, Tennessee. This is where all the Blue Moon in the states came from. That is the period where people around the U.S. discovered Blue Moon and it all came from Memphis. I spent a lot of time there. That’s when I first discovered wet and dry barbecue. I didn’t know the difference. Out in Colorado, we don’t have barbecue. (laughs) That’s when I discovered our beers paired well with a lot of the local foods.”
“Back then, I remember meeting with other craft brewers and homebrewers at Boscos, who were looking for new beers that they appreciated. When they found Blue Moon, they thought it was awesome. We owe so much to Tennessee. Once people find out it was brewed in the state of Tennessee, they feel proud of Blue Moon and they should be, because that’s when we became popular. I’m proud of it. It is the largest craft brand in the United States, right now, and we’re going global. I’ve launched Blue Moon in England, Ireland, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Italy… little by little, we’re going across the globe and showing the true characteristics of Blue Moon. It’s really a great time to be a beer drinker. To me, it’s the best time, ever.”
Will you return to Nashville for more events anytime soon?
– “I would love to. There’s so many events happening this summer in Nashville. This is going to be the place to be. I want to come back when it’s warm, when the sun is out.”
What upcoming seasonal beers can we expect from Blue Moon?
– “This year is our first year for First Peach Ale. People are discovering that you can have a peach beer that is literally brewed with peaches, has a hint of tartness, a hint of that dark-caramel malt character, but it’s not sweet or overly sweet. This is a beer that men and women can enjoy and it goes really well with grilled foods. This is a great spring beer, but to me, it’s an early-summer beer.”
“We’ve got our White IPA, which is new. It will be out on April 1st. We have our Cinnamon Horchata Ale, which was paired with a great dessert, tonight. The Cinnamon Horchata should be in the Nashville market in independent six-packs by the first of next year. Until then, you’ll only be finding it in the variety pack. This winter, we have a new beer coming out. I can’t tell you exactly what it is, now.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
– “Denver is where we call home, but Tennessee was our home from 1999 until 2004. For those folks who don’t realize that, that’s when Blue Moon became big. We were brewed right here, in Tennessee. That was our home, but back in Denver, we’ve got a lot of great beers. If any of the folks here want to come to Denver and enjoy the great beers that we brew, please stop by the brewery.”
“We would love to host them, have them try some of the brewmaster’s specials, especially during the Great American Beer Festival. That is the time to come to Denver, because everybody who is anybody in the beer world is there and almost every brewer in the states is there, trying to win a gold medal. It’s the Oscars of the beer world. That’s the time to go to Denver and try new beers, then come to our brewery and try some of what we have to offer. We have a lot of new things on tap, all the time. It’s a lot of fun, making beer. It’s our passion. We love it and we love sharing our new beers with all of our fans.”