Guess who made a beer with Chardonnay juice almost 20 years ago? The same guy who invented Blue Moon. Meet Keith Villa, the mind behind the “craft” side of MillerCoors.
By Stan Hieronymus / Photos by Don Cudney
Deep in the belly of the largest single-site brewery on Earth, Keith Villa checked the map one more time. The tank he was looking for would be here on the fourth floor of Cellar 16. He stepped carefully over piping, walked through a stainless-steel hallway with walls stretching to a ceiling 20 feet above and found storage tank 16D12. It could hold 1,583 barrels (more than 49,000 gallons), and the gauge showed it was about two-thirds full.
A tag hung from a sample spigot. It read, “Vintage Blonde.”
One thousand barrels is considerably more beer than the average American brewpub will produce in a year, but might easily be misplaced at the MillerCoors Golden Brewery just west of Denver. The facility has nine aging cellars, eight with six floors filled with 24 tanks per floor. The ninth cellar holds 18 tanks on four floors and 12 tanks on two. That’s 1,248 lagering tanks.
Earlier in the day, with a considerably smaller brewery behind him, Villa looked at an online version of a story in Details magazine about “four beer trends to try now.” The first featured beer-wine hybrids and put his Blue Moon Vintage Blonde Ale front and center. He read the description: “Unfermented Chardonnay juice amplifies the tang of this wheat beer, Coors’ spin on the trend.”
He sighed, repeated the final five words out loud and shook his head. “We tested it [its original name: Champagne-All Wheat] right here in this room—in 1995,” he says. Villa put down a glass of an India Pale Ale brewed with juniper berries and nodded toward an adjoining table, perhaps remembering the face of a customer, and certainly the conversation:
“Is it beer or wine?”
“Do you like it?”
“Well, sort of.”
A few months before, Villa had brewed a beer with peanut butter at The SandLot Brewery inside Denver’s Coors Field, where he did test batches. “Everybody had the same response: ‘That’s not as disgusting as I thought it would be,’” he recalls. “These were extreme beers back when there really wasn’t such a thing, and almost nobody liked them.”
He put those recipes from the ’90s on the shelf and didn’t look at them again until 2006. “When I rolled them out, it seemed like we couldn’t make enough for GABF and our test outlets [The SandLot and Falling Rock Taphouse, down the street],” Villa said. He called the beer brewed with malted wheat and concentrated grape juice Chardonnay Blonde, later changing it to Vintage Blonde because the government wouldn’t approve a beer label that included “Chardonnay.” It has won five Great American Beer Festival and World Beer Cup medals.
The peanut butter beer is so popular at GABF that they post what time it will be tapped, and by the time it’s poured, the waiting line may be wrapped around itself. “I tried Jif, Skippy, Peter Pan and even freshly ground organic peanut butter from Alfalfa’s Market,” Villa says. “I even tried blends of peanut butter, almond butter and cashew butter. A version made with sunflower nut butter was called PeaNot Butter Ale for the GABF.”
Blue Moon packaged Vintage Blonde Ale for the first time in 2011, testing it in 750mL bottles in limited markets. The 1,000-barrel batch Villa visited shortly before it was released in June 2012 didn’t seem like much beer amid all those other aging tanks in Golden, but there was enough to distribute nationally.
“We’re not looking for it to become the next Blue Moon White,” says Libby Mura of MillerCoors. Blue Moon sold 1.4 million 31-gallon barrels of Belgian White in 2011, more than any American wheat beer ever, and more than Samuel Adams Boston Lager, Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or New Belgium Fat Tire. Mura’s title, marketing director for craft brands, introduces the elephant in the room. According to the way the Brewers Association, the organization most of America’s 2,000 breweries belong to, defines “craft brewery” and “craft beer,” Blue Moon and its brands are not “craft.”
Blue Moon is a subsidiary of MillerCoors, a joint venture between Coors Brewing and Miller Brewing formed in 2007. The company brews the Blue Moon sold in the United States in three facilities: in 400-barrel batches at its Golden Brewery; in 800-barrel batches in Eden, N.C.; and in 10-barrel batches at The SandLot Brewery. “On a good day, if everything is going right and both breweries make their best beers, they’ll be the same,” Villa said a few years ago, at the time comparing Belgian Whites brewed at SandLot and the Eden brewery. “SandLot sometimes has a little too much clove (character), sometimes a bit too much spice. Eden is not as artisanal as SandLot. They are a production brewery. They make the beer the same time after time. That’s what they do.”
Arguing about what otherwise constitutes “craft” makes for popular sport on Internet discussion boards and in pubs. Villa chooses not to play. “We don’t pay attention to those definitions,” Villa said. “To me, it’s always about your customers. You don’t want them having a bad experience with your beers.”
He may not focus on the definition, but he does read, and he noticed earlier this year when a Denver Post story intended to praise beers from AC Golden, which itself is located within the Golden brewery, caught Blue Moon White broadside. The article focused on sour beers that AC Golden brewer Troy Casey is making, and leaned on Jason Yester of Trinity Brewing for expertise.
“His beers are extremely authentic, very, very Belgian in character,” Yester said. “I heard a lot of criticism. ‘It’s just going to be another Blue Moon, a dumbed-down version of a white beer.’”
“When I see a fellow craft brewer talking like that…” Villa says, using a telling adjective. “I love his beers. I would never say his beers were dumbed down.”
He explains just how he developed the recipe for the beer that became Blue Moon Belgian White. He points out, accurately, that it wasn’t the product of a marketing group, nor a knock-off of some other Belgian wit. He based it on his experiences in Belgium while studying in Brussels, where he earned a Ph.D. with high honors in brewing biochemistry.
“To me, the standard white style didn’t have that nice, smooth flavor the American palate would be looking for,” he says. Instead of using unmalted wheat in the recipe, which was common, he included oats—far less common. Rather than brewing his White with Curaçao, again common, he decided on Valencia and navel orange peels. “Really refreshing, marmalade with vanilla notes,” he calls them.
“If you were to taste all the white beers in Belgium, and then you talk to each brewer and tell him how this one tasted different than that one,” he says, “the brewers will tell you only theirs has the authentic taste. That’s the way brewers are. They are very proud of what they make.”
Villa grew up near Golden and went to the University of Colorado 20 miles up the road. He had never been east of Nebraska before Coors sent him and his wife to Belgium between 1988 and 1992. After he returned, he took charge of new product development at the brewery. “You name a fruit, I brewed with it. Any new malt, spice, herb, hop—I was brewing with it,” he says.
In 1994, Coors assigned Villa and Jim Sabia, who worked in marketing, to launch a brand on a shoestring. They started without a name or a marketing budget and, among other things, had to find breweries to make Blue Moon under contract from 1995 through 1999, before the brand grew large enough to brew in a Coors facility.
Although Villa helped design the 10-barrel brewery that sits on the right-field side of Coors Field and used it to develop new recipes, that The SandLot opened at the same time Blue Moon launched was a coincidence. Blue Moon Belgian White was first called Bellyslide Belgian White, because all SandLot beers had baseball-related names, as some still do. (Villa has a Bellyslide Belgian White pennant hanging in his basement.)
MillerCoors renamed the space Blue Moon Brewing at The SandLot in 2008. “Our fans wanted a brewery they could visit,” he says. He may visit once a week himself or once a month, depending on his schedule and what new beers are on the docket. “I’ll write the recipes and give them to John [Legnard] and Tom [Hail]. They turn them into liquid, beer,” Villa says. “Without John and Tom, all these ideas would still be papers on a desk.”
SandLot keeps the stadium pub stocked with a range of beers, including Blue Moon White, during baseball season and sells draft beer to regional establishments year-round. Its beers, primarily the German-inspired lagers, have won three dozen medals at the Great American Beer Festival. “We enjoy doing things people tell us we can’t,” says Legnard, who has worked at the space-challenged brewery since it opened. The names of those beers—Most Beer Judges are Boneheads, Not Quite World Class and Clueless Beer Writer among them—are as popular at GABF as the beers are good.
Villa’s new recipes usually go on tap as brewmaster’s specials. A few days before baseball season opened, he sat in the empty pub and tasted the first batch of his IPA brewed with juniper berries and distinctively floral-fruity American hops, Centennial, Simcoe and Citra. “The resin from the juniper berries is tough to balance,” Villa says. “I wanted to make an IPA in a Blue Moon way, with an inviting twist.”
“I’m not sure where a beer like that would fit in,” Mura says. “I think it does have a place in our portfolio.” She knows that American IPA sales grew 40 percent in the previous year. “If you’d asked me five years ago, the answer may have been ‘no.’ We feel there are a lot more avenues for us to explore now. I think Keith has a lot of foresight and that really benefits Blue Moon.”
He understands when to put a recipe on the shelf, and when to give it another try.
“Back in 1992, Coors didn’t know quite what to do with me,” he says.
PLUS: How do you make a wood-aged Chardonnay beer or a spiced saison-red sour hybrid approachable? Have Keith Villa brew it. With Vintage Blonde, his oak-aged, Chard-infused wheat beer, he manages to inject a bit of must that beckons cellarers, a vinous quality that shouts to the wine crowd, and an unmistakable Blue Moon friendliness that makes the beer feel like home. Villa’s sleeper, though, is Farmhouse Red, a completely sessionable sour saison/Flanders red hybrid that hits at the heart of the brewer’s remarkable restraint. An injection of hibiscus makes the swallow fruity and sweet yet utterly floral; a dose of white pepper brings a little dryness and a zing in the nose. Add that to a tart cheek-bite and you’ve got a beer that in any other hands would be a beast; this, though, is totally understated—totally Keith.