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Q&A: Keith Villa

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It was just last year Blue Moon founder and brewmaster Keith Villa was showing us around earth’s biggest brewery (read Stan Hieronymus’ profile). Since then, the Colorado brewery’s lineup has been revamped, with stuff you never saw coming. We caught up with Villa on his new brews, GABF and the hot-button “beer bubble.”

You just introduced a few new beers, and your entire lineup seems to be shifting; why the change?

We did some research and found that craft beer drinkers are on a journey, and there are several stops along the way. The invitational or introductory stage is where they step away from what they’ve been drinking for years and want something with more flavor. Blue Moon Belgian White is a gateway beer for them. Then, after a year or two, they want more flavor, and they go see what else is out there; we call that the exploration stage. Then, a small amount will eventually enter the experimental stage; the number keeps dwindling as you move along. Douple IPAs, imperial stouts, beers with big bold flavor profiles— that’s the end stage of craft as we know it now.

So, we wanted to craft something for each of those stages, and we reworked the family to dedicate a beer series to each stage of the journey. We call Blue Moon and the seasonals our Banner series—you see the Blue Moon banner on the label. It’s a gateway to craft beer, just like Boston Lager and Fat Tire; they’re nice, easy-to-drink craft beers. Then our Expressionist series is for the exploratory stage. That has Rounder, a Belgian pale ale, and Short Straw, which I patterned after some of my favorite Belgians: Rodenbach’s sours, and Brasserie a’Vapeur, who make a farmhouse ale with white pepper, and I put them together. And we have the Vintage collection with Golden Knot and Crimson Crossing.

Is Golden Knot the same beer as last year’s Vintage Ale?

Yes. Almost half the alcohol comes from wine grapes—the other half’s from wheat—so we wanted a more winelike name. Barley makes a beer taste like beer, of course, but wheat is so clean; here, it allows the flavor of the grape to come through.

What about Pine in the Neck and Tongue Thai-ed?

Those are in the Graffiti series, and that’s for the experimenters who want to try big flavors. It’s named after street art that’s in-your-face, just like the beers. We’ve been making these for years, but we never knew what to do with them; now they have a home. I was inspired to brew Tongue Thai-ed four years ago; chefs in the Northeast were experimenting with lemongrass and basil, so I tried it, and we turned it into Tongue Thai-ed.

When we last saw you, you were tinkering with a juniper IPA; is that what became Pine in the Neck?

Yep. In Belgium, I visited several Belgian gin distillers, and I was intrigued by genever, which drips through juniper berries. I wanted to create a nice, balanced double IPA with them. I wanted the beer to have that pine character, but I didn’t want to use piney hops; instead, I used hops with a character I refer to as grapefruit rind, and I balanced that out with the pine character of juniper berries. As you taste the beer, you’ll have the initial hop-forward aroma, and then a hint of gin from the juniper berries. They’re fun to brew with.

Which of them will you pour at GABF?

Here’s the whole list: Tongue Thai-ed, Pine in the Neck, and a couple others we’re testing for the Graffiti series: a 9.5% coffee-honey beer, and a cherry imperial wheat brewed with dark cherries. Then, Rounder, Short Straw, Golden Knot, Crimson Crossing, and then Harvest Pumpkin and Blue Moon Belgian White.

Do you read online beer reviews? How do you react?

In the early days—back in ’95, ’96, ’97—there were a couple times I was bothered. But I spent a lot of time reading what they’d say, and I’d write back. I try to be as diplomatic as possible. I’ve been in the business 27 years, I have a Ph.D. in brewing, and I go around the world judging beers, so I do try to gently educate them. Nowadays, I still scan all the things that come through about Blue Moon, but I only reply every six months or so.

Everyone’s talking about the “beer bubble.” What’s your take?

Everywhere you look, people are writing about the bubble. We’re just going to keep offering great beers. But I think the market’s growing. And look at the wine industry: there are 6,000 to 7,000 wineries out there; breweries are up to 2,500, so it’s still far behind the wine industry. The difference is that wine is all bottled; restaurants keep it in the back. People think there’s a beer bubble because there’s a lot of beer and nowhere to serve it. But retailers keep expanding their shelves. Rather than worry about the bubble, we’ll just worry about our beer bubbles.

What good beers have you tried lately?

I was recently in Japan; I had a beer brewed with black sake rice, and it had a really interesting flavor. And in Belgium, I recently had a lot of the old standards there; I go straight to Westmalle Tripel. And in Italy, I was surprised; that market is really starting to take off. I had a spice beer with basil—almost like the basil we use in Tongue Thai-ed, but whereas ours has basil in the background, this had it in the foreground; it was very interesting.

How do you wrap your head around Blue Moon’s success?

Whenever I travel, I remember the days when I had trouble selling it. My mom’s my biggest fan. I was originally going to become a pediatrician, and she was heartbroken when I became a brewer. But when I got my Ph.D. and became a “beer doctor,” I think I redeemed myself. Now, when she travels—to Florida, and even in Denver—the first thing she does is order a Blue Moon, and she tells the server, “My son invented this!” I can only imagine what they think of her.

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