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Mar 25, 2018
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Blue Moon founder Keith Villa talks craft suds, evolution of the beer scene and the story behind that orange slice

September 11th 01:09pm, 2012

When Keith Villa founded Blue Moon Brewing Co., in 1995, beer dinners were “bizarre,” and beer drinkers weren’t nearly as receptive to “strange” flavors. Fast-forward nearly two decades and Blue Moon Belgian White enjoys widespread popularity while Villa, who holds a Ph.D. in brewing from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel, continues to create new beers. Villa is headed to town this week for the launch of Farmhouse Red Ale – the latest Blue Moon brew that is a combination of Saison and a Belgian red – which will be showcased in a three-course beer dinner at Molly’s in Soulard. (Tickets are available through Eat Local.) Villa chatted with Sauce about the Blue Moon Brewing Co., during its infancy (including one of the brewery’s highly successful guerilla marketing tricks), the growth of craft brewing, and the pros and cons of being owned by beer giant MillerCoors.

How has the craft beer scene changed since you founded Blue Moon?
Back in ’95, I think people were getting exposed to it, but a lot of people weren’t quite serious enough to experiment with crazy flavors. Nowadays, people are willing to experiment with what used to be “strange” flavors … In the beer world, we have traditional styles of beers … but fewer people are familiar with big, bolder styles, for example, Belgian styles: Trippel, Saison, Imperial IPAs, stouts. These wouldn’t have gone over very well back in ‘95. Nowadays, people search them out. And the pairing with foods really excites me. People are appreciating how beer can complement food. In 1995, a beer dinner was very bizarre.

Where do you see craft brewing headed?
Craft brewing is going to keep growing. In early American history, there were breweries in every town. It’s getting to the point that almost every town is going to have a brewery. In my opinion, those breweries brew beer that highlights a lot of local ingredients. At Blue Moon, we try to make our beers very craft and drinker-friendly by using great ingredients sourced from around the country. It’s nice to see small breweries making a local brew with local ingredients. There’s a synergy between local and national. The consumer who loves great beer has choices.

Where do you see the growth of the craft beer market coming from?
Many young people in college have this mentality that there is a big world out there. They want to explore and try new things. I think craft breweries are going to source new customers from young folks and from the wine and spirits world because a lot of craft beers border on [comparable] alcohol content with wines and have the complexity and sophistication that spirits have. There will be a lot of sourcing from those different areas.

Because Blue Moon is owned by MillerCoors, do you think that craft beer drinkers are quicker to dismiss Blue Moon beers in favor of those by small breweries?
We’re at an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage: We can use the breweries of MillerCoors to make our beers and help us source some of these great raw materials to brew with and to distribute around the country. The disadvantage: A lot of folks think that maybe the quality isn’t as good as a hand-crafted, small batch of beer. I think it’s just perception. If you look, you’ll see our ingredients are some of the highest you can use to brew beer. Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada, New Belgium: Those are the three largest craft breweries; they have become quite large now, to where they are building multiple breweries around the country. They are realizing that you have to get bigger to get beer to your customers and be higher quality and with the best freshness. You have to go through those growth pains to deliver great beers to your customers. I think we are headed to a 2-, maybe 3- level system with small, local breweries that choose, on purpose, to stay small and others who choose to get big.

What was the inspiration for the Blue Moon Farmhouse Red Ale?
Last year, I went with our brewmaster, John [Legnard], to Belgium. There were a couple of beers that inspired us. The red we really liked was the Rodenbach Grand Cru, a classic example of a Belgian sour red. The farmhouse ale was from Brasserie à Vapeur. They made a nice farmhouse ale with a rich assortment of spices.

Why is it so stressed to garnish Blue Moon with an orange slice?
In 1997, we started the orange slice garnish. A few places would serve it with a slice of lemon. I thought, that doesn’t make sense. We really should be serving it with a slice of orange to highlight the orange peel that it’s brewed with. Bars back then didn’t have orange slices; they had lemon. They had limes because of Corona and Mexican beers. So we had to develop a guerrilla marketing campaign to get people to serve it with oranges. We’d talk to a bartender and say, “We’d like you to do this with Blue Moon.” We’d give them a free bag of oranges. We’d keep doing it for like four weeks. Then we’d stop and get a call. “Where’s my bag of oranges?” They were forced to because customers wanted it.

By Ligaya Figueras

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